Being a New Creation
Today's reading from Hebrews, in its closing section, declares: “You endured a hard struggle with sufferings... Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours: it brings great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” The Bible never says life is easy for believers. Quite the opposite: over and over again, from Jesus himself down to the least apostle, the Bible says this life brings difficulty, that it's hard, that often all you can do is endure. As a reminder, Hebrews was written to long-time believers who, under prolonged hardship, were growing nostalgic for the religions they had converted away from, which seemed so much easier and comforting in this time, and so those first readers were sorely tempted to deconvert and abandon Christianity. So Hebrews reminds readers how much we have endured already, as if to say, “You're on the home stretch now, so stick with it just a little bit more.” When the world tries to break us, when we want to just quit... hold on, because we've overcome so much already, so we know we have the strength again now.
Our own congregation has endured a lot over the generations. First Pres Lapeer burned down twice in its history, I believe. We had to restore the glory in the 90s, and we're restoring it again today after massive water damage. We've survived fights and deaths and losses, both world wars, the Spanish flu and polio. We seen weddings and baptisms. We've seen people come together across all walks of life to share in the worship and service of the Lord together. Through it all, this congregation has endured. Worship and prayer continue. Community in Christ remains. Today our congregation—as well as our local, state, national, and global communities—must endure Covid-19. This pandemic has been hard on everyone. We are tired of staying away from each other. We are tired of masks fogging up glasses, of depleted store shelves, of having to track closings and reopenings, of being unable to see loved ones for fear of unwittingly infecting them. Were the author of Hebrews to see the world now, I'm sure we would hear a similar message: we have endured so much already... so hold on, do not give up hope, do not quit. Life is hard right now, yes, but God promises rest, so keep persevering. Endure!
And yes, we endure. Yet so much has changed. Now for the sake of others' health and safety, we must wear masks in public. We must keep our distance from each other. We must be cautious in our social contact. Even as churches reopen, most are being advised by their own denominations to avoid indoor singing, to remove physical touch, to pause children's programs. Church safety experts say it's wise to keep worship brief to avoid prolonged exposure, so people have less need for public bathrooms, and especially when church is held outdoors so people don’t get sunstroke. Which means worst of all means my sermons now must be shorter. When church events, Bible studies, and fellowships resume... they may come back, but they too will be different by necessity. Much of what we typically imagine as church will need to be re-imagined if we want to gather together while being safe about each other's health. NSo here we are, holding onto what we can as everything seems to change.
And yet even as Hebrews calls for us to endure, to hold firm to our faith, to cling to what we know we are... Hebrews also invites us to be changed by faith. The opening verses of today's scripture speak of “the new and living way Jesus has opened up for us,” “hearts now sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and bodies washed in the pure waters of baptism,” and Christians “provoking one another to love and good deeds.” Its message is that believing in Jesus must lead to a changed life. If you have faith, then your faith should change you. And even after you come to faith and have been sprinkled clean through Christ's mercy and the waters of baptism, even then Hebrews speaks of faith not as a destination but an ongoing transformation, a living way that you and I must walk, a process of provoking and encouraging each other to greater depths of love. Perhaps Hebrews suspects its readers lost their spiritual endurance after ceasing to try for higher levels of Christian excellence. Perhaps they grew tired after they stopped growing. Just as a plant must keep growing or else it starts to wither, so too must faith pursue ever-greater levels of love, wisdom, and service lest it start to grow weary and faint.
So what is Christian faith supposed to be then? Are we to endure only? Is faith about holding on to what we have and how we've always done things, no matter how the seasons change? Or are we to change only? Is faith about growing and evolving spiritually, always leaving behind old ways and past ideas in order to gain the newest insights from God? Is our hope that in Christ we are restored with the glory humanity lost in the garden... or that in Christ we are made into a new creation? Is faith about enduring permanency or ever-flowing change?
The answer that Hebrews gives... is that faith involves both permanency and change. What remains constant is our hope in Jesus Christ: what changes is us, as God slowly makes us the disciples we are meant to be. What endures is God's love: what changes is our hearts of stone becoming hearts capable of love. What persists is worship, prayer, and spiritual fellowship: what changes is the way we do those things, as musical instruments are added or removed, as the languages of worship shift from nation to nation, as the location morphs from secret house church to grand cathedrals to us in a parking lot today. If I plant an acorn, an oak tree will grow: that never changes. If I plant an acorn in frosty Michigan or swampy Florida, on a hill or in a valley... the acorn will still become an oak. But its shape will adapt to best suit each oak's unique home. The oak is the same, yet it changes depending on the present need. So too with us.
Our faith in God must endure if we are to survive as Christians. But the hopes that faith gives us change across our lives as our needs shift. To the grieving, faith gives hope in resurrection life. To those burdened by guilt, faith gives hope in forgiveness and second chances. To those lost and unsure, faith gives hope that meaning and purpose are held in God's hands. To the oppressed, faith gives hope that on the day of the Lord justice will be done. It is the same Christian faith in every case. But faith's reassurances speak differently to different Christians depending on what evil they need God to deliver them from. The individual believer's hope through faith may change. But every believer is still united in one unchanging faith in God.
So yes, even as Michigan reopens... expect some things to endure as they always were. But do not be discouraged or dismayed by what must change, as society tries to find its new normal. As our own congregation seeks to figure out what life looks like amid the Covid-19 pandemic until a cure or vaccine can be found, do not be discouraged at what must change, because the Church universal has been changing for 2000 years already. Yet it is still the one Church that endures. Our faith endures all obstacles, just as it enabled the original readers of today's scripture to endure. Yet our faith speaks in different ways as life throws new difficulties at us. Perhaps in this time of forced quarantine, our enduring faith shall remind us that we are always connected to each other no matter the distance, remind us that Church is not a time on Sunday morning but the people who worship wherever they may be, remind us that whatever comes our way we may abide in faith because we know that God's love for us never ceases, never changes, and is freely given to us through the power of Jesus Christ. To that same loving God be the glory. Amen.