Bible Text: Hebrews 13:1-25 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | Series: Hebrews: God Is With Us Always | Having convinced readers to stick with Christianity despite tough times over twelve chapters, Hebrews’ last chapter begins with a deluge of ethical decrees. “Let mutual love continue.” That one is obvious. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” Remember, this was eons before Tom Bodett was leaving the light on at the Motel 6. In ancient Israel and elsewhere, welcoming strangers into your home was the only way travelers survived. So the Bible is not just saying be nice at church or the grocery store: it’s saying take risks, cross social divides, give of yourself to feed hungry foreigners and wanderers. “Remember those who are in prison or being tortured.” Again, this is more than just nice words. In ancient days, jails did not provide food: if prisoners’ friends forgot them, they starved. And notice Hebrews doesn’t say remember Christian prisoners: we are to provide food, shelter, support, and care to all who suffer, all who are arrested, all who are abused by the powers that be. Hebrews’ lines about honoring marriage, avoiding adultery, not chasing after prostitutes, keeping free from the love of money, imitating the faith of those who brought you to faith, lifting up praise to God, doing good, sharing what you have… the meaning of these is the same today as back then and need little extra unpacking. Hebrews views these holy and virtuous acts as the natural outgrowth of holding onto faith in Jesus Christ. You stick with faith? You do these things.
So easy, right? If you’re Christian, these are the things you do. Sadly, easier said than done. How often does fear keep us from showing true hospitality to strangers, not just a hello but actual welcome, self-giving help, and going! How often do shame and guilt keep us from imitating admirable Christians by instead tearing them down to our level! How often do easy excuses and just-this-onces pave the way for infidelity, if not in physical adultery than still in heart! How often do we ignore the plight those who are imprisoned, arrested or tortured, simply because they live way over there, because a man on the TV tells us they deserve to suffer, because better them than me! How often does the fear of looking foolish on earth keep us from doing what heaven tells us is right! How often does wise financial prudence degenerate into miserly love of money, where as long as I get mine who cares if everyone else burns! And if we believe we truly embody all of Hebrews’ virtues… then our danger instead is self-righteousness, is an ethics built around how good and noble we are instead of around God’s grace, is dangerous because one slip-up in our perfection would brand us not only as imperfect as everyone else but a hypocrite to boot! Hebrews’ ethical exhortations are easy to hear, simple to accept… and dreadfully hard to do.
Speaking of doing the right thing, a man once died and stood before St. Peter at the pearly gates. Peter tells the man, “We’ve got a new system to get into heaven now. You tell us the good things you did, and if their points add up to over a hundred, you’re in.” Smugly, the man answers, “Well, I was a lifelong churchgoer, never missed a Sunday.” “Great!” St. Peter replies, “That’s two points. Ninety-eight to go.” “Uh… I taught Sunday school for ten years.” “One point! Ninety-seven left” “I tithed regularly and volunteered once or twice at the soup kitchen.” “One more point! Ninety-six to go!” Alarmed and frustrated, the man curses using Christ’s name. Smiling politely, St. Peter answers, “Jesus Christ, you say? That’s a thousand points, go on in!”
So how do we do all these things Hebrews, in its closing chapter, asks us to do? How do we overcome the fear, the shame, the self-justifications and self-righteousness… that hold us back from doing what we know in our hearts and minds is right? Well notice what Hebrews weaves into this call for ethics. After telling us to find contentment with what we have, Hebrews immediately says why we can do this: “because God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’” God’s faithfulness grounds our faithful actions. Second, Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” meaning that Christ is always merciful and protective toward us. So we take risks in doing good because we know Christ is there to catch us if we fall. Third, Hebrews admits there will be times when you feel like an outsider in the world, declaring, “For here on earth we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” So if life does not go your way, do not lose hope, because this life is not the destination but merely one leg of a larger, cosmic marathon. Fourth, Hebrews tells us to not be distracted by self-righteous legalism but rather “to be strengthened by grace” and that God can “make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will.” The idea is that as a Christian you don’t do good because you must do good to be saved… but do good because God’s love lays a foundation for, strengthens, and inspires you to do the same for others. Finally, notice that only now, after twelve preceding chapters about God’s grace, only after spending the rest of the book celebrating God’s mercy… only now does Hebrews dare mention our ethical calling. Because as Christians, our ethics and morality are not rooted in a set list of decrees… but rather find their true source in God’s love and grace. Because Hebrews says it’s that grace that strengthens us to do the rest. So if you want to know Christian ethics, start with God’s mercy.
So what good does this do you? As we wrap up Hebrews, how do we apply this idea to real life? What does it look like for us to have God’s grace be the starting point of our ethics? I think of the gas cards our church gives out to needy people. Two-thirds of the time, it feels like we helped someone truly in need. But about a third of the time, I get a strong suspicion—from stories that keep changing, to the same person requesting cards every few months, to noticing small word games they’ll play to butter me up—maybe a third of the time I get the suspicion that the person wanting a gas card from our church is trying to take advantage. I’ve even been able to confirm it in one or two cases. But if God’s grace, God’s extravagant love… if that is the basis of my ethical decision making… then I’ll gladly give out gas cards, even if the recipient isn’t being honest… because ethically I care less about whether or not I get scammed out of a $20 gift card… and care much more about whether this person knows we are a place for hurting people to find comfort, knows that we’ll help them even if it costs us, knows that Christian love isn’t for only the perfect or holy but rather that Christian love is freely displayed to everyone.
So in our daily lives, when we merely suspect we’ve wronged someone, we apologize, even if we fear seeming foolish or weak, because we know our strength and wisdom come not from ourselves but from God. When we hear about or even see suffering, our base instinct is to downplay or justify it so that our conscience is no longer troubled, so we don’t fret over whether it might happen to us. But as Christians called to remember and care for those who suffer or are imprisoned, when we see suffering, we are called to remember the other person’s humanity, to stand up for their dignity, to show grace and compassion to them just as God shows to us. When we feel tempted to look out for number one because it feels like the whole world is caving in already, remember that Christ is our steadfast foundation. Christ gives us stability amid life’s storms, yes, but then Christ calls us to share that stability with others by giving of ourselves in word, action, and prayer just as God has given to us. If the basis of your ethics is that you’re smarter than the average person or more holy than them, then on the day you slip up your entire moral framework falls apart. But if you root your moral decision-making on the fact that God loves you, then when you fall, you know God is there to pick you up. When you struggle, you know Christ is in the thick of thing with you. When you don’t know where to go, you have Christ’s life and teachings to guide you in the ways of love and compassion. So as Hebrews urges us, “may our hearts be strengthened by grace, not by regulations,” and may God “make us complete in everything good.” Trusting God to strengthen, complete, and guide us, let us run life’s race with perseverance, hope, and joy. Amen.