Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hebrews: The Fourth Stage

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/30/2011

Jesus makes all of us uncomfortable, one way or another.

For some of us, he’s like the ultimate Alpha Male. Surrender or fry in hell. And so if we get to the bottom, we’ll surrender, since we’ve already arrived in hell. But as long as things are kind of o.k., we’ll keep on keeping on, we’re doing just fine for ourselves, thank you very much. To those of us in this place, the book of Hebrews says that it’s not about Jesus winning and us losing, it’s about how Jesus won by losing so that he can help us win, too, when we inevitably find ourselves lost.

For others of us, Jesus is the ultimate example who gets everything right all the time, and we know we should too, but we’re killing ourselves trying to do it. We figure that the reason our lives aren’t as awesome as his is because we just can’t quite cut it. To us, Hebrews says that our life doesn’t get better when we do everything we think we are supposed to do, but rather when we do the one thing Jesus is inviting us to do, even if doing that one thing calls into question everything we think we know.

For still others of us, Jesus is the one shining light in the garbage pit of religion that we’ve left behind because of the stench…we think he’s perhaps the coolest cat we’ve ever come across, but there’s no way in hell we’re joining up if it means we have to be like the doped up cattle who follow him. And so when we think about him, there’s an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. To us, Hebrews says that although Jesus may be in that garbage pit of religion we’ve left behind, it’s not the place he’s most at home either. And that if we start looking forward instead of backwards, we might find that he’s offering to save us from the new garbage pit that’s been forming unnoticed around our ankles.

And finally, for others, Jesus is everything for them, but gosh there is such mystery about actually knowing him and following him, and sometimes we just wish it were simpler. That someone would just say do this, and we could do this, and everything would fall into place. To us, Hebrews says, persevere, have faith. We haven’t missed some secret key – the mystery and uncertainty are to be embraced and enjoyed, because at their center is a new kind of life.

Those of you still exploring faith in Jesus are probably in the first group (the who’s going to be in charge of my life, me or the man upstairs group) or the third group (the don’t want to be caught dead with those religious freaks, but wouldn’t mind having a latte with Jesus group). I have friends and family who are there with you. And I especially have a lot of empathy for those of you in group 3, the group that’s left religion behind but still are intrigued by Jesus. Those of you who identify yourselves as Christians are probably in the second group or the fourth group. I grew up mainly identifying with those in group 2 – man, Jesus is a tough act to follow! And I think in more recent years, I need to hear what Hebrews says to group 4man, this faith business just isn’t as cut and dried as I’d like it to be. Today’s message, I hope, will speak to all of us at some level.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs… (Hebrews 1)

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2)

The big idea in Hebrews is that there is an older way of connection to God through the law (given to people by the “angels”) that may feel safer and more secure through its familiarity and widespread acceptance, but that actually it’s just not enough. That God has come with a new message, a new way, in Jesus. And this new way is as better than the old way as Jesus is better than the angels. It may feel riskier and less certain, but the truth is, it’s the only way that truly brings life, that brings salvation. And at the center of this new way is a person, Jesus. And to follow Jesus, at its very heart, means to have a personal relationship with him. Which is a very mystical thing, is it not? Not familiar. No. (not, at least, when it comes to how we are accustomed to dealing with God.) Not comfortable. No. Not easy. No.

But powerful. Yes. And transformative.

You get the sense of it in “pay careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” You can always go back to the written law, look it up. Figure out if you are following it faithfully. But not to a personal voice, not to the stories of a people inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t leave a new law code written down, a new ten commandments. He left witnesses to his life and words and ministry. He left his holy spirit. Yes, there’s a book – the scriptures – but Jesus himself says, You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. The life doesn’t come from the written stuff – it comes from him, the medium that is the message. This is mystical stuff.

And how do we have confidence to rely on him and the message that he is? Not by punishment for disobedience. That’s the way the old thing worked.

2For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment…

Break the law, suffer the consequences, message received. But this new thing?

This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

This new thing is proven by signs, wonders, miracles, the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is so personal. Powerful, yeah. Transformative, yeah. But not exactly straightforward. This is mystical stuff.

Before we continue our exploration of this aspect of Hebrews, I’d like to push the pause button and introduce you to a 4 stage theory of human emotional and spiritual development, first proposed by M. Scott Peck in his book, “Further Along the Road Less Traveled” and expounded on in really helpful ways by Dave Schmelzer, pastor of the Greater Boston Vineyard, in his book, “Not the Religious Type.” We’ll get back to Hebrews in a few minutes, and see how this all ties together.

Stage 1: Pecks first stage – I’ll call it the criminal stage – corresponds to the toddler years. Toddlers are cute and loving, but in the broader sense, they don’t care about you. They can’t. That’s not the stage they are at. As they are throwing a tantrum over a toy they’ve been denied, toddlers rarely stop themselves to say, “But you know, this isn’t the most important thing in the world, and I haven’t once asked how you’re doing, Daddy. Has it been a good day?” (from “Not the Religious Type”)

Without boundaries, when we are in stage 1, we try to take whatever we desire. Our lives are, in a sense, ruled by our unchecked desires. Might makes right, right? [that car is mine! Give it to me!]

Stage 2: We might call stage 2 rules-based. This would correspond to age six or seven. Now you care what Mommy and Daddy think, what they want, what the rules are.

Feeling very out of sorts when rules are being broken by others; tattling; correcting parents for not following their own rules; not always following the rules perfectly, but when caught, finding some defense within a grid of rules… [hey! You crossed a double yellow line!]

Stage 3: [Play Ferris Bueller clip…] Could be described as rebellious. This corresponds to the teen years. At this stage, the healthy kid begins to question the rules she has been taught in stage 2. Why are they the be-all and end-all? What’s behind these rules. Often the answers the teen gets are not convincing, particularly if the world around her is stage 2. Then she’s most likely to hear, “Quit being such a smart aleck!” and not much more. This often hardens the teen into stage 3, and the wars begin between her and all things stage 2. (from “Not the Religious Type”)

The arrogance of stage 3 vs. stage 2, squares vs. cool people, etc.; it feels a lot like stage 1 to an observer, but internally it’s not about desire as much as it’s about identity. (I may not know who I am yet, but I know I am not you, so I will act differently than you, and see how it feels.) [cars are freedom and self-expression…]

Stage 4: What stage 3 people usually don’t realize is that there is a stage 4, that there actually are answers to the questions they’ve been asking. You might call this the mystical stage. Here, one suddenly realizes that most of the things we were taught in stage 2 are, in fact, true, but in a much richer and more mysterious sense than we would have, or could have, imagined. (from “Not the Religious Type”)

[Cars are something we have a much more mystical relationship with as mature adults…we relate to them in a very integrated way, consistent with our settled identity, following the rules that are appropriate for the circumstances, disregarding some sometimes (pregnant wife giving birth, for example), recognizing the connectedness between us, our cars, others, the environment, etc…]

Or from a more spiritual side: So let’s take this spiritual truism from the biblical tradition: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Stage 2 reads this as: Okay, as of 3 p.m. I did believe in Jesus, so I can take it to the bank that I’m going to heaven, whatever happens. I believe!

Stage 4 on the other hand, might well say: Wow that’s one profound statement. I think I believe, but what does believe actually mean? Am I believing now? What might that look like? And saved. Saved in some meaningful sense now, or just saved after I die? Paul, after all, says a little later on in the Bible that what matters isn’t any outward religious thing we do (circumcision, for example) but a transformed life, a life that’s being saved. Is my life being transformed by my belief? (Or perhaps it’s not the belief that’s transforming me but Jesus himself, in some sort of direct, mystical sense.) Wow! How?

You can see that stage 4 (mystical) is a stage filled with uncertainty to the same degree that stage 2 (rules-based) is, by definition, filled with certainty. Or, to put it differently, stage 4 is about questions; stage 2 is about answers. In this way of thinking, stage 2 looks at truth from the outside, as if it were a book that can and must be mastered. Stage 4 looks at truth from smack-dab in the middle of it, as if truth is everywhere and will take a lifetime just to begin to traverse (which is the joy of it.) (from “Not the Religious Type”)

Ok, getting back to Hebrews. What does all of this have to do with the angels and Jesus?

Well, isn’t it the case that the angels provided a stage 2 kind of connection to God, a connection that required a stage 2 kind of faith, and produced a stage 2 kind of life? The law gave rules to follow. The faith that was required was a faith in those rules – which was, ultimately, of course, a faith in the one who gave the rules, but less directly. And it provided a life that was a significant improvement over a stage 1 kind of life. The criminal stage is chaotic, uncertain, full of hurt and pain, a little like hell on earth. Imagine a developing nation ruled by warlords, and compare that to the kind of life that comes in a country ruled by the rule of law, especially good law. Imagine growing up in a dysfunctional family, and then experiencing the order and stability of the Von Trapp family from the sound of music. Much better life.

But according to Hebrews, not enough.

According to Hebrews, what we need for real salvation is relationship with God that is deeper, more direct, more personal. We need the kind of power and transformation that a stage 4 spirituality provides.

And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16one who has become a priest [someone who connects us to God] not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life... (Hebrews 7)

18The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19(for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God... (Hebrews 7)

6But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

7For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another…

10This is the covenant I will establish with the house of Israel

after that time, declares the Lord.

I will put my laws in their minds

and write them on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people.

11No longer will they teach their neighbors,

or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest.

13By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8)

The forward movement of God is from stage 2 to stage 4. From rules-based to mystical. “I will put the laws in their minds and write them on their hearts; I will be there God, and they will be my people…they will all know me.” This is what stage 2 has always been pointing towards, but is always unable to fully deliver. Just as good parents are teaching their children to obey the rules; not so that they are always obeying the rules, but so that they can grow into loving, mature adults who live intuitively and naturally the kind of lives the parents have been training them – with the aid of artificial boundaries - to live.

The kingdom of God Jesus is announcing over and over is a rule and reign of God that is expressed in the transformed hearts of people who have embraced his good news, people who live from the inside out, not the outside in. This is why the Pharisees can’t stand Jesus so often – they are the ultimate example of people at stage 2, and Jesus is the first fully stage 4 person in the history of the universe. “I and the Father are one,” Jesus says. “I only do what I see my Father doing.” Now that’s mystical, isn’t it?

Not a letter or an iota is dropped from the law, Jesus says, and at the same time, he says, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” In other words, stage 2 is meant to be a blessing to people, and point the way to stage 4, but we were not made ultimately for stage 2.

Listen to this from Hebrews 5:

11We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness [Jesus teaching about a righteousness that comes from God, apart from the law…to which the law and the prophets testify]. 14But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Remember this exchange between Thomas and Jesus shortly before Jesus went to the cross?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me… 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going.”

5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really know me, you will know my Father as well…” (John 15)

Thomas wanted milk. He wanted a clear, easy to digest, straightforward stage 2 explanation of the steps to take to go where Jesus was going. Jesus had stage 4 solid food to offer. “I’m the way…no one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well…” Talk about mystical. And uncomfortable. And not that easy. But powerful and transformative.

Historically, churches have been great stage 2 institutions. We’ve been good at helping people know the rules that lead to a better life than a stage 1 life. But we’ve been not nearly as good at helping people dive into the forward movement of God that really produces the true life of the kingdom in stage 4. And this is especially the case with people who’ve moved on to stage 3 in their lives, who’ve questioned the rules and found the explanations not very satisfying. Who are searching for identity and unaware that there is anything more from God than what stage 2 religious experience offers.

We want to be a community where Jesus is our center, not a set of behaviors or a book of rules. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the final and most perfect revelation of God, and sometimes it’s tempting to treat the Bible the same way. Hebrews tells us that the final and most perfect revelation of God is not words in a book, but the Word made flesh. The Bible is our book. But it’s not our center. Our center is the Son. The radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen from the dead, now seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

We want to be a church that is helping one another connect with him, fall in love with him, be transformed by him, live lives led by his Spirit. Together, we follow the way of Jesus, and create breathing room to help the disfavored find favor, the discounted count, the disconnected connect. Starting here. Wherever here is for you. Yes, this may take leap of faith after leap of faith. But it’s worth the effort and uncertainty. Because in the resurrected Jesus we see the power of an indestructible life, and that’s the life Jesus is leading us into as we follow him, with fear and trembling and joy and expectation and a spectacularly wholesome sense of adventure.

Practical Tip:

1. Resolve to accept the unfamiliarity and discomfort and unease that comes in the quest to connect with God personally through Jesus…(everyone one of us will do that differently, like each kid in a family connect with their parents differently…). Maybe pray, every day this week:

Group 1: “Jesus, I’ll put my life in your hands if you can show me I’ll be in good hands.”

Group 2: “Jesus, I’m not satisfied with just knowing the right things to do. I want to know you.”

Group 3: “Jesus, show me that there is more to you than I’ve seen so far.”

Group 4: “Jesus, I’m willing to lose everything – even my faith – as long as I don’t lose you.”

Resources: Not the Religious Type, by Dave Schmelzer

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