Rev. Andy Ferguson
The Letter to the Hebrews has read like a sermon throughout the first 12 chapters; chapter 12 ends with a rhetorical flourish. “Indeed our God is a consuming fire!” Now, in good Hellenistic fashion, the writer turns in chapter 13 to a series of brief instructions for his readers, instructions covering a variety of matters. Thomas Long, in his commentary on Hebrews, sees a turn to more routine aspects of congregational life:
· to the ministry of hospitality,
· the prison visitation program,
· the stewardship campaign,
· and the like.
He describes Hebrews 13 as the announcements of “joys and concerns” at the end of the service (1).
I. The overall message of the joys and concerns on this day is a simple one: “Let mutual love continue.” Literally, the Greek says: “*Let brotherly love continue*.” The Greek word for “brotherly love” is the direct source for our name for the “City of Philadelphia.” Such mutual love names that specific love of Christians for others of the household of faith. This is not the generous love for the stranger or the enemy. *Mutual love* speaks of having good will toward our fellow believers; it speaks of doing good toward fellow Christians.
The call to mutual love was echoed by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, in his General Rules of the United Societies in 1739. The second section of the Rules says:
By doing good *especially to them that are of the household of faith, or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another; helping one other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own, and them only* (2).
Both the writer of Hebrews and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement, spoke to bands of Christians who were isolated within their larger societies. Thus, there was reason to pay attention to those of the Christian community.
Over the first 200 years of this nation’s history, we could assume a Christian culture, and such attention to the household of faith was not as important. We probably made more of the differences between the Baptists and the Methodists and the Catholics than reality required. In recent years, those identifying themselves as “No Religion” or “Not Christian” have grown to where that combination is a majority of the people in this nation. Christianity is returning to the situation of the early days of the moment when we were missionaries to the society around us, not the majority vote in the world around us. Thus, we might again think about “doing good *especially to them that are of the household of faith.”
II. Now, Hebrews moves ahead with a 2nd admonition:
2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Perhaps Hebrews recalls Abraham’s hospitality to the three angelic visitors at the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18. One of those visitors turned out to be God-himself, astonishing the elderly Abraham and Sarah by promising that they would have a son after a lifetime of childlessness. It was a promise that God kept. Every time this story is told, it reminds us of the necessity to welcome the stranger with hospitality.
One day, while I was serving a church in a Jefferson City, I was busy in the church office when an African American man barged into the office. First, he announced himself to the Church Secretary; then he marched down the hall toward my office talking so loudly that he effectively began our conversation long before I could see him – at least, his side of it. He walked into the office as if we were the friends he intended us to be. To say he caught me off guard would be an understatement. Was he a salesman giving the new preacher a rush sales job? Was he simply mistaken? In those first moments, I could not know. At that moment, he was a stranger, and I was cautious.
As time when on, I came to know E. O. Cole as a committed pastor at a nearby church and generous friend to me. He introduced me to the larger Jefferson City community that lay beyond my congregation and its concerns. He taught me how to preach in his church, and yes, preaching there was different from preaching in mine. He showed me how he saw the world of East Tennessee through the eyes of an African American. He taught me how to respond with generous love toward society’s lingering racism. In addition, on one occasion he welcomed me as an honored guest at the homecoming dinner at his church, Boyd’s Chapel.
You might say that E. O. Cole appeared one day as a stranger and revealed himself as the angel like those who visited Abraham and Sarah so many years before.
I hope you too have had such encounters with strangers. I hope there have been strangers who put you on your guard at their coming but left you grateful at their going. Or, it might be that someone, who came to you a stranger, is still in your life on a daily basis. For all these reasons, Hebrews counsels us: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”
III. Hebrews is going to stay practical. People among them were in prison – no doubt, for lots of reasons.
3 **Remember those who are in prison,
as though you were in prison with them;
those who are being tortured,
as though you yourselves were being tortured**.
This teaching has both historical and modern points to make. Because early Christianity and Judaism were viewed as subversive movements within the Roman Empire, faithful Jews and Christians were frequently thrown into prison for their positions and activities. When some people were suffering and dying for their faith, other believers were tempted to deny association with them and thus to avoid a similar fate. By visiting Christian prisoners with food and other comfort, they demonstrated that they had sympathy for the prisoners and shared their political or religious views. Thus, visiting the prisoner was an act that brought great personal risk. So, Hebrews counsels the church: “**Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them**, those who are being tortured as though you are being tortured.”
In the modern time, we are not persecuted for our faith; we stand little risk of official persecution when we gather for Sunday morning church. Today, we elect those who make our laws. They pass laws we want to see. Thus, we generally approve of the laws that punish lawbreakers with prison. Most people today who are sent to prison are sent with our general and perhaps specific approval. If you cross the line, you must do the time. The modern situation is different.
But, for a different reason, the counsel to visit those in prison does apply. Jesus raised the concern that Christians visit and attend to those who are in prison. The point of such visits is not to undo the punishment. The prison time must be served. As Christians, we can offer love and support for the prisoner as they serve their sentence. As Christians, we can encourage the idea that time in prison could be used to prepare the prisoner for a better future. As Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me.”
IV. The list of points continues. Then, it ends with a strong reason. Do these good things -- these thoughtful things, these kind things -- BECAUSE:
Christ has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you."
6 So we can say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?"
All that we do in kindness and loyalty to our neighbors is based on our conviction that Christ has promised never to leave us or forsake us. With that conviction, we can afford to be generous with the stranger. We can take the risk of standing with fellow Christians undergoing persecution for their faith. We can commit ourselves to our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Let us commit ourselves to walk with God, to live God’s ways and to stand with all those who keep this faith. Our Christian faith teaches us to live committed to God and committed to the Christian community. This is a standard that has taught the world many excellent ways, and Christian ways are reflected in the laws and morals of the land. But, these Christian ways cannot be cut away from faith in God as if one can thrive without the other. Our standards as Christians and our faith in God through Christ are necessary to each other.
1. Long, Thomas. Hebrews, a commentary in the Interpretation Biblical Commentary Series, John Knox Press, p. 142.
2. Wesley, John. “General Rules of the United Societies,” 1739, printed in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2008, p. 72-74.