When I preach this week, I’ll be using Hebrews 11:5-18, expanding the New Testament reading just a bit.
I like preaching texts in which the vocabularies of the ancient Church cast light on our own, when the ways that we use words becomes opaque. Normally, of course, our language is functionally transparent, and we forget that what we “see” through our words and concepts is always a refraction, our own version of the truth. Paying attention to older texts, especially the Scriptures, of course, does not take away that refraction (even with Bible in hand we see in a glass darkly), but it does check our temptation to assume that the sentence we speak in our moment is absolute in ways that moments before us and moments yet to materialize are not.
The most troublesome word in Hebrews 2, for many Christians I’ve talked with when I’ve taught this book, is “perfect.” Without reflecting on it, we moderns (and I’m pointing at myself here) tend to think of perfection as something original, something fragile because any change to “perfection” will mean that something is other than perfect. In other words, we think of “perfect” as synonymous with “flawless,” and that assumption means that perfection is always accompanied by fear: after all, any real contact with reality is going to alter just about anything that we can imagine, and that has to mean that “perfect” can only be for a moment. Thus the standard teenage-youth-group talk about the nature of sin: any little slip means that “perfection” is ruined (youth group talks tend not to mention Original Sin anywhere in there), so the human condition is one of existential guilt, the sense that a “perfection” we once possessed is now gone.
So when we moderns (and I’m pointing at myself here) read in Hebrews 10 that Jesus was made “perfect,” it’s not outrage over blasphemy that we experience first; it’s the sense that we’re reading nonsense. After all, any becoming has to ruin “perfection,” so the one thing that one cannot become is “perfect.” But that’s what the Bible says, and here is where we realize that we’re “seeing” both Jesus and the concept of “perfection” quite differently from how the Bible does. For the Bible, it seems, perfection (Greek teleia) has connotations not mainly of flawlessness but of maturity, completion, full reality. Whether or not Jesus was flawless Hebrews will treat later; right now, the epistle tells readers that the same powerlessness that they experience in the face of persecution is precisely what brought Jesus into the full, complete reality of His mission. Therefore, although we do not see the Reign of God and its Righteousness when we look honestly at the world, yet in our meditations on Christ, we see the one mortal who was made lower than the angels, whose sufferings (not His acts) render Him complete as the fullest revelation of God.
That suffering, which stands opposed in Greek grammar to the active pursuit of good things, redefines “death” for the believer. Once again, the Bible teaches us to hear our own words with a new clarity, realizing that for us, “death” has become merely one step in a “circle of life,” the mere biological demise of one specimen that gives way to the rise of other specimens within and beyond the species. To assume otherwise, in some circles, means to deny what is “natural,” to remain “maladjusted” to the assumptions within which “normal” people operate. Hebrews, by contrast, insists that death remains not a misunderstood neighbor but an enemy, and the good news is not that we “cope” with death but that Jesus destroys it. Jesus, by suffering (not acting), hands over to death His divine Being, the source of all life, and by the mystery of Life undergoing Death, not only does the hope of perfect life arise, but the fear of death, which makes us slaves, loses its grip.
The fear of death, after all, is what keeps empires in power, even in those moments when people are supposed to be indifferent to death. The fear of death brings old men to leave their faithful wives and pursue young women, and the fear of death makes us conceive of true power not as the gift of life but the unparalleled ability to end life quickly. That’s the ethical upshot of the crucifixion, for Hebrews: by suffering (not acting), Jesus the Messiah has overcome the enemy that only grows more powerful when you kill it, that tightens its grip just when you think you’ve shaken off your oppressors’ yoke. By dying, Christ has destroyed Death, and no longer can the fear of death bind the faithful in any absolute way.
Certainly fear is itself a complicated thing. After all, the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but then again, perfect love drives out fear. As we work out with fear and trembling our own salvation, though, certainly we should note that the proper object of fear, to the extent that we can entertain such a thing, is the LORD, not death. Death is what happens when the world discards God’s gift; we mortals mourn the dead not because we’re mal-adjusted but because we’re well-adjusted to a reality that we have not yet seen. And we praise the LORD, the giver of life, not because God can destroy more quickly than any mortal, but because the gift of Life, wonderful at the outset, moves still towards its own perfection.
May our prayers teach us to speak, our meditations enliven our ears to hear.