Note to the reader: I preached this sermon at the Upstate New York District Family Camp, on Sunday, July 3. Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible.
Text: Hebrews 13:1-16
Hebrews is an amazing book! It took a long time for the church to give it her stamp of approval, mainly because we’re not sure who wrote it. But one thing is certain: We sense in it the voice of the Lord.
Chapters 1-10 explain the high priestly ministry of Christ. We see how Jesus made atonement for our sins as God’s perfect sacrifice. Now chapters 11, 12, & 13 make some practical applications to life. In view of the great sacrifice for sin, the towering Cross of Christ, how shall we live?
Hebrews 13:1 sets the tone for the rest of the chapter:
Keep loving each other like family (CEB).
Love is one of the most overworked words in the English language. Still, it is the supporting beam that holds up the whole house of Christianity. Remove that beam, and the whole structure comes crashing down. Jesus in Mark 12 even summarized all the law and the prophets with two Great Commandments:
- Love God;
- Love others.
John Wesley with his brother, Charles, was the co-founder of the 18th century Methodist movement. If Phineas Bresee was our spiritual father, as Nazarenes, then Wesley was our spiritual grandfather. Here’s what he had to say about love:
How far is love…to be preferred before truth itself without love? We may die without the knowledge of many truths and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels.
A few years ago, Bob Goff wrote a book entitled Love Does. It’s not enough to give an abstract definition of love. We understand what love is when we look at at what love does. Hebrews 13 may be understood as a long answer to a simple question:
What does love DO?
And to that question, I see in vv. 1-16 at least 4 answers:
- Love welcomes.
- Love remembers the forgotten and the mistreated.
- Love lives simply.
- Love sacrifices.
First, love welcomes. Let’s read v. 2 again: “Don’t neglect to open your home to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.”
When we first arrived in Kenya, one of the first words we learned in Swahili was the word for “welcome” – karibu, or (in the plural) karibuni. It literally means “come close.” The writer to the Hebrews is saying: Love welcomes. He’s reminding us that the people of God are radically hospitable, that we are a “come close” people.
Verse 2 begins by saying that being a “come close” people includes being in each others’ homes. Back in 1986, Amy and I were in Kansas City while I attended seminary. Sunday night was an important service in the life of our church because we got to know each other more informally. Sue (not her real name) was one of our close friends. I remember when 30 minutes after the service people were still visiting and laughing. The janitor needed to lock up, so Sue announced lightheartedly: “Go home, people! You do have homes?” In fact, we did, and often after Sunday morning church, we invited others over for dinner, or they invited us. Sometimes it was Sunday evening, and we’d play a game or watch a movie together, in our homes.
Have we gotten out of the habit of home fellowship? Verse 2 reminds us: “Don’t neglect to open up your home to guests…” What will that look like as individuals, as churches, as a nation? What opportunities to reach people for Christ is God sending right to our doorstep, people from other countries, moving in right across the street?
I graduated from Eastern Nazarene College in 1985 but walked the neighborhood in Wollaston (Massachusetts) once again last Tuesday. Wollaston Church of the Nazarene does not need to send missionaries to China. God has already sent a bunch of Chinese to Wollaston! The “mission field” has come to us. They own restaurants, real estate agencies, and laundromats. They send their children to the public schools. I wonder: Are we saying to the Chinese in Wollaston or those of other nationalities “Karibuni” – come close – or are we saying “go away”? The first lesson from Hebrews 13 is: LOVE WELCOMES.
LOVE REMEMBERS THE FORGOTTEN AND THE MISTREATED
Yet besides welcoming, there is a second thing that love does: Love remembers the forgotten and the mistreated. Look at verse 3 –
Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place.
Family Camp is all about what I like to call “breathing in.” In services like this one, we as the people of God set aside our routine distractions. We breathe in the presence of the Holy Spirit. People are saved; people are sanctified, cleansed. We need to breathe in, to be discipled and to disciple others, to become more like Jesus, to let him shape us inside.
But the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that breathing in is only 1/2 of our task as the Body of Christ. We must also breathe out. When the Holy Spirit has forgiven us, cleansed us and changed us, he sends us out as agents of forgiveness, agents of cleansing, as agents of change.
“Remember prisoners” – If you and I were in prison, would we want someone to visit us? I would! And prisoners – up to 4% of them wrongfully convicted, by some estimates – can read Matthew 25:36 as well as we can:
I was in prison and you visited me.
Last weekend, I spoke with Steve. He’s a retired prison guard who attends our Watertown church. When I asked him how churches are doing providing Bible studies and worship services for prisoners, he confided that when he started working at the prison years ago, churches had a strong presence and many prisoners participated. Recently? There are fewer churches involved and fewer prisoners participating. We can do better.
In the second half of verse 3, the writer to the Hebrews broadens the focus: “…and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place.”
When we study early Christianity, we find many instances of Christians who were persecuted. Just read the book of Acts. And, of course, we know of Christians who were thrown to the lions when they refused to make sacrifices to images of the Emperor. It would have been easy enough for those early believers to claim: “It’s not fair! We’re being persecuted!” And there were some Christian leaders who spoke up by writing spirited defenses of the Christians. But mostly – instead of complaining about being mistreated – believers focused not on themselves but on coming to the rescue of others. In Rome, believers went out into the fields on the outskirts of the of the city and listened for the feeble cries of abandoned newborns. They would take them into their homes and raise them as their own. Christians provided food for the hungry and clothes for the naked. They breathed out in service to the mistreated.
A few years ago, Amy and I visited Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. One day, we drove through the streets and came across these two boys, begging:
Like the United States, Madagascar is a wonderful country with hospitable people. It is an amazing place with much to commend it, but it struggles with a large number of homeless children. According to former missionary John Cunningham, this is due to the idea that giving birth to twins is a curse. Consequently, one of the twins is abandoned in streets of the capital city.
Our early Nazarene missionaries to Madagascar rallied the denomination to do something about this problem. We now operate a successful street kids center, supported by gifts to Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. No doubt some of you have contributed. Hundreds of children each week receive a solid meal Monday through Friday plus basic elementary education. I’m so proud of our efforts in Madagascar!
But lets come closer to home, here in the United States. Who are the mistreated of our day? Can we accept it – when only 3-4% of the population is LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender) – that up to 40% of the teenage homeless population is LGBT, some kicked out of their homes by Christian parents?
Tom (not his real name) was a student at one of our Nazarene universities. When he came out as gay during the first semester of his freshman year, it caused a lot of problems for him; finally he decided that it was best to leave. When he went home to Virginia and revealed to his Christian parents that he was gay, they disapproved. They told him to pack his bags, that he was no longer welcome under their roof.
When we know how to get it so right in places like Madagascar, how can we sometimes get it so wrong right here at home? The writer to the Hebrews reminds us: Love remembers the forgotten and the mistreated.
LOVE LIVES SIMPLY
Yet besides welcoming, besides remembering the forgotten and mistreated, there is a third thing that love does. Love lives simply.
Here’s Hebrews 13:5 –
Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said: “I will never leave you or abandon you.”
Do you have things, or do things have you? The more possessions we have, let’s face it: The more time it takes to care for those things, the more money to insure them and store them. My wife has a practical way of deciding if she’ll buy something. She calculates the cost not in dollars but in how many hours of work at her present wage she’d need to work to earn it. In other words, the currency is not really money at all but hours of my life, and my life is a finite resource.
In the popular movie, “The Princess Bride,” young Westley is thrown into the pit of despair. He’s tied to a machine and tortured by the six-fingered man, Count Rugen. As Westley whimpers, the Count hisses: “I’ve just sucked away one year of your life.”
So when we pick-up the keys to our shiny second or third car, perhaps instead of seeing the smiling face of the salesperson, we need to hear instead the voice of Count Rugen: “I’ve just sucked away 5 years of your life.”
The song by Lanny Wolfe was popular years ago but still has a timely message:
You can take all the treasures from far away lands;
Take all the riches you can hold in your hands;
And take all the pleasures your riches can buy;
But what will you have when it’s your time to die?
ONLY ONE LIFE, so soon it will pass!
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Only one chance to do his will.
So give to Jesus all your days, it’s the only life that pays
When you recall you have but one life.
What does love DO? So far we’ve discovered answers to that question from Hebrews 13. Love welcomes, inviting others into the inner circle of our lives. Secondly, love remembers the forgotten and the mistreated, visiting the prisoner and embracing the outcasts. Thirdly, love lives simply, putting Jesus first and not the accumulation of wealth. Finally, love sacrifices.
Romans 5:8 reminds us: “But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Hebrews 13:12 likewise teaches: “And so Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy with his own blood.”
Sacrifice is hardly a popular theme these days in the church. We seem more eager to talk about what God can do for us rather than what we can do for God. Yet our Lord Jesus showed us a better way, a way of love that puts the needs of others before our own needs. Are we willing to do the same?
For 2 years, I was an Indian Guide with my Dad in the YMCA. We wore headbands with feathers, beat on drums, and made craft projects together. One time our “tribe” – as we called it – had a sleepover in the gymnasium of a nearby school. When we had run around playing basketball and were tired out, finally it was time to go to sleep. My dad had brought two of the rubber rafts from our swimming pool to use them as makeshift air mattresses. We worked hard to inflate them, blowing air into them. O.K., mostly my Dad inflated them! Then it was lights out. It wasn’t long before we realized that one of the rafts had a hole in it. He could have given me the leaky raft, but without complaining, my Dad slept on it, which meant that after about 15 minutes, he was really just laying on the hard wood basketball court. My father didn’t get much sleep that night, but a 6-year-old boy learned a lesson about the sacrificial love of a father for his son and what it means to put the needs of others first.
If in my father’s kind act I understood something about love, then in the example of Christ at Calvary, we see the ultimate template for what love does. Love sacrifices. Love places the needs of others above one’s own needs. Jesus knew that there was only one way to reconcile the world to his Father. He became an atoning sacrifice for our sins. The word atonement means “at-one-ment.” Our sins are forgiven; we are cleansed and brought back into right relationship with God. And how about you? This forgiveness, this cleansing, this reconciliation with God is available to each and every one of us if – with God’s help – we are willing to turn our back on our sin and begin to follow Jesus.
Let’s keep loving each other like family. What does love DO? Love welcomes, love remembers the forgotten and the mistreated, love lives simply, and love sacrifices. To love in this way will require that each of us be willing to be crucified, to follow in the path of love that Jesus blazed for us. Are you willing to be crucified with him?
– CELEBRATION OF THE LORD’S SUPPER –