Hebrews 13:1-8_15-16 Learn from the master
When we first attempt something new, and perhaps this was the first time you have made an origami pencil, what was one of the key things you needed to do? Yes, you need to follow exactly each step the teacher is doing; you need to listen to the instructions, step by step, and then attempt to implement the steps, so that you will finish up with the same results as the teacher. It doesn’t matter what we are doing for the first time, we can only learn by observing, copying and doing what we are taught and shown. Children are great at learning this way.
When we first start, consciously following the steps precisely in order, it takes all our effort and is the main aim of our learning. Even when we work together in a group, we observe other people following the steps, and even correct each other, if the steps have not been followed exactly how the teacher taught. When we become proficient however, at say origami, the steps and following them to the exact word and crease, are no longer our sole focus; the final goal, the end result, is what we now aspire to; the steps to get there are just that…steps. We know the folds, we know what to expect and can even vary the steps as we find new and innovative ways of making new designs. All this is achieved because the end result is our focus and not following the steps.
Hebrews 13, were the writer gives us instructions for Christian living, is exactly like me giving you instructions on making an origami pencil. It is intended to give Christians a step by step instruction for living a life of discipleship in Jesus. The exhortations at the beginning of chapter 13 are a step by step instructions for all Christians to follow, but they are set out plainly and simply so that even the beginner can follow and learn each fold from the teacher. There are five folds to be made; five Christian virtues that are listed: brotherly love, hospitality, compassion, chastity, and contentment. Set out plainly, with each fold making up the final Christian life.
Fold one: Keep on loving each other as brothers.
Fold two: Do not forget to entertain strangers,
Fold three: Remember those in prison and those who are mistreated.
Fold four: Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.
Fold five: Keep your lives free from the love of money
Each five folds of Christian virtue are of course modeled after Jesus’ life and are summed up in Jesus’ command in John 13: 34 ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Jesus, being the true man, tempted in every way, just as we are– yet was without sin’ being God in the flesh, was not only our saviour, but also our perfect teacher. Jesus’ simple expression ‘love one another’, is expanded in Hebrews 13, simply to give us the detailed pattern, the steps we follow, as beginners in the new life of faith, to achieve the life of Christian love Jesus commanded.
As with all people who begin learning a new skill or job, and as you experienced with the origami, we as Christians have a new beginning and so need to deliberately and consciously follow every step, and also help and show each other how to make the folds, the decisions, and the actions that lead to a godly life, as set out here in Hebrews 13. Be warned however, the fivefold steps of virtue, and other exhortations found throughout scripture, are simply steps that reflect the teachings and life of our true teacher Jesus.
Be warned, the steps and folds required of a believer, like those found in St Paul’s great list in Romans 12, where he begins ‘I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God,” are not what make us Christians; are not the focus or the purpose of Christianity; they are the virtues of a Christian; the things we do ‘as Christians’ that bring about a final goal of loving one another. Like with origami, the folds we do, we do because we are origamists and the folds bring about a final result.
We are not Christians because we do the virtues, we are Christians because of Christ. If, you and I remain focused on the steps, and think that this is what Christianity is all about, we will never reach the purpose and goal Jesus set out for us; we will never actually ‘love one another as he first loved us.’ If we just passionately concern ourselves with the fivefold virtues, we will destroy one another by constantly looking at each other’s life folds, spying on who is or who isn’t folding correctly; challenging each other to aspire to greater and more folds. Even boasting we have reached the final outcome, listing off all five virtues.
It is not to be like that. To focus on the folds of our work and not on Christ, is a confusion of law and gospel; it makes the law more important than the gospel; it destroys rather than builds up. St Paul, in Galatians 5:15, warns not to make this mistake saying ‘If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.’ Lutheran theologian, Scaer said ‘‘It is … the proper distinction between Law and Gospel that the gospel be recognised as the ‘higher Word’, which is to be God’s final Word for the terrified sinner.’ (David P. Scaer; 21)
Christianity is not about moral improvement or even achieving an honourable life. Jesus never called for a new moral religion. He called for repentance and faith in him. He calls us to repent and to let go of our personal attempts at using passages like Hebrews 13 to fold and mould ourselves into better people. Instead, he announces that it is by faith in him alone; in his life, his death and his resurrection, as the only way, truth and life that will make us godly people pleasing to him.
First and primarily, Christianity is about the Triune God. It is not a religion of methods, of steps or of virtues. It is a proclamation, an announcement that Jesus died in our place; that he rose again, that he ascended to the Father, that he now intercedes and lives for us, so that we can enter heaven together with him. Faith takes hold of and tells us that God, through our baptism is the one who folds us, moulds us and creates us into ‘Christ like’ people. As St Paul says “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.” The good news is that God does not seek out people that are pleasing and lovable to him, but that he makes us, who are unlovable, into people who are loved by him and pleasing to him.
The fivefold Christian virtues are not rules simply to be observed, thus becoming the catalyst to destroying one another. They teach us, as beginners, how we can fold our lives in ways that appropriately respond to our saviour and teacher Jesus, as St John writes “We love because he first loved us.” As we grow in this, the folds we make, over and over again, become less and less significant; the five virtues in Hebrews 13 just become who we are. Our focus changes from us to others; from our efforts to the results, from me and what I am doing, to you and how you are benefiting, thus fulfilling Jesus command “Love one another as I have loved you.”