Worldliness, pharisaism, or grace: these are the three options before each of us. Generally, God lets us choose, at least for a time.
If we want to play by the world’s standards of success, God will often let us rise and fall beneath those standards.
And if legalistic religiosity and pharisaical rigor mortis are closest to our hearts, He will often let us spin out that attitude. Yet watch out: the measure with which we measure will be the measure with which we’re measured.
But if we want to live by the new and everlasting covenant, we must give up all control, and float along according to the movements and the dispositions of the Spirit and grace.
The point of the passage from Hebrews from yesterday’s matins (10:19-39) is typically Pauline: we must not revert to pharisaical religion. (I have a pet theory that the letter was written by Saint Barnabas, who would, of course, bring Saint Paul’s emphases to bear.)
The suffering of the God-man in total solidarity with the rest of humanity establishes a covenant that perfects the entire world order. But that covenant must be lived out in time, beyond human calculation, by faith. The divine, solidary suffering of Jesus is the definitive thing in cosmos and history, opening up for us the Kingdom of grace within time, but not definitively: that requires believers willing to be stretched with Jesus, in Jesus, as He slowly, person by person, day by day, strains for a more intensive as well as extensive entry of invisible love into the visibility of flesh.
That is the theme of the letter as a whole: faith mediates in time the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. The future of love is invisible; the only way it becomes visible, becomes present, is through faithful agents who are used to proceeding according to the love of God and neighbor despite obscurities, agents willing to be faithful in the desert, where the city of God is built.
Earlier in the letter, the author quotes Psalm 95, which is about the continuing failure of the Israelites to trust that the Father will take care of them, though they have seen so many wonders performed by Him for their sake. Do we not do exactly that? When adversity comes, how easily we forget prosperity; how easily we forget the wonders the Father has worked in our lives:
“Beware, brothers, lest there will be in anyone of you an evil heart of unbelief that turns away from the living God” (Heb 3:12).
Unbelief means needing to see results that are easily comprehensible to me. Unbelief means taking the focus from the Father’s plan of loving goodness, and attending only to my plans. Unbelief means doubting the goodness of God enough to seek the security-blanket of moralism.
Conversely, love gives rise to faith: “Brothers, since the blood of Jesus assures our entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living path He has opened up for us through the veil (the ‘veil’ meaning His flesh), ...Let us draw near with a true heart with the full confidence of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from the evil which lay on our conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to our profession which gives us hope, for He who made the promise deserves our trust” (Heb 10:19-23).
We are called to exist within the immense tension of Jesus’ being the new and living path between earth and heaven, the tension of tribulation. Only persevering faith (sacramentally immersed in the blood and water from the Cross--“hearts sprinkled clear” and “washed in pure water”) can survive the ordeal of time. Living by grace and the Spirit means being taken up into the Trinity’s massive labor of absorbing the sins of the world: “For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (Heb 9:13-14)
If we fail to persevere in trusting in the goodness of God, we will face the vengeful god of law for law’s sake, a god of our own making, a god who is the mere projection of our fears: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31) has to do with failing to live out the immense strain of living by faith, falling from the world of absolute Trinitarian graciousness back into the realm of scarcity and justice untempered by mercy.
Suffering is where the Trinitarian labor of absorbing sin takes place, but the strain cannot be borne without community. Indeed, unless solidarity sinks into our bones, we cannot have faith. Without love, we cannot see.
“Recall the days gone by when, after you had been enlightened [baptized], you endured a great contest of suffering. At times you were publicly exposed to insult and trial; at other times you associated yourselves with those were being so dealt with. You even joined in the sufferings of those who were in prison and joyfully assented to the confiscation of your goods, knowing that you had better and more permanent possessions. Do not, then, surrender your confidence; it will have great reward. You need patience to do God’s will and receive what he has promised. ‘For just a brief moment, and He who is to come will come; He will not delay. My just man will live by faith, and if he draws back, I take no pleasure in him.’ We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and live” (Heb 10:32-39).
Trust the good God. The substance of this life is really love, though only faith and hope can see it.