Hard Words For A Soft World
For if we wilfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy ‘on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Hebrews 10:26-31
We in the mainline churches, facing declining numbers, declining giving, and declining morale seem hard-pressed at times honestly to look at some of the most difficult passages of Scripture. In Seminary, one of the Hebrew Scripture professors dared our class to preach a sermon on the passage in Genesis where Lot’s daughters get him drunk and rape him in his sleep so they can have children. I’ve yet to hear such a one, and I might die before I do.
And then there’s this passage in Hebrews. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. In the midst of what seems a comforting exhortation, both before and after, this stern warning of the terror of Divine Judgment appears as if out of nowhere. Was it a late addition, plopped in there by an editor at some point in time before the Scriptures were solidified in to our canon? We might comfort ourselves with such “historical” speculation, but that only gives us leave to ignore what is so bald, and – let’s face it – horrible: the prospect of true Divine Judgment, eternal separation from God.
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. This is most assuredly true, whether or not we are being held in judgment, or standing and hearing the call to be a part of the Body of Christ. We are so quick to assure one another that God is a God of peace and love, we forget so much in the Scriptures that makes it clear the peace offered by God isn’t what we think of peace. It isn’t “peace of mind”, either, some weird, never-quite-defined psychological thing that, allegedly, is what Jesus really meant. Yes, God is love. But what kind of love? The kind of love that calls a family to leave their homeland, to take their household and possessions and go to a foreign land where, the barren wife will become the mother of a great people. What kind of love? The kind of love that makes King David the murderer of his most beloved child. What kind of love? The kind of love embodied in the broken corpse hanging on the Gethsemane cross-tree. To believe that our lot of “peace” and “love” is the fake “security” of a paid-off mortgage, a tidy savings account, and of course a retirement plan that will make sure you live comfortably . . . what does any of that have to do with the Love and Peace that passes understanding?
And then, of course, there’s this passage. It seems an affront to so much that we read and hear and speak and offer one another and the world: There comes a time when accounts are to be paid; at this moment, we might well face the worst imaginable prospect, that God has turned the Divine countenance from us and will never again look upon us. Eternal separation from God, an emptiness worse than any physical pain, agony worse than eternal fire (although that, too, is promised to such); this is the lot for those who deny the grace offered in Jesus Christ. Imagine being so recalcitrant, so obstinate, so devoted to one’s own sense of superiority that seems preferable to deny the efficacy of the Holy Spirit. Imagine looking upon the risen crucified Christ and shrugging your shoulders.
Then imagine being in the hand of the living God.
We Wesleyans are as committed to Divine Grace as anything. The Good News is that grace is real. It goes before us; it is with us; it will lead us on to perfection in love. The Good News is that this shows that God does not give up on us. We can run but we cannot hide from the Divine desire for communion and community with us, sinful humanity.
At the same time, we dare not do what God has not done and strip away human freedom – and therefore human responsibility – and insist that the irrevocable decision about salvation was made before the world was created. Where is grace then? The Wesleys recognized and affirmed that, while grace is both necessary and sufficient; that the faith that springs forth is the result of no possible human action, but the Holy Spirit within us. At the same time, we are co-workers with the Spirit. The Spirit weaves and wills, and it is ours to follow or not. Echoing – again – Karl Barth, neither our morality, nor our politics, nor our religion, nor even our own proclaimed adherence to the Christian faith are marks of salvation. God wants a broken and contrite heart; to love kindness, to do justice, and to walk humbly with God; to love the Lord with all our hearts, and minds, and souls, and strengths, and our neighbors as ourselves. Without these, not moral uprightness nor religious devotion nor even, as St. Paul says, voluntary martyrdom matter a whit. Denying the reality of the salvation offered creation in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, refusing the loving arms of the Father, or turning away from the new life in the Spirit will, in the end, leave us in the position of saying: It is a terrible thing to fall in to the hands of the living God.
Ours is a faith about serious things. It’s about a new creation. It’s about those in this world who have no voice, no power, no security. It’s about being the Body of Christ at work in a world that would deny such a thing even exists. Most of all, it’s about life and death. Our world, even in the midst of so much war and violence and race and religious hatred, really has no idea that such absolute choices still exist. Usually, when people insist on them, they point to this or that political or religious movement as either the enemy or ally that demands we make that choice. As Jesus calls us o’er the tumult, however, we hear the one and only true question about life and death. We are a soft people, we Americans, if we think we are safe because of our pensions or 401k’s or the equity in our homes. We are a soft people who think that guns and tanks and planes are the same thing as security. We are a soft people if we think that the world is either for us or against us. The hard word, the hardest word, stirs disquiet – perhaps even disbelief! – in us not only because it is absurd. It stirs disquiet because it is a terrible thing to fall in to the hand of the Living God, a truth that speaks to our deepest fears. We ignore this reality at our peril. After all, our faith is a faith about serious things, and what could be more serious than to have our Creator say, “Begone from me. I do not know you”?