This is an edited manuscript for my sermon on Hebrews 4:15-5:10
In the first chapter of Hebrews The Son is described as being way higher than the angels, and seated at the right hand of God. In the second chapter of Hebrews, this exalted Son is revealed as Jesus, who came and lived as one of us. Skipping ahead a bit we find out why both these ideas are essential to the preacher who wrote Hebrews. Because he is highly exalted and nearer than we can imaging, Jesus is our eternal high priest. Now, we’re not from a ritual culture so I’ll ask for us, “What does a high priest do?” Well, simply put, a high priest represents people before God. A good high priest deals with the people they represent gently (we would say, “with compassion” or “with empathy”) because they understand something – even while they are making offerings for sin on behalf of the people they also need to be making offerings for their own sin. A good high priest was gentle because they understood “we’re all in the same boat.”
This is a bit problematic when it comes to Jesus. After all, Hebrews is quite clear that Jesus was without sin. So how on Earth is he supposed to empathize with us who are not as clean as he is? Well, we discover this when Hebrews points out, in fact Jesus did make offerings.
He didn’t make these for his own sin, like the High Priests of the old covenant. Rather, he made offerings of prayers and supplications – with loud cries and tears – to the one who could deliver him from death. Why were these offerings accompanied with tears and loud cries? It’s because, throughout “the days of his flesh” (his “earthly ministry”) Jesus suffered.
Every moment of his existence Jesus suffered the very temptations which afflict us – the same temptations which too often drive us into destructive behaviors. Jesus resisted these, however, and in this resistance he learned obedience the will of his Father. Though this obedience born of suffering Jesus was perfected by God. The question is, perfected into what?
Was he perfected into an unapproachable snob, who looks at his charges and says, “What’s the matter with you people? I resisted temptation, you all just need to try harder?” Not at all. What Jesus was formed into is the perfect high priest. A representative who understands, more than we can possibly know, just what we suffer as human-beings. Through that understanding, an empathy for “Adam’s helpless race” was forged – Jesus understands what it is to be us, and this has lead to mercy and compassion for us. It is because Jesus was perfected through suffering that he is the source of salvation, forever.
He is the last High Priest, and one from a priestly order which pre-dates, the line of Aaron – the priests of the Old Testament Covenant. Jesus, called by God, is something truly new. In him we have life, are redeemed, and forgiven – because empathy and compassion deals with sin, it doesn’t excuse it.
Accepting this for ourselves is the easy part of faith. The hard part is this, if we embrace Jesus’ compassion for us, then we must live this out for others. As I look out on the landscape of our country, and take in the ebbs and flows of both news and social media, I am convinced that if we are to be Jesus’ disciples in the face of sin, oppression, violence, and death then empathy is the path of Christ.
As we hear the endless litany of black men killed in police custody, and see frustration with decades of systemic racism explode in communities around the county, we need to understand how hormonal teens might lash out in anger and succumb to rage. When we look at police officers we need to understand, after being placed into situations where all they see are the worst bits of a community day after day, why they might be tempted to abuse their power. When we encounter people who’s sole interaction with the oppressed is what’s filtered to them through the news, we need to understand why they are afraid – and why, in that fear, they may have closed their hearts. Does this understanding excuse sin? No more than Jesus’ compassion for us excuses sin.
Understanding, empathy, means we commit ourselves to Christ’s work – what is referred to in the New Testament as the “ministry of reconciliation.”
I saw that ministry this week. As teenagers raged in Baltimore, I saw it in a crowd of clergy moving through the streets calling the wayward to return home. I saw it as they sang a call to compassion. I saw it when they marched up to a line of police, knelt, prayed, and said to those undoubtedly frightened officers, “Follow us.” Where they went, peace followed. In having empathy for the raging youth of their community did they excuse sin? If you happen to think that, then you need to understand something of extreme importance. When they told these kids to go home they literally called them to repent (to “turn around” and take a different path). By showing empathy towards police were they excusing the systemic oppression felt by members of their community? No, the next day they were out on the streets peacefully calling for justice to be done and righteousness established. They expressed empathy in the face of temptation and sin, because that’s what Jesus does. Let’s do likewise, and allow the compassion of Jesus Christ to take our lives and form them into huge billboards which emit such humility and compassion that they cannot be ignored. On the surface these brilliant beacons may one sentence be etched, “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Amen.