Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. The whole reading from Hebrews today is full of instructions, but when the Bible gives us instructions, they are always an expression of some divine truth that makes the instructions possible. And that line, that truth, is priceless: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
That’s not a platitude. It is the reality that makes the Christian way of life feasible. When we come to this altar, when we read the Bible, when we serve Christ in the poor, we are encountering the same living Jesus Christ who walked the roads of Galilee. His teaching has not changed. His power has not waned. His style, his M.O., the way he approaches people and life is just the same as it has always been. And his heart still beats with love and mercy for this world and always will.
We see this in lots of ways. If we take time to read the four Gospels straight through, something every Christian should do, we’ll find the Jesus they describe to be the same person we worship. If we hopped on a plane to meet fellow disciples from across the world, as our Bishop did this summer when he attended the Lambeth Conference with Anglicans from 165 nations, we would discover that whether they live in Angola, Albania, or Azerbaijan they are following the identical Son of God we follow.
Or if we could go back in time and consult the great saints like Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross, we’d discover there too: it’s the same Jesus. He’s still real. He’s still alive. Same truth, same power, same person, for everyone, everywhere, every when. Of course, we change. Our culture changes. Our perception of truth can be unreliable, wavering and fading in and out sometimes. The needs and questions and situations are in flux. But it’s still Jesus who’s standing with us, risen from the dead, alive forevermore, the same yesterday and today and forever. Without his living, consistent presence, Christianity falls apart.
Today’s reading is the closing section of the letter to the Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, but whoever it was is concluding the letter with some words of advice. All of them are things you could try to do in your own strength, although some of them I doubt anyone whose priority was to rely on their own strength would have much motivation for. But the author doesn’t expect the community to do these things in their own strength. He or she expects them to use a strength which comes from Jesus, and because of that is the same yesterday and today and forever.
So what’s the advice? First, Let mutual love continue. If your ability to love a fellow Christian is rooted in ways that you are humanly similar – educational or cultural or economic similarities, say – it will not extend across dissimilarities and disagreements. If your mutual love comes from the fact that Jesus Christ is within each of you living his life through you, that love is founded on something unchanging and much more important than any current differences of human opinion.
The passage also says: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. This is often a hard thing to do for a Christian community, especially when that community is already good at the mutual love part. It’s hard to remember that on Sunday part of your job, if you belong to Emmanuel, is deliberately not to talk to your best friends or get some church business done, but to look around and notice people you don’t already know, people Jesus has called here and needs you to how love and hospitality to. Talk to your friends the other 167 hours in the week. When you’re at Mass, show hospitality.
Where do we get the power to remember that we may be entertaining angels when we show hospitality to strangers? From knowing that Christianity is about us and our friends and our church, but about the loving mission of Jesus for the world, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
The author of Hebrews continues: Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Now if you believe in everybody earning their own way in life, you’re just not going to obey this, because you’ll think you earned something better and they deserve what they got. But if you believe in grace, if you have grasped how much you need mercy, you can have the empathy to say: “that could be me. Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever, was merciful to me, a sinner. He cares for all my fellow sinners too, and honors me by letting me share his love and empathy with them.”
And then the reading goes on to deal with two things that are uncomfortable to talk about. Things that most people who are not trying to live a spiritual life really would like those who are living a spiritual life to avoid mentioning: sex and money. In our dominant post-Enlightenment Western value system, those two issues are considered private, nobody else’s business. Scripture disagrees.
The passage says: Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. I know that verse is hard to hear for many people, just as much of what Jesus said in the Gospel reading last week was hard to hear. And if you don’t feel accountable to what God has revealed (which most Americans don’t, of course, and that is certainly their prerogative), this verse and the many similar passages throughout the Bible will not be of much interest to you. But if we value what God has revealed in Jesus and in the Scriptures, at the very least we must take seriously that God’s call goes all the way down to what our American culture mistakenly thinks of as the most quote, private, unquote levels of your being. Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever, and there is nothing about you that’s none of his business.
And so the passage goes on with an equally uncomfortable topic we’d really prefer to keep private. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." Again, for people who are not trying to structure their lives by what God has revealed, this principle of being content with what you have won’t make sense. Because it flies in the face of what our culture believes about always trying to get a raise, and buy a a bigger flat screen TV, and all the TV shows about dream vacation rentals and high end real estate and celebrity chefs. We are constantly formed by everything but God to always want more…. even though we are already the richest nation that has ever existed and the poorest person in this room is wealthier than 90% of the globe.
But again, if you want to be a Gospel person – maybe you don’t, but if you do – the Gospel must be taken seriously as having something to say about how you use the financial resources God gives you. It did yesterday, it does today, and it will forever. Because Jesus, who embodies the Gospel, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
And then we get a beautiful reminder: as we live this life, a life that inspires us not to fear, not to focus on finding and expressing your own identify but on discovering the identity you have in Jesus, not to live by a secular post-Enlightenment vision but by a Biblical one, what does it produce? It produces people who can proclaim that verse near the end with integrity: The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what can anyone do to me? Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
And finally, our author encourages us to rely on models, people who are already wholehearted disciples, people who mentored us as Christians. She or he says ,“consider the outcome of their way of life.” In other words, bring to mind some person, any person, who really lives out of mutual love for their sisters and brothers in Christ, who exhibits steady hospitality and empathy for the undeserving, who lets God have the last word even on issues secular people consider private, and who radiates confidence in Jesus who is the same yesterday and today and forever – Imagine that person, and consider the outcome of that way of life.
Or, imagine a group of Christians who lived that way, and what the outcome would be. Imagine the outcome of that way of life. Imagine the outcome if a parish were so convinced the way Jesus showed us is the way to live, that they just did it -- showed hospitality and empathy and mutual love and accountability and generosity -- no matter what else was going on. Imagine that.
Or if you like, maybe you won’t have to imagine, because after all, it’s possible. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.