The Transformation of All Life – Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus’ life and death.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday November 13-19, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
With these readings for this Sunday after Pentecost, the lectionary for year B brings full circle the narrative of Jesus’ displacement of the temple in Jerusalem as the locus of God’s presence. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent presented the cosmic vision of the coming of the Son of Man from Mark 13:24-37, which follows immediately on Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of the temple, the Gospel reading for this Sunday. This displacement of the temple, we have argued, holds great significance for our faith in God as creator and our role as servants of creation. As we wrote in that comment on the texts for that first Sunday:
“Clearly, the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation that incorporated these elements, were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation. What, we are asking, are the consequences of the relocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus? Are the readers of Mark’s Gospel, on account of Mark’s opposition to the temple state and its economy, possibly left without any orientation to creation whatsoever?”
Because the Gospel for that first Sunday also announced the important theme of “forgiveness of sin,” we asked more specifically whether “the religion of the temple with its socially and politically important orientation to creation [is to] be wholly displaced by a religion of personal forgiveness?”
Does this displacement, we wondered, legitimize the dominant focus in American Christianity, both evangelical and Lutheran, on a highly individualized, personal forgiveness of sins, to the exclusion of care for creation?
The answer to this question, we have seen, is decisively “No.” With each Sunday of the year we have discovered amongst the texts some engagement with the creation and its care. Nevertheless, the question might still seem to be relevant with respect to this penultimate set of texts. The sacrifice Jesus made as the new and eternal high priest in the eternal sanctuary in heaven, we read in our second lesson, was “for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12). A casual reader might therefore yet conclude that the chief purpose of Christ’s work is simply the forgiveness of sins. The passage contains a complex set of images, however, that extends the scope of consideration far more broadly.
Christ is not only high priest, who stands at the altar, but also king, who sits at “the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:13; see footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible). The forgiveness of sins comes as part of the covenant that God is establishing anew, putting his “laws in their hearts,” and “writ[ing] them on their minds” (Hebrews 10:16). Moreover, a “new and living way” has been opened into the inner sanctuary where God is present, so that those who follow Jesus may now “approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22). The central point of these verses is that in and through faith in Christ, believers gain entry to the very presence of the living God. “Listeners,” Craig Koester writes, “are enjoined to enter [the heavenly sanctuary], anticipating the idea of faith as a journey in Heb 11-12.” They are at the same time called as part of the earthly community, “where people encourage one another and carry out love and good works . . . called to hold fast to their faith commitment, a call that is reinforced by the memory of past perseverance in 10:32-34” (Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, New York: The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 2001, p. 447-48). They live, as it were, where heaven and earth meet in the community of faith.
Koester sums up the theological significance of the passage as follows: “Confessing that we have a great priest (10:21) is important theologically, because ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’” (10:31; cfr. 12:29; 13:4). Instead of downplaying the terrifying aspects of God, Hebrews announces that Christ provides the atonement, cleansing, and sanctification that people need to approach God rightly (cf. 4:14-16) (Koester, p. 449). Accordingly, the sacrifice of Christ for sins is “best understood in terms of the ‘drawing nigh’ that the Hebrew term qurban suggests,” as David Bentley Hart writes, because it involves
“a miraculous reconciliation between God, who is the wellspring of all life, and his people, who are dead in sin. Sacrifice, in this sense, means a marvelous reparation of a shattered covenant, and an act wherein is accomplished again and again, that divine indwelling, within the body of his people, that is God’s purpose in shaping for himself a people to bear his glory” (Quoted in Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 124-25, from “Thine Own of Thine Own: Eucharistic Sacrifice in Orthodox Tradition,” in Rediscovering the Eucharist: Ecumenical Conversations, ed. Roch A Kereszty [New York: Paulist press, 2003], p. 143).
Norman Wirzba comments: “Christ’s blood, like the blood sprinkled in the Jewish temple, is not a substance of terror reflecting violence and death, but the medium of reconciliation healing division and renewing life by putting it on a divinely inspired, self-offering path. Christ is a continuation of the temple because it is in him that heaven (the place of God’s life) and earth (the place of creaturely life) meet.” The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way, Wirzba notes:
“Christ inaugurated a new covenant between God and humanity that was founded upon his life and blood. Christ is not reducible to being a victim. He is the high priest who offered himself so that the idolating, degrading, and death-wielding ways of the world could be overcome. Jesus ‘has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (9:26). Christians no longer need to go daily to the temple and offer sacrifices because Christ has made of himself the definitive offering that forever heals the breach and opens the lines of communication between God and the world. Christ’s self-offering marks the “end” or completion of sacrifice because he gives the unsurpassable expression to how self-offering leads to true life (Wirzba, p. 124).
In the world of the early church, Koester points out, the possibility of this access was of great significance:
“Socially, Hebrews’ insistence on the finality of Christ’s sacrifice establishes a distinctive basis for Christian life in an interreligious society. With respect to Judaism, the Temple is no longer necessary for Christians who confess that Jesus’ self-offering puts an end to sacrifices. The rabbis centered Jewish community life on the Law and came to consider deeds of mercy and the study of the Torah to be the equivalent of sacrifice, especially after the destruction of the Temple, but Hebrews centers community life of the crucified and exalted Christ, whose sacrifice undergirds the community’s offerings of praise and compassion (13:12-15). With repect to the wider Greco-Roman society, Christians resided in Greco-Roman cities, but did not belong there (13:14).”
Animal sacrifice, Koester notes, was a regular and intimate part of life in the Roman empire; athletic contests, festival gatherings, and many other civic events were occasions accompanied by offerings “to entreat the favor of the gods.” In Jesus’ sacrifice, the Christian community “also had a unique sacrifice that was central for their common life, that signaled the beginning of their contexts of faith (12:1-2), and that anticipated their own festival gathering in the city to come (12:22)” (Koester, pp. 441-442).
In Wirzba’s view and as we have seen in previous comments in this series, the significance of this final sacrifice for all creation follows then rather directly from this access to God: “Jesus death speaks to God’s way of being with the world and thus also to creation’s inner meaning. On the cross, Jesus encountered the alienating and violent death of this world and transformed it into the self-offering death that leads to resurrection life” (Wirzba, p. 125). In light of his death and resurrection, creation can be seen as
“an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest. Here, in the living and dying of creatures, in the seed that dies into the ground, we discover that sacrificial offering is a condition for the possibility of the membership of life we call creation . . . . Because there is no life without sacrificial love, and no love without surrender, the destiny of all creatures is that they offer themselves or be offered up as the temporal expression of God’s eternal love” (Wirzba, p. 126).
Jesus’ life and death are finally about the “transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed” (Wirzba, p. 147). Thus, this Sunday the congregation may know itself in Christ as God’s “holy ones in the land,” who with glad hearts and “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:3,11) see “the path of life,” living as they do in the place (the body of Christ) where heaven meets earth. If there are troubles in the land, they may be but the “birth pangs” of the new creation (Mark 13:8); the people can still hope to be counted among the wise who “shall shine like the brightness of the sky,” and to “lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:30). For those who love God’s creation, this is the ultimate encouragement to engage in its care.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.