Think of the many ways we divide people into camps: those who love Celine Dion, and the rest of us; sports fans, and those who are allergic to team sports; readers and non-readers; cat lovers and cat despisers; breakfast eaters and breakfast skippers…you get the picture. I’m adding another category: people who hunt, and folks who’d never dream of killing an animal, for any reason.
For the record, I’m a non-sports-watcher who adores cats, reads compulsively, needs breakfast, and has never touched a gun, let alone fired one. I once inadvertently trapped a mouse on a sticky roach trap and left it screaming all night (yes, mice scream) because I didn’t have the heart (or courage) to put it out of its misery. Even watching a movie where a moose or deer gets shot makes me very sad. While I respect people who hunt responsibly and consume the meat year-round, I just don’t think I could ever join their rank. What about you?
I’ve often wondered how it felt to be a Jew during the days of animal sacrifices, and whether there were sensitive participants who dreaded the ritual more than others. Imagine presenting a young, perfectly healthy goat or lamb for your personal sin, laying your hands on its neck, and drawing the knife for slaughter. If this didn’t convict you of the ugliness of sin, I don’t know what would. An innocent life one moment, and death the next. Imagine the sticky rush of blood that substituted for your own, and the slumped animal at your feet, ready for disposal.
In the case of some offerings, the meat was cooked and consumed by the priests and sometimes the people. But not sin offerings. After their blood was sprinkled on the altar, these carcasses were dragged outside the camp and burned. The waste of a good animal was no doubt another hard lesson for the penitent sinner. Sin is costly, and its ramifications are always much deeper and broader than we think.
Here’s our scripture for today:
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. ( Hebrews 13:11-14)
Unlike the animal carcasses in the temple or tabernacle, Jesus’ dead body wasn’t burned, but placed in a borrowed tomb to await a final anointing by three heartbroken women. As I write this, I realize I haven’t often pictured Jesus’ corpse and really allowed that image sink in. I picture him on the cross, crying out to God and still showing love to those around him. And I picture the empty tomb, the baffled guards, the strips of linen and discarded head covering: victory images of the resurrection. Like many Christians, I want the jump from the Passion to the Resurrection to be as quick as possible. Dead bodies are disturbing.
But he bled. He died. And he suffered outside the city gate, a public execution as grisly and extended as any we can imagine. He suffered the wretched shame and death of a criminal, though he was the only human to ever live a perfect and blameless life, overflowing with love and faithfulness.
His death was real, and his body was abandoned. Until it wasn’t.
This passage calls us to go to him outside the camp: to be willing to suffer shame and disgrace for his sake. I’ve struggled with this sometimes, especially in making my initial decision to follow Jesus and find a church. As a 20-something, I wanted to be cool, and Christians, bluntly speaking, were anything but cool. The Christians I met in my early days seemed to exist in a different era, dressing and talking and ‘fellowshipping’ like they’d stepped out of the 1950s. Singing old fashioned, sing-songy hymns like “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” and “The Old Rugged Cross”. Hosting Sunday dinners and potlucks with jellied salads and Cool Whipped desserts. Wearing their conservative, Sunday Best outfits, clothes I’d never dream of wearing. (Not that I’m a fashion queen; my aesthetic veers more towards thrift store/bohemian.)
I felt like a misfit, and they probably saw me as a weirdo. But I tried to adapt. And I came to see the sincere hearts behind their old-timey image.
Fast forward a few decades, and now I cringe to be associated with the current public image of mainstream Christianity. The televangelists, the prosperity gospel promoters, the flashy mega-churches with their slant on making the gospel serve our needs, rather than the other way around. I cringe at the holier-than-thou attitudes, mixed with greed and hypocrisy and indifference to the lost and needy. And yet, as I judge others, I know the Bible says I’m also judging myself.
I’d far rather be associated with the first century Christians, who seem incomparably cool to me. They shared everything, sacrificed for one another, met in simple house churches, and understood the division between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. Their suffering was real. They endured public persecution and watched their leaders die for the cause. Many of them died for the cause, or lived radically altered lives due to their faith, their political climate, and their utter separation from the world.
And yet they were regarded as the scum of the earth.
The Hebrew writer reminds us that when we bear disgrace for Christ, we share in deepest fellowship with him. We can have no better company, no better role model. And we can suffer with joy when we keep the right perspective: we suffer not for here, but in view of the eternal city where we truly belong.
God’s city. The city of God. The perfect dwelling awaiting us, where we’ll rejoice eternally in the Lamb who died–by our sinful hand, by our shameful knife–now for us and in us forever. Amen.
Categories: Hiking in Hebrews