The argument made in the letter to the Hebrews is that there is no need for a High Priest to enter into the Holy of Holies in the Sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem once a year to make atonement for the people before God because Christ offered himself as a once only sacrifice on the cross which is sufficient for all people and for all time. This was a defining event which rendered the sacrificial system redundant. Those early Jewish followers of Jesus would have perceived this in bold, inviting terms. Where once only the nation’s top priest was able to enter into God’s deepest presence, now anyone could do it at any time because Jesus had made it possible, had ‘torn the curtain of the Temple in two’ as the Gospel writers observed of the death of Christ.
Today we tend to take this strange, beautiful, awful truth for granted. If we had a grasp of how unorthodox it was for those early Christians to believe it we might worship differently. There will always be a creative tension in our worship between approaching God as a friend and reverencing him as a king. After his resurrection Jesus pointedly referred to his followers as his friends. To be a friend of the one who created the millions of galaxies which stretch across the known universe is taken oddly for granted by people who would go weak at the knees if they saw George Clooney or Penelope Cruz in the street. Here is a God whom scripture describes as so holy, so bright, so ‘other’ that no human being can look on him and live because no sin can abide in his presence - yet we tend to pop in to speak to him like he was in the living room next door. In a sense we cannot be critical of ourselves for doing so because this is precisely what Christ has made possible for us at the cross. Much worship, however, shows all the respect and devotion of a predictive text dashed off behind the wheel of a car.
The risk in approaching God in such a casual manner is that he is reduced to little more than a comforting imaginary friend. Scripture calls us to magnify God. This is an unusual choice of verb. How is it possible to magnify (that is, make bigger) the creator of the numbing vastness of space? I think it is a choice of words founded on the human tendency to make God much smaller than he is because our minds can’t cope with him. If we do not magnify him the risk is that he becomes indistinguishable from our own self-consciousness and we are not able to mature in faith, leaving ourselves open to the criticism of atheists that God is no more than an extension of our ego. To magnify God is to ensure we keep a sense of proportion in belief. God is much bigger than we can possibly imagine and we are much smaller than we like to think.
It is characteristic of our faith to expect us to hold apparent paradoxes in a fruitful balance and this sense of God as both transcendent and immanent is a pertinent example of this. But the writer of the Hebrews is quite clear where this should take us: ‘let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean’ (10:22). The door dividing us from God has been taken off its hinges.
The writer goes on to draw some fascinating conclusions from this truth. The argument in Hebrews 10 until this point has been how the sacrifice of Christ has transformed our relationship with God. Now it talks about how this alters our relationship one to another. There has been an outpouring of books this decade on the quirky ways human beings influence one another: Freakonomics, Traffic and Nudge to name only three which uncover the subtle yet profound ways we copy others. Human behaviour is infectious and we catch moods and imitate those we know. This is something we tend to deny because it does not fit with the prevailing philosophy that we are autonomous human beings who forge our own destiny. Frank Sinatra’s I did it my way encapsulates this mood in a manner that an anthem called I did it the way everyone else does it simply does not. We are much less heroic when we accept that our lives are moulded by others - but more likely to perceive God.
The writer of Hebrews continues: let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds (10:24). He knew that communities where the prevailing characteristic is loving kindness will shape every life in it for good. There is almost a competitive feel to his words. Usually we provoke one another with cross words or selfish actions. Conspicuous consumption has for several decades provoked people into matching the spending they see around them, producing a spiral of materialism. It takes great strength to resist this and most of us know deep down that we have lacked that strength. This is sad evidence of how copied behaviour alters society. The Church from its inception has been called to inspire its members to godliness, where the Holy Spirit moves from one person to the next, effecting a more powerful witness than any Christian could hope to manage on their own. Godly lives lived in front of us are more powerful than a hundred sermons could ever hope to achieve, for they not only show how we should live for God, quite unconsciously they shape our life as well.
The only way this can happen, however, is for Christians to keep meeting together (10:25). Even in the early Church it appears that some Christians had grown careless and neglectful over the duty to meet together in fellowship. Without such closeness the Church’s witness is diluted to an insipid taste. In the era of choice and individualism many Christians do not think clearheadedly about this duty. We make choices about how we spend our time where our own wishes are prioritised. I can understand how people arrive at the decision on any given Sunday or weekday not to meet with their fellow Christians. It is easy for me to take the high ground because I have to be there! But the writer to the Hebrews calls us to a more rounded perspective. We should address not so much the question: what will I get out of meeting with other Christians today? but how will other Christians be blessed by me meeting with them today? Here the emphasis is on how God is going to use us to touch others with our words and actions. To encourage one another we must meet with one another. The new digital networks which put people in touch with others effortlessly can be a blessing for Christians, but will never be a substitute for the powerful intimacy of meeting face to face.
Jesus has not torn the curtain in two so we can walk into God’s presence in lonely single file. We are here to offer encouragement and inspire love in a cascading effect worthy of the new community God has called into being.