“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tabernacle ( not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance…”
We come now to the moment in our liturgical Lenten journey with the Lord Jesus when we turn with him towards Jerusalem, towards all that awaits him there in his great work of securing eternal redemption. Our gospel reading shows him there, in an earlier visit, already in dispute in the Temple with those who will kill him, already threatening his life. From Now all of our focus is in that direction. [The entire epistle to the Hebrews, appropriately, points us to Jerusalem; to the Temple and the Holy Sanctuary at its center, which is an imperfect anticipation of the greater things that Jesus Christ will do in Holy Week and Easter and his Ascension. And it points us to the true heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God that cannot be shaken, that kingdom that cannot be destroyed, where we will live with the Lord forever.]
This is also the point in our Lenten journey where answers to our penitent pleas are heard, where true hope is indicated for the sin and rebellion we are guilty of, and have come to know in ourselves. The lenten collects have appealed for deliverance, and for cleansing. Our fasting, our self-examination, and our confessions have brought to greater consciousness our need, our sin, and reminded us of the broken disorder of the world we now live in. And now we begin to hear of the remedy, the promised gift awaiting us of forgiveness, redemption, cleansing, healing; of LOVE from and by God.
AND the answer, the remedy, is found in the PASSION of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Passion” in the language of scripture and the church, as we use it in our liturgy, does not mean an exuberant or romantic emotional outburst. It does not mean some deeply felt commitment to a task or a goal. (I am always being told that I need to show more passion in my endeavors to make them valid or to really achieve anything.)
PASSION, of course, has for us the older meaning of SUFFERING. And it is not only psychological or emotional torment, or internal agony; but suffering the pain and abuse inflicted by others even to the point of shedding blood and death. It is true that all of the earthly life of Christ can be understood as his Passion: he “emptied himself”, denied himself the privileges of heaven for a time, in order to enter the sin-broken world to be with us to serve, to teach, to heal; and bring us to himself. The epistle points us to all of that, and graphically, to the blood of Christ, which is at the center of his entire Passion. We remember, re-engage, the Passion and blood of Christ in every Holy Communion.
Today’s epistle reading foreshadows what is to come in the narrative of the next two weeks, in passiontide and Holy Week; but it gives us the eternal perspective, telling us the reality of what we are to be shown and will relive. The curtain of heaven is pulled back, and we see him after all is accomplished, standing before the great high altar and throne of God, in his Resurrected and Ascended body. By means of his own blood he has secured entrance into the holiest place, where God dwells, thus securing for us an eternal redemption. This image invites us to visualize and meditate on our Lord fulfilling, in his person, as the Great High Priest, once and for all, the atoning sacrifice that was offered in the Holy of Holies by the high priest, under the old covenant, annually on the Day of Atonement, for the sins of Israel. Atonement simply means that what once was separated, is now brought together, those who once were enemies, are now blood relatives. A new covenant, a new relationship, a true ATONEMENT has been inaugurated by the Great High Priest himself, the Lord Jesus Christ.
And in this passage, the substance offered for securing our redemption, is His Blood. His own Blood, the perfect offering.
Why all this talk about blood? Why do we still uphold such a “primitive” approach to faith with talk of sacrifices and altars and priests? Here we sit in a clean room with well-dressed people, listening to beautiful music, and yet we say “blood” out loud dozens of times. Couldn’t this have been handled by something more “humane”, more gentlemanly? It sounds offensive to modern ears, a scandal for the sophisticated. Many would like to think we have “matured” or developed beyond needing these kinds of props for true faith, that these are metaphors for ancient times. Or, they are too much of a drag on on more positive energies.
But blood is what we get in the Bible, in the sacrament, and in the insight of faith. It also must be received if we are to have faith in an incarnate God, who became human, with FLESH AND BLOOD, and everything else that is included in a truly human existence. This epistle also tells us earlier, in chapter 2, that “he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all are one. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers…and his children” — his flesh and blood. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. …. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted,” who suffer and die.
He really was a man of flesh and blood, being like us in every way except for being guilty of sin, but tempted, in pain, trial, and who suffered agonizing death, as we do.
Some of you might remember some responses to the film, “The Passion of the Christ” a few years ago that denounced it because it was too bloody, and concentrated too much on the agony of Christ as he suffered on the cross. I sat on a panel discussion about the film the year after it came out, and heard a famous and learned professor of biblical studies dismiss the film because it portrayed an a out of date concept of God and of the atonement, and was way too bloody. Other theologians have argued that we need to remove “violence” from our faith because it only encourages violence and war.
There might be many good reasons to offer critique of that movie, but this one is rather rich, given the taste in popular culture for blood on TV, film, video games, books. We seem to know somehow how important blood is, and need to see it flowing. It is strange to want to remove it from our faith and have it everywhere else. Maybe the current fascination with vampires hints at some need or thirst in our makeup, greater than the feeble hopes in money and material goods. It is hard not to forget how after the 9-11 attacks, millions of people turned out to donate blood, yielding far more than was could be used; it just seemed that we all needed to participate in a sacrifice of blood then. And there are indeed many sacrifices made in blood every day, in the wars we seem to be constantly engaged in, in the streets, and even now in schools.
We know how important blood is, to our bodies, and in all it represents. But the cleaned up world we like to pretend we inhabit rejects the blood sacrifice of Jesus, and ends up believing that life and salvation are not precious enough to demand the giving of life. Religion should be about peace, and ethics, community, they say. Let’s just follow some of Jesus’ more acceptable teachings, they say, and join hands. These idealistic, anemic forms of religion want to flee from the real flesh and blood nature of being reconciled to God, and of the sin that needs cleansing.
I love the description CS Lewis gives of a real, old-fashioned sacrificial religion in “Til we Have Faces.” The heroine of the story, when she is still a young princess, recounts a visit to her father the King by the Priest of Ungit, the god they worship. “I had a fear of that Priest which was quite different from my fear of my father,” she says. “I think what frightened me in those early days was the holiness of the smell that hung about him – a temple-smell of blood (mostly pigeons’ blood, but he had sacrificed men too) and burnt fat and singed hair and wine and stale incense. It is the Ungit (god) smell.” Later in the book, Lewis has the same priest arguing against a more refined form of Greek ethical wisdom religion. “It is very subtle,” he says. “But it brings no rain and grows no corn; sacrifice does both. It does not even give (us) boldness to die… Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
The epistle teaching requires us to face this claim, that what is offered for our redemption in sacrifice is the suffering and blood of Christ. If sin were simply wrong thinking, or misbehavior, perhaps better instruction or simple correction would be the solution. But sin, is separation, the disorder of our natures, leading to death. So the epistle offers the blood (Gk., ‘haima’ blood) of “Christ” – which means the Son of God, who became Man, was born one of us and made our Messiah King. Jesus himself points to this truth in the Gospel reading for today. His is therefore the precious blood , the blood already made like pure gold, that can make us pure, because it is real human blood united to the divine nature. That human blood he offers has in it the life of God, the purity of holiness, and is more precious than anything else. It is a powerful and real sacrifice. We must turn to it and receive its promises, the epistle demands.
For With his entry into the perfect tabernacle, the heavenly Jerusalem, not made with hands, our Lord and Christ carried his own blood, offered in his life of Passion, and yet still flowing in his veins. In this reading the image is not one of shedding blood for paying a penalty or taking on deserved punishment, or of offering something to quench the thirst of a blood-thirsty god as in pagan sacrifices. It is the presentation of the perfect Blood, the precious blood, of the Perfect Person, he who is God and Man, offered in praise and prayer for our forgiveness. It is the ultimate act of beseeching, appealing for reconciliation to God of those for whom Jesus Christ lived and died, with a pure gift of sacrifice. It is an appeal for the forgiveness of his brothers, his children, his flesh and blood, who are united to him. It is also offered as the blood that covers us with healing and protection, as the blood of animals coats an ancient altar. It is offered to be the blood that washes our souls, that cleanses and purifies our consciences from dead works. It is given to become the blood that truly nourishes us in our sanctification, as we receive it by faith in Holy Communion. It is the incarnate, sacrificial, purifying and sacramental blood, offered for us and to us.
So, whether you are one who thinks all this talk of blood borders on, or has already strayed into, bad taste; or if you are one who enjoys maybe too much the blood and gore of our current culture: We should give thanks to God that this sacrifice of our Lord was made for us. It cannot be any other way. This is the gospel. For the epistle also says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Another way of translating that statement is, “there is no atonement, except in blood.” It can’t be achieved any other way. This is still true and always will be; yesterday, today and forever.
This is not an ancient packaging of a core, central truth, like “the love of God,” done up in the old days for a more primitive culture that was more comfortable with sacrifice and death and needed some concrete, earthy metaphor. This is not a husk that can be discarded in order to consume the kernel of insight. This is not a symbolic, dramatic presentation to point us to a good example. If we remove the sacrifice; if we deny the shedding of blood, we remove the possibility of redemption. There is no removal of sin without the offering of blood.
Neither the fervency of my fasting, nor the rigor of repentance, nor the intensity of my intentions to do good, nor the perfect execution of my pious practices will bring about eternal redemption. These are good things that we should do, ways in which we participate in the completion of our salvation, but like the ancient sacrifices they are temporary, incomplete. They cannot alone restore our sinful natures, nor can all our technological advances or good ideas correct a broken and disordered creation. They certainly cannot conquer death. These show us our need, and in their incompleteness, just like the sacrifices of the old covenant, they cause us to look for a perfect answer, to anticipate being made whole, made anew, have our sins not just forgiven, but taken away.
So on our behalf, not only to forgive us, but also cleanse us, the blood of Christ is offered by the great High Priest himself, to a holy God for our redemption, in his complete passion and suffering. :
[It is the blood of his humanity, taken from the womb of his mother, made precious and pure by being united with God.
It is his blood shed in his circumcision 8 days after his birth.
It is the agony of his rejection and persecution, even by his family and by the religious and political leaders of his time.
It is his suffering of constant assault by demons and temptation by Satan.
It is his blood shed in sweaty drops in prayer in Gethsemane.
It is his blood offered as wine at the last supper with his disciples.
It is his blood shed from the scourging of his body and the thorns on his head.
It is the blood shed, on the cross, at the hill of Calvary, on Good Friday.
And it is the blood that remains with him in his Resurrection on Easter morning; and that he carries with him in Ascension to heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.]
It could not be any other way. This is the gospel, the good news, that we proclaim and believe. Only a holy life, and only one that is fully divine as well as perfectly human, could offer the precious blood that can cover and redeem and cleanse the broken image of God that we are, and to overcome the power of death.
Thanks be to God that it is so. And thanks be to God that we can know this now, in our lives here, even as we await its fulfillment. In Chapter 10, the epistle tells what to do with this perfect gift that is ours now because of his sacrifice: Therefore, brothers,since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near 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. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
Together today we worship that faithful GOD, as we turn towards what awaits in Jerusalem, to Calvary, the tomb, and the risen Christ, and to the true Jerusalem, the heavenly city, the holy of holies, where we already stand with Christ in the presence of God, and whom we one day shall see face to face. This is his Promise. Praise God.