Slipping from shadow to shadow, Philo silently creeps down the dark street. Turning his head to make sure he is not being followed, he hears the sound of running footsteps. He darts for a nearby doorway and presses himself into a corner. A slave dashes by and Philo moves on.
He cannot be too careful. Romans don’t like Jews or their strange religious practices and from time to time there is an outburst of racism. That was bad enough, but at least Judaism is a long established religion – and the Romans respect history. But now Philo is a Christian, in Roman eyes he is a subversive. He has lost the protection of the synagogue too – his former friends now see him as a blasphemer.
Just visible in the moonlight is a fresh graffiti. A roughly scrawled fish on a doorpost. This must be it. Philo knocks according to the secret pattern, and the door opens. Now he is among friends, but the atmosphere of fear is tangible. They are fewer than they were last week – Matthew is languishing in prison. The households of Quintus and Joseph are too frightened to come out. Rumour has it that Clemens has returned to the synagogue.
Worship begins. A letter is read. Remember Jesus, it says. Remember all he went through for your sake. Imitate him. Be strong, persevere. He never said it would be easy – he endured the cross – but it won’t last forever, and now he is in glory. What you endure is hard, but don’t give up, don’t stop meeting together. Persevere and you will receive a crown of glory. That letter is what we now call Hebrews, and its message is as relevant today as it ever was.
The anonymous writer refers back to Jesus, and our gospel reading reflects the same themes. You may wish to turn to it, on page 72 of the NT. In v.49 Jesus longs for justice to come, and we get an insight into his heart. He has a baptism to endure – by which he means the cross – and what stress he is under until he has done it. Imagine that hanging over him!
And he points out that what has been true of the Master will also be true of the disciple. People turned against him, so his followers can expect conflict too. This is what Jesus means in v.51 – ‘do you think that I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division’.
He does not want to bring division but people divide in their response to his message. True peace is found in him, but not everyone wants to accept that, some go their own way. Jesus longs for peace and justice in communities, but that can upset those who have power and wealth. So Jesus does not set out to divide, but that can be the effect of his world changing message.
We may have experienced that in the changed attitudes of friends, or the banter of work colleagues. It takes a personal toll, and we need great generosity, forgiveness and loyalty to persevere, along with the belief that by showing God’s love those people may change.
Yet the hardest rejection is probably the hostility or indifference of those closest to us. When children reject beliefs parents have tried so hard to instil; when parents turn against the enthusiastic new-found faith of their children; when faith leads to tensions within marriage. How do we deal with this?
Firstly, recognise the resources we have in each other. There can scarcely be a family which hasn’t had to deal with differences over faith. In this room there will be a lot of experience and wisdom. So if we can be open about it, share what has worked and what hasn’t, we can learn from and support one another. It may not be easy to talk about, because it’s personal, perhaps painful and we may not feel we manage the situation at all well. But if we can talk about it we’ll realise we’re not alone.
Just a few things I’ve learnt: People are different, so families will disagree. Jesus says in v.53 this will happen, it’s a fact of life – so don’t get in the blame game – what could we have done differently? There’s no point.
If members of our family do not share our faith it does not mean that we are failures as Christians or as parents. It may be the gospel has divided. We have to let people make their own choices and continue to love them as they are. Particularly important for parents that we don’t give the impression that Child A is loved more than Child B because Child A still goes to church.
Of course that love will include prayer for the wanderer and practical acts of service. We will want to share our faith, to invite, and there will be a time and a place for that, but don’t nag. (You may have heard the story of the mother who bombarded her wayward son with tracts, invitations to guest events, and got God into every conversation. In desperation she cried out in prayer: ‘Lord, please remove the barrier is that stops my son becoming a Christian’ There was a flash of lightning, and she was no more.)
Should we make compromises? Hebrews tells us not to give up meeting together, in other words we should carry on being part of the church’s life, and this can be a real area of conflict if a husband or wife does not share the faith. Worldly wisdom can help here: the wide secular recognition that spouses do not have to do everything together and that time apart can be healthy. Perhaps it may also be easier to make Sunday morning a priority if on Friday evening your spouse comes first – ‘date night’ as it were.
Jesus also tells us to get a sense of perspective, to see what God is doing. This is what he means in v. 54 to 56 talking about the weather. Nowadays of course we have little apps on our phones to tell us what the weather will do. Bizarrely, mine even tells me what the weather is doing at the moment. I may not be a meteorologist, but even I can look out of the window!
We can tell what the weather is going to do by looking at the clouds. Jesus asks, can we not tell the signs of the times? Can we see where God’s kingdom is growing? Can we see where we have to persevere? Can we get a sense that it may not always be like it is now?
My spiritual director told me of how, when things were tough, when he couldn’t see the wood for the trees, he used to climb a hill and look down on where he lived. He’d get a God’s eye view, see it in its bigger context.
And that’s what the reading from Hebrews tries to do. It may be tough, but it will not last forever and in the end it will be worthwhile. Perhaps God will transform a situation, as at the Red Sea or Jericho, doing something amazing and unexpected. V32 to v35 describe amazing things done by the Old Testament heroes of faith, and how God got them out of all kinds of scrapes.
Viewed on its own that might lead us to a rather triumphalist faith. However, v. 36-38 describe those who triumphed through endurance. In the Book of Acts, the apostle James is killed by the sword, while Peter is rescued from prison. Why one and not the other? We do not know. Both were faithful. Yet their calling to faithfulness was different.
Having described all these people, the writer of Hebrews then invites us to imagine a glorious scene: the heroes of faith gathered round as a vast crowd in a stadium. An Olympic spectacle, as an important track event takes place. The crowd is giving it everything they’ve got in support. Of whom? They are cheering and urging us on as we run the race. Heavenly onlookers, the saints in glory, the ones we have loved and inspired us, a great cloud of witnesses, shouting encouragement as they watch us run the race.
What an amazing picture, that the baton is passed on to us! And those who have gone before stand and cheer as we run the race set before us. Lord, thank you for their encouragement, Lord makes us worthy of them as we cast aside the sin that entangles and run with perseverance. What are those things that hold us back, that keep us from meeting together? Cast them off!
It’s said that runners in a marathon hit a brick wall at twenty miles. To keep going, they use a technique called ‘visualisation’. They picture themselves crossing the finishing line. They imagine what it will feel like – the reward of success. Rising above the current situation and looking to the future, they gain strength to carry on.
Hebrews writes: ‘Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.’ Remember Jesus and what he did. How he endured a temporary hardship for you, and now is in glory. Look to your own trials, to our own divisions, even within families. Yes, it is hard, Jesus never said it wouldn’t be. But it will not last forever. God can bring change. And it will be worthwhile. Remembering that, let us rejoice and persevere.