This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily reading along with a headline from world news:
Pope canonises 800 15th cent. Otranto martyrs who refused to convert to Islam
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
Can we not leave spiritual babyhood behind—and go on to maturity?
6 1-3 Let us leave behind the elementary teaching about Christ and go forward to adult understanding. Let us not lay over and over again the foundation truths—repentance from the deeds which led to death, believing in God, baptism and laying-on of hands, belief in the life to come and the final judgment. No, if God allows, let us go on.
Going back to the foundations will not help those who have deliberately turned away from God
4-8 When you find men who have been enlightened, who have experienced salvation and received the Holy Spirit, who have known the wholesome nourishment of the Word of God and touched the spiritual resources of the eternal world and who then fall away, it proves impossible to make them repent as they did at first. For they are re-crucifying the Son of God in their own souls, and by their conduct exposing him to shame and contempt. Ground which absorbs the rain that is constantly falling upon it and produces plants which are useful to those who cultivate it, is ground which has the blessing of God. But ground which produces nothing but thorns and thistles is of no value and is bound sooner or later to be condemned—the only thing to do is to burn it clean.
We want you to make God’s promise real through your faith, hope and patience
9-12 But although we give these words of warning we feel sure that you, whom we love, are capable of better things and will enjoy the full experience of salvation. God is not unfair: he will not lose sight of all that you have done nor of the loving labour which you have shown for his sake in looking after fellow-Christians (as you are still doing). It is our earnest wish that every one of you should show a similar keenness in fully grasping the hope that is within you. We do not want any of you to grow slack, but to follow the example of those who through sheer patient faith came to possess the promises.
The writer to Hebrews is not scared to issue stern warnings to his people. In this case, it seems to me that his slightly exasperated urging of them to grow in faith are helpful; but his declaration with regard to to to those who fall away, less so.
Discipleship means learning. All too often in churches there’s a sense that basic allegiance is all that’s required. This is a betrayal of the purpose of the church community, as if it existed for its own sake, and should therefore be content with any allegiance that builds up its numbers or its coffers; whereas it truly exists for the sake of its members and for the rest of the world. In some churches there is suspicion that an emphasis on growth in grace and what used to be called sanctification leads to spiritual elitism and a downgrading of simple faith.
This ignores the picture of discipleship given in the scriptures, especially in the gospels, where it is clear that even the most famous of disciples have gone wrong and have had to learn, often painfully, from Jesus.
In the Church of Scotland today we assume that members will learn simply through weekly worship and daily living. I think this is a meagre provision and often stunts members’ growth in faith. The Phillip’s translation uses the phrase “Keenness in fully grasping the hope that is in you.” That seems to me a splendid description of what I often need. The hope is there, within me, but I need a kick in the backside to grasp it fully.
If we compare the picture of discipleship in the Gospels with what is said above about those who fall away, we see that the author of Hebrews has gone astray. All the main disciples of Jesus, including Peter, betrayed him at his crucifixion, and one of the meanings of his death and resurrection is that they are forgiven. “Falling away” can be forgiven. The author says they can’t be made to repent, but although this may reflect his experience, it is far too sweeping a generalisation. The church community should always be ready to encourage backsliders and to welcome them again into fellowship.
Still, the warning to those who fall away, is stark and clear: you are risking your eternal soul. Not many of the Church of Scotland members who never worship have considered it.
Perhaps all this seems far from the experience of those who have never belonged to a church yet think of themselves as believers. The witness of the Bible is that the faith community is not an optional extra to faith, but part of its essential discipline. It is the place where believers can grow in faith and take responsibility for making that faith available to others. The “bother of belonging” is a necessary component of discipleship.