Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
1 Keep loving each other like family. 2 Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. 3 Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place. 4 Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery. 5 Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you. 6 This is why we can confidently say,
The Lord is my helper,
and I won’t be afraid.
What can people do to me?
7 Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith as you consider the way their lives turned out. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!
15 So let’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through him, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name. 16 Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices. (CEB)
The final chapter of Hebrews might as well be labeled Discipleship 101. If we were to give the class a title, it might be: It All Starts with Love. In fact, in Greek, the word in the first sentence is (φιλαδελφία) philadelphia. You may have heard of it before. There’s a city in Pennsylvania that houses a broken bell that goes by that name. Rocky Balboa was from there, too, if you need a more recent cultural reference from the last five decades.
There was also an ancient city in the Decapolis called Philadelphia, which is now called Amman, Jordan. (I’ve been to that one. I’ve even eaten at the Hard Rock Café in that one. But I haven’t been to the one in Pennsylvania).
The word philadelphia is a compound word of philos, which means love or beloved, and adelphos, which means brother or a person viewed as a sibling. Philadelphia is brotherly love, familial love, love between people who know each other well.
Philadelphia defines a kind of love between people within a certain delineation, whether it’s within a family, close friendships, or a religious community. So, when the author of Hebrews tells us to keep loving each other like family, that word philadelphia is pointing to those within the church. We Christians are to love each other and commit ourselves to loving each other continually. Yes, there will be breakdowns and disagreements, arguments and divisions over certain issues, but those matters are not an excuse for us to let our love for each other falter or fail.
Our congregation members do a fairly good job of loving each other like family. There’s always room for improvement, but we do pretty well. We keep each other uplifted in prayer through an email prayer chain. We really like to get together to eat, whether it’s hosting a dinner for grieving families, enjoying one another’s fellowship at a pig roast, breakfasting together on Saturdays, breaking bread for a mission meal, a fish fry, a Wonderful Wednesday, or a Terrific Tuesday.
I think we could easily add a Fried Chicken Friday to that list. We even have a meal at a Sunday School seminar series. You all let Dr. Mike and me lecture to you because you get to eat. I think some of us would sit through anything as long as we got to eat.
But eating together is only one part of how we love each other like family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of church members giving other church members rides to the hospital or to doctor appointments. You write cards and letters to shut-ins. You visit people in the hospitals and nursing homes. You genuinely care about the people sitting around you in this room.
“Keep loving each other like family” (Hebrews 13:1 CEB).
I know I’ve already mentioned some Greek language stuff—and this sermon is just getting started—but I have a reason for doing so. In verse 2, there is one more Greek word that we need to examine. The Common English Bible translates the beginning of verse 2 as “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests.” The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”
The word in question is another one of those compound words, (φιλοξενίας) philoxenias. You already know that philos means love. Xenia, in Greek, is hospitality, and it’s derived from the word xenos, which is foreigner, alien, stranger. A love for hospitality—philoxenias—is what we are required to display on behalf of foreigners, strangers, and aliens—xenos. So, we’re told by the author of Hebrews that our mutual love—our love as family—must extend beyond our inner circle to those who are strangers, foreigners, and aliens. We’re reminded not to neglect a love for hospitality. This is a love that aims us outward, beyond our communal family.
By showing such love to foreigners, aliens, and strangers, we might well serve as host to God’s messengers without even realizing it. There are stories of such encounters throughout the Biblical narrative: Abraham in Genesis 18, Lot in Genesis 19, Gideon in Judges 6, Samson’s mother in Judges 13, and, if you have a Bible that includes the Apocrypha, you can read about the angels Tobit and Tobias encounter. Hospitality that is given without a hope or expectation of a return is faithful behavior, and we might not realize just who we’re extending our love of others to when we offer it.
When we host these incredible little kids at the nursery school, do we realize how beautiful the love and care our staff pours into those children really is? When we host kids at Thrive, do we fully grasp how profoundly our hospitality as a church is affecting them? Some of them come from situations that we, in our comfort, can scarcely imagine. Hospitality—and not mere hospitality, but a love for hospitality—philoxenias is exactly what Disciples of Jesus Christ are required to offer.
And, I almost hesitate to use the word required because when you, personally, see the results of these ministries in the lives of Mount Vernon children, it doesn’t feel like an obligation at all. A love of hospitality, itself, becomes a source of joy that fills and nourishes us as well as those whom we host.
The next verse, verse 3, shows us how far this love for showing hospitality must be willing to go. In today’s world, whenever something bad happens, we always hear about how “thoughts and prayers” are with those afflicted by the tragedy of the day. But the author of Hebrews lets us know that “thoughts and prayers” alone don’t cut the mustard. Instead, the writer is clear that we need to ask ourselves how we might meet the immediate, physical needs of those for whom we’re praying and thinking. For the author of Hebrews, it gets down to very flesh-and-blood stuff.
We’re told to remember prisoners as if we are in prison with them, and to remember those who are tortured as if we, ourselves, are being tortured. There is something co-carnational even syn-carnational about those who make up the body of Christ Jesus and those outside of it. (And yes, I just made those words up). Remember, being a Christian is about showing love for those inside and for those outside the Christian community. The implication is that, in all of humanity, we must see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. Each member of the body that makes up the whole human race is not only a brother or sister, but our very own flesh and blood. When they hurt, we hurt—whether we feel it directly or not. When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.
One question we might consider is how are Christians still failing to act not only as brothers and sisters but as one, singular, undivided body?
One thing that got me in recent headlines is how some big names on the Christian Right—leaders who call themselves Evangelicals, those who proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ—are all up in arms because the president has been using the Lord’s name in vain at campaign rallies. These same leaders didn’t say anything about the “Send her back!” chant at the rallies, and I’ve barely heard a word from these same leaders about the profound mistreatment of human beings on our southern border, or the resident aliens in our midst. But they sure got riled up because of what some of them described as the president’s blasphemy because he said a certain word.
And I’m not criticizing the President by mentioning this, I’m criticizing these leaders of the church.
When we care more about the illusion of propriety than we care about members of our human family whom we must view as our own flesh and blood… it takes a lot of theological blindness to do that. It takes a lot of theological blindness for a person to identify themselves as a follower of Jesus Christ and be fine with the violation and mass incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers on our border. It takes a lot of theological blindness to call oneself a Christian and be silent about the evils of white supremacy and racist ideology. It takes a lot of theological blindness to put country or politics ahead of any part of our human family.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to bring God’s kingdom, God’s dominion, God’s rule and reign. If that’s what we’re praying for—if that’s what we really desire—then we cannot, at the same time, support policies or ideologies that are antithetical to God’s values. We will find ourselves on the wrong side of judgment if we do.
Speaking of judgment, the author of Hebrews reminds us that even the most intimate parts of our lives are connected to the rule of love and the reign of God. Verse four turns to the subject of marriage and covenant within our communities. “Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery” (Hebrews 13:4 CEB). If we make a vow before God, we’d better keep it. After all, if we can’t honor our commitment to our own spouse whom we see every day, how can we honor our commitment to God whom we can’t see? How can we profess to love God if we cheat on our spouse and dishonor our marriage?
The love of money, too, is mentioned. Paul described the love of money as the root of all kinds of evil (c.f. 1 Timothy 6:10). When our love is attached to the wrong things—or to things instead of people—then we’re going to make decisions that benefit our acquisition of money over and against the right kind of care, love, and hospitality for other members of our human family.
We don’t need to put our love or our trust in money because, as Deuteronomy 31:6 states, God will never leave us or forsake us. We can sing with the Psalmist, “The LORD is for me—I won’t be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Psalm 118:6 CEB). We can and should put our confidence in the Lord and find satisfaction in God’s providence for us. That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to seek a better life for ourselves, but it does mean that money and wealth are not our end goals. Discipleship 101 teaches us that love is our end and our beginning.
And, as if the author of Hebrews knows that these words aren’t going to be pleasing to some people’s ears, he reminds us to remember our leaders and those who preach the word of God to us. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. This is not the place where I get to say my congregation, Hey, look at me! Listen to me! Look how great a Christian I am! I’m all too familiar with my own failings.
Nope. This is where I can only hope that my dedication to God’s realm, the way I love, and the way I live is somehow acceptable to God and a faithful example to the church I serve. Jesus Christ doesn’t change with time, nor do God’s values change. Jesus is the same now and will be the same always. Love matters. How we worship and praise God, matters.
Verses 15 and 16 connect our praise of God with our lips, and our worship of God in the way we love by doing good deeds. That has been a theme in the Scripture texts over the last several weeks. We cannot separate word from action. We can’t forget to love those inside the community, and we can’t forget to love those outside the community. The Lord is over every aspect of our lives. Family love, love for hospitality, faithfulness, contentment with what we have, humility to remember our leaders and learn from them: these are the lessons covered in Discipleship 101.
So, if you had to give yourself a grade today, what would it be?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay