In beautiful poetic language, Jesus’ work for us is depicted as a replacement ministry for the temple in Jerusalem, with its ongoing priestly offerings, prayers, and sacrifices. We are told the ultimate high priest has ascended the hill and steps into the ultimate temple, by entering the holy of holy of heavens. His work opens the door for us to come directly to God without a thousand fancy rituals and ceremonies, and know need of love offerings whether of cash or animals let alone any shedding of blood in sacrifice.
To me the heart of what is being said in this passage is not (as is often said in Christian circles) either that Judaism is obsolete being replaced by our superior system of religion called Christianity. That claim disrespects Jewish people and has led to so much racism and xenophobic violence and discrimination against Jewish people over the years. It sets up God to be unfaithful to God’s promise to keep covenant with the Jewish people, a promise we can see being kept in all the Jewish heroes of faith after the arrival of the Christian faith who have been true voices of hope, of challenge, calling people to renewed lives of justice, compassion, & intimacy with God. I cannot but think of people like Abraham Heschel, like Elie Wiesel, and of my recently departed dear friend Rabbi Jernigan all who lived lives focused on the ideal of tikkun olam, repairing the world. It is possible to understand the work of Jesus in a more inclusive way, where God does not replace the Jewish people but expands the covenant so other people outside Judaism, like myself, can find faith and a transformed life through Christ. We need not have the either/or approach of either Jews or Christians are faithfully experiencing and serving God, with one replacing the other. We can affirm that God in Christ has welcomed all people everywhere to faith while also continuing to affirm that God continues to work outside the Christian faith in people of faith who are Jewish, as well as people of faith & good will in other systems of belief & practice.
I also think that the point of this message in Hebrews is not (as is also often said in Christian circles) that God was angry and blood-thirsty like some vampire god in an Anne Rice book, needing the spilling of human blood for us to lay aside God’s anger at our failings so we can be reconciled, and this is why Jesus died. Too often this simplistic picture is how Christians talk about Jesus being the fulfillment for Christians of the imagery of temple sacrifice. The fact that this passage focuses on Jesus’ ongoing life, after resurrection from death and ascension to heaven, as one who is like a high priest for us shows that an over-emphasis on the need for shed blood misses the point of the metaphor.
The point is that by sharing in our humanity God in Christ has ushered a new path toward relating to God. The early Christian fathers & mothers talked about how what God becomes, God heals, so that all of our lives can become holy and presentable to God. By becoming one of us, Jesus reveals in his life a way of relating to God in which complicated rituals are no longer needed. Early Christian writers said God became a son of humanity, so that human beings might become daughters and sons of God.
The thing about being daughters or sons of a parent is you don’t have to in a healthy family jump through a million hoops to connect with your parents. You don’t have to bow 20 times, and recite fifty prayers, or give a fancy gift, let alone shed anyone’s blood, to feel your mom or dad’s embrace. You simply have to lift your hands up to them, calling out “momma”, “daddy”, and before you know it, you are scooped and embraced in their arms, sat in their lap.
In Jesus we discover we can know ourselves as ones who are God’s children, God’s beloved, those ones in whom God is well pleased simply for being God’s very own children regardless of what we do or do not do.
This way of relating to God out of pure love and grace is what Jesus makes possible.
And that work of paving a way for us to discover a life as God’s children, a life of intimacy with God, love for others, and of living compassion and justice did not end at the cross or the empty tomb. This is what the odd and startling image of the ascension of Jesus at the end of Luke and beginning of Acts is about. Jesus continues to go ahead of us, paving a way to show us how to live out lives of true humanity. Though the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives, we can sense the path being laid before us and often the paths, for sometimes it is not just one way can embark on to live out the fullness of who we are made to be.
For me this is a great encouragement. So often I don’t know where to turn or what decision to make. This image of Christ continuing to pave a way ahead for me as older brother and great high priest is a reminder that I am never alone and even in those moments that Jesus will not tell me which path is the right one for me, leaving to me to choose which of the possible ways of living into my best self I want, Jesus is right beside me, helping along that journey, and helping me find the path again when I wonder off.
And the same is true for you. We are never alone, always walking arm and arm in our living, loving Savior.