Where does faith come from? Where does a sustaining faith come from? How do we know that we believe? How do we know that we have a faith that will hold us up when hard times come? When persecution comes?
Those are the questions that the author of Hebrews wants the dispirited, sluggish people to whom he addresses his message to answer. The truth was, that his hearers rarely asked those questions any more. They had grown weary with the faith. Captured by its promises on great spiritual highs, the reality of the daily living out of faith didn't sparkle for them as it once had. They were beginning to wonder if the faith actually did anything for them. If it was worth it after all. They were bored with worship and many had stopped coming altogether. The fabric of relationships within the body was thin and fraying. They didn't like each other much any more. The disagreements were increasingly testy and over increasingly trivial matters.
They had stopped growing in Christ and not only that, persecution was coming. While it had not reached the horrifying levels that we know were coming, there was an unease in the air that was beginning to take its toll. It was beginning to cost to be a Christian in some ways that had not been mentioned in those early heady days. Cost. It was in the wind. They could smell it coming. It stank and they were tired.
It was into this ever so contemporary, worn out, apathetic, discouraged situation that our author wrote. It feels very familiar, doesn't it? In Hebrews we have a beautiful and complex treatise intended to help them and us, meet Jesus again, understand him as our high priest... the one who brings God, God's love and God's power, God's intimate presence to us in a real and vibrant way.
Today's passage, part of a longer section in which the author is calling believers to maturity, gives us a glimpse of Jesus' character and our own as we grow in Christ and in our identity as the body of Christ today.
A part of what captures me in these verses is the connection that the author helps us make between obedience and suffering.
In suffering, he says, Jesus learned obedience. And in his suffering and out of it, he was made perfect, a word which meant complete, whole, finished, and became a well, a source of salvation and wholeness for all who would obey, follow him in that path.
Now, our author is not talking about the general suffering that comes as a result of accident or illness. Neither is he, of course, in relation to Jesus, talking about the kind of suffering we know all too often which comes as a result of sin and its long and drawn out consequences. He is talking about a kind of suffering that comes as a result of faithfulness. A suffering which is the inevitable result of the clash between the Gospel's truth and broken humanity's unexamined lies. Suffering that is inevitable when one moves through an unbelieving world captured by the will and values of God.
The obedience that he is speaking of is not the simple, which is really not so simple, trying to do what God says, or trying not to do what God says not to do. Obedience is a deeper and more durable concept than that. Obedience has to do with the transformation of the will such that all of life, every action, every choice, every relationship, every priority, every conversation, every work decision, everything reflects the will and values of God.
What our author is saying is that in suffering for faith, in suffering for being God's love in the world, in moving through an unbelieving world captured by love and paying the price for it, God's values became perfectly reflected in Jesus and resulted in both a way and a model for salvation. Paul in talking to Christians who were suffering for faith puts it another way in Romans 5: He says suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope.
The call is clear in many places in Scripture. Stand fast in the face of suffering, we don't have to embrace it, welcome it or look for it. But we are not to run from it. And as we stand fast we grow more in the image of Christ.
The truth of these words came alive to me several years ago, as they do so many times, as I witnessed their truth in the life of someone who was living them out.
Marita lived in Costa Rica and I met her in the mid 80's when I was visiting some of our Presbyterian mission projects in the area. She was a widow and a refugee from El Salvador. She was a small woman, mid 50's I'd guess then, although it was hard to tell. She was gray all over, her hair, her eyes, her skin. And she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She glowed. Her skin was like fine leather with a soft mesh of lines and the light behind the skin reminded me of what canvas might look like with a torch behind it.
She had lived most of her life in El Salvador in the same village. Her adult life she had lived in her own home with her husband and children. Her husband had been a labor organizer which at that time was difficult and dangerous work. She told our little group about the night that the soldiers came to her home and took her husband away. She and her young teenage daughter were raped and tied to trees in their front yard to bleed to death in the night. Her two sons were murdered in front of her while she watched on in helpless horror. Her daughter died in the night next to her.
The next morning neighbors came and found them in the trees and nursed Marita back to health. After a time she returned to her home. After she had been home only a few days she was wakened by a knock at the door before dawn. When she went to the door she found only a small cardboard box on the door step. In it was being returned to her a piece of her husband. Every day, for two or three weeks, I can't remember now what she said, the same thing happened. And every day she took the box and with her friends and her priest she buried it. She did not leave until the boxes stopped coming.
When she told us this story I was thunderstruck. I did not have any way to comprehend what she was saying. I thought surely there is a language problem. Surely I am not understanding. Surely the words cannot mean what I thought they meant.
Later when we were sharing lunch together in the little center where we were gathered I asked her how she could possibly have endured such an experience. I simply could not make her beautiful glowing effect and her horrendous pain fit together in my sheltered and pampered and young mind.
In answer to my question she said, "Of course at first I thought that I could not endure. The first few mornings that the boxes arrived I was sick with hurt and fear and I threw up beside my bed. But after a few days I found that I would wake before the knock and I would stand next to my bed and calmly wait. And when the knock came I would walk slowly to the door. It was the most amazing thing. As I walked it was as if I could feel Jesus' arms around me, cradling my head against his wounded side. And every morning as I made that little journey from my bed to the door, I prayed, "Thank you Lord Jesus, for allowing me to share your cross with you.'"
Mercifully, many of us are not asked to pay the kind of price that Marita and her family paid for living out our faith. Nevertheless, sisters and brothers, there is always a price to be paid. Make no mistake about it. When love in action meets fear in action, when we choose to make our faith in Jesus Christ our sole basis for decision making and ethics, when we choose to move through an unbelieving world claimed by the values of God, there is a price to pay. We know it and if we have not experienced it, the scriptures advise us at least to be prepared.
Maybe the price is a promotion or pay raise that we see slip through our fingers as we refuse to make the little compromises of integrity that are considered "just business" in our office. Maybe it is the loss of friends who don't feel comfortable around us any more because we said we would prefer they not make a racist joke in our home. Perhaps it is the lowering or simplifying of a standard of living that family and children don't understand so that we can honor God's call on our resources for mission or for the church. Perhaps it is a physical risk to safety when we choose to say no to the business as usual drug trade in our neighborhood. Perhaps it is much more tangible and fearful. Maybe all of these things seem small in comparison to the price Marita paid. But the truth of the matter is that we all know how to hurt. And we know how to stand debilitated and silenced in our fear of the hurt that might come as the cost of our actions.
However, it is not a cost we pay with no return. Marita grasped this in her precious prayer. Paul talks about it as character and hope; the letter to Hebrews talks about it as wholeness or perfection which leads to salvation. However we talk about that reality, what lies at the heart of it is a clear and present and powerful and startling grace, a clear and present and powerful and startling intimacy with God that is born as we cling to God's values and bears us up as we face the consequences.
Please do not misunderstand me. God does not want us to suffer. God does not will persecution and pain for God's people. It is not something that happens for our own good, in order to purge us for and earn us a place in God's kingdom. But it does accompany courageous faith. And in the power and the plan of a loving God, even our pain is already redeemed and being made right.