24For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I learned this week that the word hapax, a Hebrew version the word “once for all” used in this passage, was a central decoration on the altar at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s underground seminary in Germany, where he and other members of the Christian resistance to Nazism trained and worshipped together. Nichola Torbett, who wrote a sermon commentary I read this week, says that this word, hapax, “once for all”, was a reminder to these Christians who were part of the underground Christian resistance to Nazism “that Christ’s sacrifice was all-encompassing and final. No longer would one life be given for the well-being of many. The word was meant as a stark condemnation of the mass murder of Jews underway in Nazi Germany.” (Nichola Torbett, Liturgy that Matters – November 7th, 2021 – Hebrews 9:24-28, “Enfleshed: Spiritual Nourishment for Collective Liberation.”) Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself,” and to these Christian resisters, it meant that no one should be sacrificed at the altar of human brokenness ever again.
When we don’t go back to this grounding idea of our faith, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have set us free once for all, we end up sacrificing each other, and indeed, our own selves again and again to try and relieve what’s wrong in this world. We sacrifice people in poverty that we have deemed “undeserving” by screening them out of life-giving support services, a way to assure ourselves that we will remain safe if we follow the rules of our “profit over people” society. We sacrifice so many people to a system of mass incarceration, outsourcing the work of being community to prisons and the police rather than tending to the root causes of harm alongside our neighbors. We sacrifice ourselves with the inner self-talk of shame from our past because we are terrified to live as forgiven people, with diets in the hopes that shrinking our bodies will make us more beloved, with endless activities filling up our schedules in an effort to earn God’s approval.
But the good news is that this text is calling us back to what is most true about us – that Christ has once and for all abolished systems of punishment, which God never had in mind for us in the first place. In the verses leading up to today’s passage, the writer reminds us that the blood used in temple sacrifices was “the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you” (v. 20). The shedding of this blood was never about God requiring bloodshed and suffering to appease God’s anger. The blood was a sign of a covenant that God had already ordained for us, a visible reminder that God would never stop coming after us with love and grace. Blood was not required to ward off God’s wrath. It was a sign to remind us that God had already established a covenant where She would never stop pursuing us in relationship.
As theologian Katherine Shaner puts it, we learn in this text that Christ has lifted “conditions and systems of sin as a mercy against relentless, repeated suffering.” (Katherine A. Shaner, “Commentary on Hebrews 9:24-28.”) Jesus died not to appease God’s anger towards humanity, but because he refused to back down when an oppressive Roman empire insisted on their way of profit over people, of controlling the poor to benefit the rich. In the face of this empire, Jesus lived as one who embodied the antithesis of the empire’s logic, healing people with no screening process to turn them away, setting a table where everyone could feast without proving Roman citizenship, without filling out forms to show they were a “deserving poor person.” In Christ, every single part of God’s creation, including us, is irrevocably beloved with worth that cannot be taken away, and Jesus was the full embodiment of this reality. This is what it means to seek Christ’s way, as we say every Sunday. It means giving up the framework of punishing ourselves and punishing others, because we remember that God has never reached out to us to punish but to save, to make whole, to make new. We can resist the punishing logic of the empire just like Jesus did, and live instead as a new community where the doors are always open, embodying the reality that we belong to God hapax, once and for all.
I’ve never seen a picture of this more clearly lived out than in the One Parish, One Prisoner program (called OPOP short) through Underground Ministries, a new partner of Hagar’s Community Church that gives congregations just like ours the ability to walk in solidarity with a friend who has been recently incarcerated. Just as a shout out, our own church is exploring becoming an OPOP church and to do so, we need more people to join the team, so if you feel inspired today, a calling on your heart to get involved, contact Merle Gillespie (put your email in the chat, Merle!) to join the OPOP team here at LPC. Just this week, Alvin, the coordinator of the OPOP program, shared a story about a woman named Hannah. Hannah wrote a message to Alvin when she was beginning the OPOP program while she is still incarcerated, and in her words, you can almost hear the ways that systems of punishment and shame have shaped the way she thinks about herself and her future: “ I am grateful for all the work you’ve done,” Hannah wrote, “and feel honored to be chosen. I am, however, having a hard time managing my feelings right now. I have spent the last 15 years trying to accept the fact that I could ever hope to be loved and accepted by the people of my hometown. I can identify with ‘despised and rejected’, I don’t know how to handle acceptance and community after being exiled and shunned for so long. My fear is so great tonight that I want to quit. I still think the One Parish One Prisoner team will break my heart and I am just not up for that. I am trying to calm myself enough to go to sleep. I had to let you know that I really need some prayer if I am to go any further. This may be harder than living under a bridge. I have disappointed so many people already. The shame is too much for me. Thanks for hearing me out. Big hugs, Hannah.”
But at the same time Hannah was expressing her anxieties, a new story was coming to life. Alvin writes about a Kickoff Orientation event for the OPOP program, where members of the church family that has been paired to walk alongside Hannah in re-entry were gathering for the first time. Alvin says, “[Hannah] wasn’t there to hear the stories—that her team knew her from before, from pre-pandemic inter-church worship at the women’s facility. That some team members remember the news of her crime, big local news, and that they always wondered about her—what had her family life been like before? What happened to her after that horrifying incident? She wasn’t there to hear one team member’s confession: that his son had been incarcerated and [died by suicide] while in prison. He didn’t have the capacity or outlet to share that burden or process those messy feelings. He spent a long, long time blaming himself and never told anybody. Seven people at a local church, on day one of their One Parish One Prisoner journey, before writing the first letter to their incarcerated friend, were weeping around the table—together. Secrets were out, lived experiences shared and honored, and the journey began. Hannah didn’t get to hear how much her team already loved her. She’ll have to learn how to receive that love through the letters they write—for now.”
Hannah and this team are everyday people risking themselves with vulnerability to resist systems of punishment that have tried to mark all of them for the empire. Hannah and this team are the resistance. They are trying something new: standing against the empire’s insistence on punishing themselves and others, and creating a new community to embody the reality that once and for all, every single person is loved beyond measure. The power of punishing shame is being broken. Tears of relief and healing are being shed. Communities of radical welcome are being prepared to walk in Christ’s way where hapax, once for all, we are beloved by God.
What would it look like for us to be a community of people who embody this reality that there is nothing more to be done to earn our worthiness or belovedness? Let’s dream about that and experiment together, Longview Presbyterian Church. And when Christ returns, may we join him in the work of salvation and wholeness, as those who have eagerly waited for him. Amen.