(Hebrews 13:1-3, 5, 15-16)
School is in full swing now, you may have heard. Kids all over the city, heading back to class. Tell me: when you were a kid, did your Mom or Dad have some regular phrase, some “final charge” they gave you as you walked out the door to school? Kids here today: is there something your mom or dad says to you?
My mom had one: Apply yourself. It’s what her dad used to say to her and her sisters every morning before school. Apply yourself. Papa was the principal, so he’d offer up his words of wisdom at some point between the parking lot and the school front doors. Apply yourself.
When my boys started school I felt compelled to do the same sort of thing but wanted to mix it up a bit. So mine was: Learn stuff. Learn stuff. I said that for years and years back when they were in elementary and middle school, dropping them off in the car line, offering it up in those fleeting seconds before the car door got shut. I don’t say it as much anymore – now that they’re both in high school and are heading out the door before 6:30 in the morning, I feel the need to say Stay awake!
There is something about the need, the inclination to give an exhortation, some words of wisdom in that moment before sending someone off. A child heading to school. A loved one embarking on a trip. Reaching the final paragraph of a lengthy email. What do you speak into that space? What do you lift up as the last thing for someone to remember?
More or less, that is what we find in our scripture today. This book of Hebrews is unlike anything else in our New Testament. It’s kind of like a letter, but not really. It bears some resemblance to a sermon, but it’s different from that. Whatever Hebrews is, it is certainly a theological masterpiece on what seminary-types callchristology– the study of Christ; more to the point, the way we understand Christ. Hebrews has this in spades – Christ as higher than the angels, Christ as the new high priest, Christ as a new Moses.
He’s sharing this christology and writing this letter to an audience we frankly don’t know much about, other than that they appear to be an already-established community of Christians who were undergoing some kind of hardship, some distress. So the writer wants to equip them for this with a high-level understanding of Jesus that would serve as a strong backbone during challenging times.
But even for all of his elaborate theological meanderings and this winding journey he takes the reader on, at the end of his sermon/letter, even he knows he has to land the plane in such a way that the people are given something to hang their hat on, something concrete as they live out their faith. Because higher understandings of Jesus mean precious little if we don’t know what to do with it.
And I get that. I was talking with some pastor friends last week about how we love thinking big picture and imagining possibilities and dreaming p new things. But at some point, rubber has to meet the road and we need to address the “so what” question – what does any of this mean? How does any of this affect my life?
That’s essentially what this 13th chapter is about – landing the proverbial plane. And the writer of Hebrews chooses to land that plane right in Philly. It’s true – right in Philadelphia. That is exactly what it says – what our Bible translates as “mutual love,” in Greek it is the word philadelphia. Might surprise you to learn that “philadelphia” is a Greek word. Might not surprise you to learn that in Greek the word means “brotherly love.”
So – the writer of Hebrews begins his 13th and final plane-landing chapter with Let brotherly love continue. I’d throw in “sisterly love” as well. Same thing: the love of siblings for each other, the love of people who know each other well – that’s the kind of love the writer of Hebrews lifts up. And we know that kind of love, don’t we? It’s a strong and steadfast love, a deep and lasting bond. But it’s a complicated love as well, as are all sibling relationships. I mean, the same person you’d eagerly prank is also the one you’d stand up for in a heartbeat. The same person whose hair you’d pull is also the one you’d readily give a consoling hug.
Here’s my classic brotherly love example: one of only two fights I got into as a kid was with this other kid who started picking on my younger brother on the school bus one day. And in no way, shape or form was I going to let anyone harass my little brother. This, despite the fact that earlier on that same bus trip, I had been picking on my brother myself! Literally, I was giving him grief for who knows what, just being a jerk to him like older brothers can be; and then this other kid chimes in and I wasn’t going to have any of that. Now does that make any sense? Of course not! Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: brotherly love!
Let sibling love continue. This is what the writer of Hebrews lifts up, this philadelphialove. He knows we won’t always agree with each other; he knows we’ll get on each other’s nerves. But he also knows that the ties that bind us are always stronger than anything that might tear us apart. He knows it is this love that lies at the very foundation of what it means to be church, what it means to be part of the body of Christ. More than an acquaintance that you see once a week sitting in the pew in front of you. More than a casual connection with someone in a Bible study or book club. The deep, deep bonds of brotherly/sisterly love – that is the stuff we in the church are made of.
So yes, let philadelphia love continue. But not just that love. There’s another kind of “philly” the writer of Hebrews lifts up. The Greek word is philoxenia, translated here as “hospitality:” – “Do not neglect to show hospitality.” If I’m honest, I’ve never been crazy about this translation; it makes me think of that room at conferences where they keep the fresh coffee and danishes.
No, I think a better and more accurate rendering is “love of the stranger” – technically, “love of the strange.” If philadelphia is love of the familiar, philoxeniais love of the unfamiliar. A reaching-out love, a stepping-outside-your-comfort-zone love, a strange love – the kind of love that just might have you, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “entertaining angels without knowing it.”
A man tells a story: Some years ago, I picked up a hitchhiker on the road (please note: picking up hitchhikers is in general not a good idea). I’m not sure why I pulled over. Perhaps it was his snaggletoothed grin or the way he happily waved as I passed. In any case, I found myself hitting the brakes and pulling over. I watched in the rearview mirror as he moved toward my car, hurriedly, despite a prominent limp.
He crawled in the seat beside me, shook my hand, and said, “Thank you for the ride, young man. My name’s Henry.” Henry was quite the talker, or perhaps he had just not had a chance to talk in a while and was having to catch up. He ended up telling me a lot of his life story and was interested in mine, not hesitating to ask questions that might be considered too personal coming from a stranger. He was retired and did not own a car. One of his children was in a hospital several hundred miles away, and he was trying to get there to see them. I told him I was going about half the way before I’d have to head in a different direction.
At one point, he began talking about a place he liked to eat near where I would leave him. Thinking he was going to ask for money, I was considering how much to give, when he pulled out the most ragged billfold I had ever seen. He searched through it and said, “I think I’ve got enough here for dinner for both of us.”
I laughed and said, “No, no, I can buy my own. In fact, I can buy yours if you’d like.”
“Nope,” he replied. “You’ve done enough already giving me a ride this far.”
We ate a little meal at a roadside diner where the waitress knew his name, and I left him there to continue his journey and my own.
Later this man would wonder if he had perhaps entertained one of God’s angels without knowing it. Which is, of course, entirely possible. What’s equally possible is that the stranger he gave a ride to might’ve wondered the same thing about him.
Now there are other exhortations the writer shares in his concluding 13th chapter: things like remembering those in prison and suffering, remaining pure in marriage, standing by your pastors (it’s really in there, people!), not getting greedy, worshipping God. And all are wise and sound advice and great and wonderful things to live by….
….but all of them, every last one of them, is rooted in some form or fashion in philadelphia and philoxenia love. The love must come first, that’s why they are mentioned first. Think about this: before churches do the kinds of things churches do, we are first and foremost called to love – love each other, and love theother. Ultimately, that is how Christ is made present to us. That’s how the proverbial plane gets landed. Love is, and always must be, the hard and necessary work of faith in the body of Christ that is the church.
I was thinking about something this past week: does it strike you, as it does me, how unique the church is among human organizations? Different from the neighborhoods we live in, the gyms we work out in, the civic groups we join. The church is one of a very few, if not only, opt-in organizations where people are connected to other people primarily through love. Love! It’s not that other groups don’t love each other, it’s that love is the main thing that brings us together, the common ground we all walk on. And sure, people come to church for ministries and programs, for the worship service and music and sermon. But if the love is not there, they won’t stay.
I think one of our elders put it to me best in a conversation we had over the summer: that what the church ought to be about, what Trinity needs to be about, is connecting people to God and each other, and connecting people to those different from them. Connecting to God and each other, and connecting to those different. What is that, if not philadelphiaand philoxenia? What is that, if not the very thing people are so in need of in our day and time; as the fissures in the public square grow to chasms, as rhetorical wounds cut deep, as we are conditioned to instinctively see differences instead of similarities, as we are led to think we can make it just fine on our own?
The church proclaims with loud voices and with action that what holds us together, what lands the plane, what gives life and meaning and hope for tomorrow is not the balance in our bank account or our party affiliation or our zip code or what team we root for or how many degrees we have hanging on the wall. What holds us together is nothing more and nothing less than love.
And granted, it’s not nearly as catchy or roll-off-your tongue easy as “apply yourself” or “learn stuff” or “stay awake.” But may we forever hear our daily charge as the church, our every-morning words of wisdom as we get out of bed and head out the door into whatever the new day might bring:
Philadelphia and philoxenia!
Love, y’all. What more could ever be needed than that?
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
Feasting On The Word, Year C Vol. 4, 16.