“He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Yesterday, the government of Singapore hosted a historic meeting between Xi Jinping, the president of Mainland China and Ma Ying-jeo, the president of Taiwan. Technically, China and Taiwan are still engaged in a civil war, and it was the first meeting between the leaders of the countries in sixty years. Many people are hoping for reconciliation. China and Taiwan share a common language, history and culture. Both are important economic powers, and there would be advantages in trade and security cooperation.
But with a bloody war and decades of hostile rhetoric behind them, it’s almost impossible for the leaders to know how to speak with each other. They agreed not to call one another president, because that would suggest that both lead legitimate governments. No flags can be displayed. Neither president has the freedom to promise another meeting or to make substantial proposals for common action. The words they do use must be chosen with extreme delicacy, because anything either leader says could call up old associations and deeply offend the other, perhaps touching off internal scandals that would only make things worse. In its impotency, its nervous gesturing, what it most reveals is just how far off the goal of normalized relations really lies.
I doubt that any of us has juggled a conversation quite as stressful and momentous as the one that took place yesterday in the Singapore hotel. But I’d bet that most of us have been in something like it: a negotiation session at work, family court, a chance meeting with someone who was a dear friend before that horrid betrayal that leaves you both unable to look each other in the eye. You try to find the words that couldn’t possibly offend, and to come up empty. You stretch your arms across the void trying to grasp some point of connection, but find no hold. You’ve seen things move in slow motion towards that inevitable point of destruction. It’s deeply frustrating, and we long for a different way, an alternative to the futility of reopening fresh wounds, of hurting one another all over again.
One of the basic assumptions of Christian theology is that this is exactly how it is for us in our life with God. There is a great gulf fixed between God and us, the gaping wound of our sin. There are signs of promise in the long history of our dealings with Him, but over and over again, we have failed God, and the story of the covenant is, on the whole, a tale of repeated wounding. We can feel deep within us that desire to reach across the great divide. We would be better people, pure in our thoughts, consistent in our actions. We would live together in justice and peace as God desires. We would sit still long enough to hear His voice and then rise to gladly do His will. Our common life would be marked by ready cooperation and joyful worship. But every time, we come up short. “The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all,” says the Psalmist, “to see if there is any who is wise, if there is one who seeks after God. Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”
We would hope that there could be just one exception, one truly pure saint, one perfectly sublime act of worship, one project that was so well planned and so carefully executed that it would open the heavens and pour out the long-desired favor of God.
There is a candidate for this in the religion of the Old Covenant, one high-level, carefully orchestrated meeting between the hostile powers, God and humanity. It’s called the Day of Atonement, the Yom Kippur, the holiest day of Jewish religious calendar. All the people would fast and confess their sins. They would crowd around the temple. The high priest would purify himself and dress in pure linen garments that symbolized the holiest of intentions. He would offer the purest and costliest of sacrifices, which God had set apart as the chief way to open the gates of His mercy. Under cover of thick clouds of incense, the high priest would enter through the curtain, four inches thick, into the highest place, the Holiest of Holies, treading on ground touched just once in the year. He would take the blood of the sacrifice and place it on the mercy seat, the center of the shrine of the Covenant. It was a beautiful moment, and our Epistle writer is sure that no other ceremony in whole history of human religious aspiration that is higher, nobler and more endowed with potential for stretching across the void to the God who would receive us so willingly if only we could we could reach Him.
And yet, it fails. The failure of the Day of Atonement is a major theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Today’s lesson mentions just a few of the failures. It must be conducted, the author notes, in a place that is only a distant copy of the true throne room of God. The author doesn’t say it, but the temple is also tainted by a long history of infidelity and greed, as Jesus shows in his passing remarks about the Pharisees’ gifts in today’s Gospel lesson. The high priest also must offer the blood of another. Blood, in the symbolism of the covenant, represents life, life given over in true devotion. The high priest offers the life of an animal because it is impossible for him to offer and be offered at the same time. And he must do it again and again. The Day of Atonement cannot ever be postponed because this year the people have quit sinning. Even the high priest can’t quit sinning. He must always sacrifice two beasts, one for the people, and one for himself, because since last year, he also has fallen away from God’s intention. Even at its best, the author judges, human religion is filled with artificiality, hypocrisy, and impotence.
Until the coming of Christ. For there was one righteous man, One sent into the world who knew the Father fully and was wholly obedient to His will. There was 0ne among us who rose up every day and ran the path before Him without stumbling, “who was tempted in every way as we are, and yet did not sin.” To fulfill the Father’s plan, Jesus mounted the Altar himself, the wood of the Cross. And there, he was both priest and sacrifice. He was completely devoted. He was the pure victim. And His blood, the symbol of His life, was poured not for His own sake, but for the forgiveness of the sins of the world.
When that hour drew near, and the sky turned black because the whole frame of the world wept at such a sight, remember what happened. ‘It is finished,” He said. And the veil of the temple, that thick curtain that sealed off the holy place, it was torn in two from top to bottom. It was at the ninth hour, one of the Gospel writers remembered. That’s the time of sacrifice, the little daily reminder of the great Day of Atonement. “It is finished,” He said. The void has been bridged, humanity is reconciled to God. All human religion has been judged and found wanting. He has offered the one sacrifice that really matters, what the traditional Anglican Eucharistic prayers call the “one oblation of himself once offered,” “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” He appeared once for all, our Epistle proclaims, to remove sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And when He had risen up and ascended into heaven, to appear before His Father in glory, He carried the tokens of His sacrifice into the true holy place. There He sat down to reign until He returns in glory to redeem us, who wait for Him.
What that means for us is that we don’t have to save the world, because He has already done it for us. It doesn’t all depend on us: to build the perfect congregation, to nurture the perfect family, to offer flawless worship, to solve the deep and intractable problems of the world. All our best efforts will always come up short. They will always be a bit hypocritical and impotent. But this is fully within God’s plan. Because the most profound thing we will ever experience, His life-giving mercy of God, doesn’t come from something we do. It flows from that which was done for us: once for all, on the Cross two thousand years ago.
We are not responsible for carrying the burden of this world’s ancient sorrows. If Jesus has sat down on the throne of glory, then we don’t always have to be busy either. If He can wait patiently until the promised day of glory, we can be a bit more patient with ourselves and with those other imperfect people that God puts in our lives. The heart of true religion, the best news at the center of the Good News is that it doesn’t all depend on us. We are sinners but He is righteous. We have failed, but He has triumphed. By His Cross, he has set us free.