Date: October 31, 2021
Festival: Reformation Day
Text: Hebrews 9:11-22
Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI and Christ the King Lutheran Chapel
Let us pray: “God of power and mercy, only with your help can we offer you fitting service and praise. May we live the faith we profess and trust your promise of eternal life. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, [now] and [forever]. Amen” (For All the Saints, 1084).
As one pastor has put it, if we could describe the theme of Hebrews with a single word, it would be “better.” Jesus is better than the angels, He is better than Moses, He has a better covenant, He’s a better high priest, He’s a better sacrifice, He gives better promises, He gives a better inheritance, and so on. Today, we have three of these: Jesus is a better high priest, He has a better covenant, and He gives us a better inheritance. The Book of Hebrews can be characterised with other themes, but this is the one I’d like us to ponder today.
But first, in the same vein, we can use multiple themes to describe the Lutheran Reformation as well, which we celebrate today. We have described it with themes like justification by faith, the freedom of the Gospel, and Luther’s famous quote, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Today, I would like to suggest another theme to the Lutheran Reformation—one that matches Hebrews: in all things and in every way, Christ is the better way.
Luther is rightly credited with discovering this better way, not that the Gospel was missing or didn’t exist before 1517, but rather that the Gospel was entirely forgotten. In the Catholic Church, there was no reliance on Christ but rather a reliance on your works. This is what Luther sought to reform within the church. I’m not going to retell all of Luther’s history here, but his conscience as an Augustinian monk was undergoing what he would later call Anfechtung, which is a German word that roughly translates to some sort of spiritual affliction.
This spiritual affliction is circular, which every Christian experiences. You undergo temptation, or suffering, which draws you to prayer, which then draws you to meditation on the Word, and then the cycle repeats. Luther was going through this cycle numerous times at an excessive rate and his temptation or suffering always seemed to be his default position. His conscience weighed so heavily on him that he not only practiced extreme forms of self-discipline like self-flagellation but also literally spent hours confessing his sins to his priest. After confession, he would often find himself returning to his priest soon afterward because he would suddenly remember some sins he had failed to confess.
You see, it was the teaching of the Catholic Church that the sinner needs to be able to confess every sin to be properly forgiven. This became problematic because who can remember all their sins? No one, of course. In fact, this is partly why the Catholic Church emphasised their false teaching of Purgatory—because no one can remember and confess all their sins, you must serve time (that is, suffer) in Purgatory for decades or centuries or even thousands or millions of years until you’re finally purified to enter heaven. It’s basically Hinduism’s karma with extra steps. But don’t fret; if you have money, you can lessen this time in Purgatory by purchasing various certificates called indulgences. Again, this is what Luther sought to reform. If no one can remember all their sins, who then can be saved? Who can truly be made pure? Insofar as this depends on you, as Luther came to realise, no one.
So, as he was going through this cycle of Anfechtung of returning to prayer and the Word over and over again, he suddenly found a better way—a much better way than trying to acquire salvation yourself through monastic works and confessing every sin you can’t remember. That better way was Christ. And it wasn’t some deep catharsis in his mind that led him toward this liberating realisation. Rather, it was the Word of God that revealed it to him. Romans 1:16-17 is often described as Luther’s “Aha!” moment, which reads, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the better way to salvation. Not good works, not monasticism, not Purgatory, not the Pope, but Christ alone, hence one of the five solas of the Reformation: Solus Christus.
In fact, the author of Hebrews highlights this for us in a specific way. Verse 11 begins with saying that Christ is the “high priest of the good things that have come.” What are these good things? Well, as High Priest, what does Christ bring? As we will see, as High Priest He brings a better sacrifice, covenant, and inheritance. As High Priest, Christ enters “the greater and more perfect tent,” which is the temple that is much better than the Old Testament temple. Just as the high priests in the Old Testament entered the temple to offer a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins for Israel, so Jesus the better High Priest enters a better temple and offers a better sacrifice—not the blood of heifers and goats and bulls, but His own blood, the very blood of God.
The author of Hebrews also notes that the high priests of Israel first had to sacrifice goats and calves before they entered the Holy of Holies, but Christ is better in that He offers His own blood to enter to the Holy of Holies—not that of the temple made with human hands but that which is not handmade, meaning the Holy of Holies in God’s domain. So, by means of His own blood, Jesus enters the very presence of God. And here is how this sacrifice is better than those of the Old Testament: the various animals sacrificed offered life only for a limited time, but Christ’s blood is better not only in that it “purifies our conscience” but also gives an “eternal inheritance.” The sacrifices of bulls, goats, and so forth were temporary; Christ’s sacrifice is forever. Therefore, to suggest that Christians need to somehow pay for their unconfessed sins in the imaginary placed called Purgatory is to suggest that Christ’s blood was not enough to purify and redeem you. You can see why Luther had such a huge problem with Purgatory, indulgences, and acquiring perfect righteousness by means of your good works.
Like Luther, Hebrews teaches Christ alone. It tells us not only what Christ accomplished in His death, which is the promise of an eternal inheritance; it also tells us what He does for you right now and will continue to do. Christ has “purified your conscience,” Hebrews says. Purgatory won’t do this; Christ has already done this. Good works cannot do this; the perfect obedience of Christ has done this. That Christ has purified your conscience means He has redeemed you “from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” In other words, let your conscience no longer bother you!
Let me ask you this: What are your sins? What sins are on your mind today? What sins typically haunt you each day throughout the week? What sins weigh heavy on your conscience? You know what they are, and it doesn’t matter that you can’t list them all. Christ has Good News for you: by His blood He has redeemed you from those transgressions you’ve committed and even continue to commit! We no longer need to keep offering bulls and goats as sacrifices because, as Hebrews will say in the next chapter, Christ’s sacrifice has sanctified you—has made you holy—”once for all” [10:10]. This means His sacrifice for you on the cross was more than enough to cover your sins for all of time, even those sins that weigh heavy on your conscience! There is no need for Purgatory or indulgences when, as Christ said on the cross, His work of salvation is finished.
And yet, even though His sacrifice on the cross was more than enough, still Christ has instituted a superfluous means to deliver forgiveness to you—the mysterious means of giving you His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. When your conscience burdens you, you can look to the cross and remember Christ’s sacrifice whose blood covers your sins. You can also approach the Lord’s Table where He delivers His body and blood to you corporeally, so that you can taste and see that the Lord is good—that you can taste with your own lips how sweet is the Lord’s forgiveness by the all-availing sacrifice of His blood.
It is no accident, then, that this reading from Hebrews is placed between Deuteronomy 6 and Mark 12:28 in our three-year lectionary. The Old Testament and Gospel readings both acknowledge God as the only God, and they exhort us to listen to Him above all things and to love Him above all gods. This, Jesus says, is the first and greatest commandment. However, perfectly devoting your entire self to God is not possible unless, Hebrews tells us, the blood of Jesus has cleansed your conscience from all impurity, which He did in His all-availing sacrifice on the cross.
This means that because Christ has purified your conscience by His blood, you are now free to love and serve God by serving your neighbour (the second great commandment) with a clean conscience. In other words, you are free to love and serve God with a clean conscience even when you fail because Christ has redeemed you with His blood, once and for all of time. Yet because our conscience can be our worst enemy at times, Christ has instituted the Eucharist to deliver this assurance to you so that you might literally ingest it.
This is why our worship today is so different than the worship of the Old Testament. In ancient Israel, God’s people could not enter God’s presence; only the high priest was ordained to enter the Lord’s presence, but even then, only after sacrificing some sort of animal to cover his own impurity. But today, because you have a better sacrifice—the very blood of Christ—you safely enter God’s presence during the Divine Service, and this you do with a pure conscience because Christ’s blood covers your impurity forever. Although you may be feeling the debilitating effects of some sin, still you approach God today with a clean conscience knowing Christ has redeemed you, which He will deliver to you shortly here at the Sacrament of the Altar. Because of what Jesus did in His sacrifice, you can approach God confidently today not with the fear of death but with the joy and certainty of the inheritance of eternal life.
This is granted to you not through good works or the perfect confession of sins or some precarious time in a made-up place called Purgatory, but through Christ our “mediator of a new covenant.” This is a legal term. As your mediator, Jesus is like your attorney acting on your behalf and in your best interest before God. Yet, as you might’ve guessed, He is a better attorney—a better mediator. When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, He will mediate on your behalf, saying, “My blood covers his or her sins. They’re innocent. They’ve committed no crime or sin.” Christ says these same words to you when your conscience weighs heavy on you because of sin. He says, “My blood covers your sins. Therefore, come to Me with a clear conscience, and go out from Me with a clear conscience, because I have redeemed you and purified you with My blood.” Or to summarise with His words when He rose from the dead, “Peace be with you. Be not afraid.” Jesus is so much better than anything we can imagine.
Like Moses, Jesus inaugurates a new covenant and mediates between God and His people. Yet unlike Moses, Jesus’ covenant and mediation are better because He is risen and ascended, and you will receive this covenant at the Lord’s Table. Moses mediated for a temporary period; Jesus mediates for you right now and into all eternity. Moses redeemed God’s people from earthly oppressors; Christ has redeemed you from the devil and from your transgressions against God’s Law, or “first covenant.” Breaking any part of God’s Law required that somebody pay for it with blood; that’s why God instituted the sacrificial system in the Book of the Law. These animals died in Israel’s place; but the blood of these animals was never enough, which is why they were sacrificed continually. But now, better blood has been paid—Christ died in your place. The better blood of Christ—the very blood of God—covers all your sins. Your inheritance of eternal life depends not on works of humility, or a perfect confession of sins, or some ordinary man called the Pope, or millions of years of being purified in Purgatory because the blood of Christ has already purified and redeemed you, that is, paid the debt in full.
This is what Luther came to realise one day as a monk in the Augustinian monastery. His conscience was not pure. He was constantly haunted by his sins and the perfect righteousness that the Law requires, which caused him not only to doubt his salvation but even to hate God, he once wrote. That is until, in his daily cycle of spiritual affliction, he came to realise through prayer and the revealed Word in the Scriptures that pure conscience Christ gives each of His dear Christians through the redemption of His blood. Therefore, on this 504th anniversary of the Reformation, let us imitate our patriarch Luther who, when his conscience weighed heavily on him, relied not on his monastic works or acquiring perfect righteousness or a way of becoming pure without Christ, but solely on the all-availing sacrifice of Christ who now mediates on your behalf with the evidence that His blood covers all your sins.
And so, when you depart from the Table in the Lord’s peace in just a few moments, go forth with a purified conscience knowing that there is a better way: Christ the High Priest whose blood has purified and redeemed you, having paid in full the price for your transgressions once and forevermore. Amen.
Schumacher, Frederick J., and Dorthy A Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume IV: The Season After Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1998.