COME UP HIGHER, FRIEND
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON August 29th, 2010
Hebrews 13:1-2 “Let brotherly love continue, do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Hebrews 13:2 is generally considered to refer to Genesis 18 in the Old Testament. In Genesis 18 the great patriarch of the Hebrew people, Abraham, was sitting by the oak tree at Mamre, when he was approached by three angels. He did not realize who they were. In fact, scripture says that it was the Lord who appeared. So this incident is often referred to as the Old Testament Trinity – that in the guise of three angels we see God who created the world appearing personally. So it is the first manifestation of the Trinity.
There is a marvelous icon depicting this event that many of you may be familiar with. The three angels sit at the table prepared by Abraham.
This was a significant event in salvation history. For when they appeared Abraham was told that Sarah, his wife, would have a son. This was remarkable, because both Abraham and Sarah were very old. In fact, the scripture quaintly states, “It cease to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” In other words, she couldn’t have children anymore. So when she heard what the angel said to Abraham, that she was to conceive, she laughed. The Lord confronted her about laughing, and she said, “No, I didn’t laugh.” The Lord was not impressed, of course – one shouldn’t lie to the Lord!
The passage ends with this wonderful thing being told to Abraham: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” We know that nothing is too hard for the Lord. Indeed, Sarah went on to give birth to a son. So the Hebrew nation came into being, thus
fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham that through him the world would be blessed, that he would become a great nation, and that his descendants would be as many as the stars of heaven. These things seemed impossible to these two old people. But God’s promise was fulfilled, because, as the angel said, “Nothing is impossible to God.”
So in the context to of this epistle to the Hebrews those who would have read this they knew exactly what the writer was talking about – this wonderful appearance to Abraham thousands of years before. They would remember that the message was, “With God, nothing was impossible”.
Just as Mary learned from another angel, the Archangel Gabriel. When she questioned how she would become the mother of Christ, the angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”
My dear brothers and sisters, we are people that believe that nothing is impossible with God. This is a wonderful thing, but when we look at the rest of this passage today, we are left with some confusion.
It does not follow from Hebrews 13:2, with this recounting of Genesis 18. that we get some theology about Abraham and the chosen people, nor some teaching about the Trinity. All we have is some practical advice to those Hebrew Christians about Christian living and behavior. It’s almost a letdown.
We find the very same thing in today’s gospel, from Luke 14.
In the previous chapter, Luke 13, Jesus describes heaven as a great feast to which all were invited – a banquet. In Revelation it describes heaven as the marriage feast of the Lamb. So what do we get in Luke 14? No great theology or teaching about Heaven. Like Hebrews 13, it seems that Jesus is giving us some practical advice about behavior at a wedding feast or a banquet.
“Don’t take the place of honor,” he says. If you take the lowest place, you might hear the host say, “Come up higher, friend.” The second story in this same passage is also disappointing. Jesus says to the host who prepared this dinner: Don’t invite your neighbors, your relations, your friends, and especially don’t invite your rich neighbors to impress them – invite the poor, and the people you don’t want to know.
Actually, these two stories do continue the message from Luke 13 – and the message is quite clear.
Firstly, God’s embrace is wide and inclusive for everyone in the whole world. Everyone he created is invited to the feast of heaven.
Secondly, to join the feast, or gain admission, requires a commitment to Christ and the Christian way.
In fact, these are the out-workings of both the epistle and the gospel today.
So it’s a great joy that today we baptize two young members of our parish. For in fact, baptism is the door that opens the way to Christ. It begins a process of walking with Jesus that finally ends up with him saying, “Friend, come up higher. Come in to the feast.”
Baptism is the beginning of the process, which all of us go through for the rest of our lives, until we get to the door of the feast and the door is opened. But what does baptism actually do for us, apart from beginning something for us?
Baptism is one of the seven sacraments. It is the first of the sacraments, and therefore the primary sacrament. As a sacrament it conveys grace – grace which makes possible what Baptism promises.
Baptism promises us forgiveness of sin and eternal life with God forever in heaven. The grace of the sacrament makes that possible. By receiving the grace of baptism, we begin that journey, which leads to heaven and guarantees us forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t mean we stop sinning, of course.
In Baptism, grace is literally poured upon us through the water. This is so that we can walk with that grace in our daily lives. This is the meaning of being reborn.
You remember that Jesus had to explain about being reborn by water and the Spirit. We know that’s what happens – but it doesn’t seem quite obvious. That is what water symbolizes – birth into Christ.
Water also symbolizes washing. At baptism all our sins are forgiven. Although it doesn’t make us perfect – from that moment on, Jesus is our Lord and we belong to him. He is our savior and he’s the one who redeems us.
Therefore, when we sin we have our Advocate, as the scripture says. Not only do we have our Advocate, Jesus Christ – we have the right and the privilege as brothers and sisters of Jesus to turn to him in repentance. We in turn have our sins forgiven and we start again. For most of us, that’s a daily experience and process.
It seems to me, thinking about baptism, the difference between Christians and those who do not believe, is that we Christians know we are answerable to God. Those who don’t believe in God, obviously, would not feel answerable to him.
Not only do we know we must answer to God, we know he is loving and merciful. Thus, turning to God and acknowledging our sin is a wonderful experience. He is so loving and so embracing.
It all begins at baptism when we are made his sons and daughters and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. From then on we are set on the road to that great feast, which we will reach at the end of our life on this earth.
And at that moment Jesus says: “Friend, come up higher.”