This coming Sunday's readings have really captured my attention. I spent time yesterday with the rich young ruler. I think now that today I will take some time with the passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews.
This passage, in the Revised Common Lectionary it is Hebrews 4:12-16, is one that is truly familiar to most Prayer Book Episcopalians. It is at least for those whose church makes it a common practice to use the Penitential Order during Lent or Advent. In that entrance rite, the minister stands before the people and offers a word of scripture after the congregation recites the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). The first in the 1979 BCP is the popularly noted "Jesus' Summary of the Law." It's all about love. The second is referential of both our sinful nature...and our tendency to deny it and deceive ourselves with that denial. The third passage is perhaps the anomalous one. Referencing Jesus as our great high priest, the passage (Heb. 4: 14,16) implies that our penitential action of seeking to draw near the throne of God will be facilitated by Jesus' mercy.
And yet, just a couple of lines earlier, the word (and, perhaps, the Word-Jesus) is being likened to a two-edged sword that divides-really, eviscerates, the various component parts of what makes us human. Spirit is divided from soul; joints from marrow. Hardly a pastoral, comforting statement.
Still, I read this passage with some interest. That sword is a powerful and frightening image. It has a lot to teach us. The writer of the Epistle chose image and noted its effect with intention, of that I am sure. First and foremost is the need to parse the meaning and import of the sword imagery. Then, perhaps, I can find some meaning for us, those who dread that sword and perhaps even recoil that Jesus-our great high priest-should also be likened to a presumptive tool of violence.
What of that sword? The sword was a powerful symbol in the ancient world-even more so than today. For the Roman Empire, its military might was founded on the short sword and spear of the legion's infantry. That sword quite literally conquered the known world. It was a sharp, double-edged blade designed for close-quarters combat. Most of the common citizenry of each occupied province allowed that the primary coercive control of the Roman military was established at its point. Work against the interests of the Empire, and you were more than likely to experience its efficiency. And that is just what it is, and efficient weapon, a tool of violence that does one thing extremely well...make a wound, and make it worse.
That sword of Empire is one that heralds oppression with a signature of violence. It is the direct corrolary of what the Epistler is noting when likening the word of God to a sword that penetrates and separates...but there is a difference. God's word/sword is an instrument not of oppression and domination but of judgement. It, in that space made between spirit and soul, between joint and marrow, lays open to scrutiny all that is within us. Every secret place where "that which is not of God" rests is opened to the the Divine Presence. Not only are actions to be judged by God, but also our thoughts and intentions. It isn't just what we do, but what we think and mean/intend that matters to God.
I don't think this is in any way reassuring. In fact, if there is an ethical bone in you then you, like me, are facing the prospect of being laid open in that way with more than a little dread. Try outright panic. I am not ready to look at all that goop inside me, let along have God lay me wide open for all creation to see!
Still, that is the tone of submission to grace that is being sounded in this Sunday's readings. Like the rich young ruler who just can't quite take that last step in devotion because it means giving up what he possesses, we also face a loving God who wants us-ALL of who and what we are-as God's own, forever.
That is why those "comfortable" words are tendered during the Penitential Order. In the midst of colliding with that sword, we are also asked to remember/understand that Jesus-that great high priest who continually and eternally makes intercession before us at the throne of grace-is truly on our side. We just need to be willing to be opened up by, and to open up to, God. On God's time, and according to God's agenda.
That is not an easy thing to embrace...and I testify to you that I face the deep challenge of giving up my innermost bits to God daily, and have seen my congregants hit, sometimes balk, and struggle with that moment of being invited to true transparency as they live their lives before God. Because, in the end, that sword does one thing extremely well...it cuts us off from our ability to continue to deny, avoid and betray the commandment to live life to the full, loving God with all that we are...and to love our neighbors as ourselves.