Scripture: Hebrews 13:1-8; 15-16
Dwayne Johnson has become one of the most reliable box office draws in recent years. He has found success in a wide variety of movies and he is just as likely to be brawling on a moving semi in a Fast and the Furious sequel as he is belting out a song in an animated Disney movie. Despite finding huge success as an actor a lot of people still primarily know Johnson by his popular stage name: The Rock. While today he is a movie headliner, The Rock got his show business start in professional wrestling. However, things started out Rocky for the Rock. He was introduced by the then WWF in 1996 and he got a big push. The Rock was introduced as a face, or a good guy wrestler, and it did not start out well for him. Instead of cheering him, the fans would boo him. So this led The Rock to turning heel, or being a bad guy wrestler. He exceled as a heel. With each promo where he buried his rivals, his popularity grew. This led to situations where he was supposed to be the bad guy the fans were booing but instead they were cheering him on. This meant the only thing The Rock could do was turn face and be a good guy again. Before taking an extended absence from the ring, The Rock had an eight year career and during that time he made three heel turns and two face turns.
In the world of professional wrestling this is common. In order to keep the scripted storylines moving, wrestlers will regularly switch back and forth between being a face and a heel. The wrestlers will switch their personas regularly, but there will never be a mistake when it happens. When a wrestler turns heel, it is clear they have gone bad and they will likely draw huge boos from the crowd. Likewise, when a wrestler sees the light and turns face often a stadium will erupt cheering them on. I think one of the appeals of professional wrestling is that it is an over the top, exaggerated version of reality. Who the bad guys are and who the good guys are is incredibly clear, and when someone turns there is no mistaking it. This exaggerated version of reality is appealing because it is often not how the real world works.
A wrestling face or heel turn is over the top, but it is clear and unmistakable. The same is not true with real people. Likely many of us at some point or another have experienced a real world heel turn where the person we thought we could trust turned out not be trustworthy. The person we thought to be dependable did not come through. The person we believed to be honest ended up lacking integrity. Perhaps on the flips side some of us have been fortunate enough to experience a real world face turn, where the person who wronged you apologized, where the person who acted on pride, humbly makes amends, or an old rival with bad blood is willing to bury the hatchet. In all of the instances, the personal interactions are much more complicated than how it works in a wrestling ring.
The more uncomfortable reality is that there are times, in the eyes of others we are the ones who seemed to make a heel turn. There are times when we have not been at our best, when we have made the wrong decision, and when we have let others down. The reality is that there might be people still waiting for us to make a face turn, to swallow our pride and apologize, or to show by our actions we want to make things right. It is a reality of professional wrestling that the performers will switch back and forth between bad and good, but I think there is some truth to that as well for all of us. All of us are not as consistent as we know we would like to be. That is why this morning’s scripture can be such a great encouragement to us. It reminds us of the ideals we want to hold to and it gives us the standard we can strive for: Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever
As I mentioned last week, the author of Hebrews is not known. While biblical scholars have ruled it out now for several hundred years, there was a time in the middle ages when Hebrews was attributed to the apostle Paul. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is superficially Hebrews has a similar structure to one of Paul’s letters. The majority of Hebrews is spent developing a series of interconnected points mostly to address a specific issue. However, at the end there is a rapid fire set of concluding exhortations. This is found in several of Paul’s letters and it is found in Hebrews. This morning’s scripture comes from those concluding instructions, and like the writings of Paul tend to be in the concluding remarks, this morning’s scripture also focuses on very practical concerns for living righteously. In just these few verses we get several instructions. Listed in this scripture we are encouraged to practice hospitality, visit those in prison, honor marriage, not love money, be content, and praise God continually. And in the middle of all of these that we should do, we get the reminder that Jesus is constant. We get the reminder that Jesus does not change. We get the reminder that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The world we live in might change constantly, but Jesus is constant. We might struggle with being consistent but Jesus is reliable. We are removed from the writing of Hebrews by millennia, language, and a radically different context. However, I think the question that this morning’s scripture invites us to ask is the same question it invited the original audience to ask: How do we faithfully follow an unchanging savior in a constantly changing world?
I think this can be a challenging question to answer in practice because we can easily get a couple of things sideways. In the world of design whether it be architecture, graphics, software, or just about anything there are two important concepts: Form and function. Whatever is being designed, function defines what it is supposed to do, and form defines how it looks and works. It is often considered good design when form follows function, which is the shape of an object primarily relates to its intended function. I think to a degree this principle can be applied to how we live out faith personally and corporately. The function of our faith is to follow Jesus. The function of our faith is to live out the examples that Jesus gave for more fully loving God and neighbor. The function of our faith is to share the good news of Jesus Christ which does not change, the good news of forgiveness and salvation, with a world that desperately needs it. The form are the methods, practices, and strategies we use to live into that function. I think where we sometimes get sideways is that we end up emphasizing and valuing the form more than we do the function.
The function of our faith, to become like Jesus and share Jesus never changes, but we can confuse the form with the function and insist that the form, our faith practices and traditions never change as well. The eight most dangerous words in faith, the eight words that can stifle the Holy Spirit, and the eight words that can get in the way of a vibrant faith are “We have never done it that way before.” I understand the impulse. After all, what worked once should be able to work again. Plus, we do not want to change, we like doing things the way we do them. However, when our motivation is to avoid change because we do not want to change then we have confused form and function. The function of our faith does not change, but the way we implement and live faith out is not so set in stone. We should not try to hold onto the past so tightly that we only find ourselves looking back to what used to be and not forward to where God is at work in the world. Churches should not become museums to themselves. We should be faith communities that are willing to do whatever it takes to share the unchanging, saving grace of Christ with everyone. Do not get me wrong. I love honoring history, I find a lot of value in tradition, and I think there is wisdom in the past that should not be forgotten. Yet, we should always be cautious that we are not elevating our personal preferences for how we like things done over the mission of sharing Jesus with everyone.
Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This means that in some ways following Jesus should be the same. It is the function of following Jesus that does not change, we should be willing to change the form. For instance, verse three of this morning’s scripture states, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” This is in explicit reference to members of the community Hebrews was written to who were arrested. In Hebrews chapter 10 there is reference to persecution that was suffered, and it seems some of those persecuted are still doing time. The form of this verse, remembering the specific people from the Hebrews community who were imprisoned, was not meant to last unchanging. However, the compassion of remembering and being in solidarity with those who suffer that is a function of following Christ that is not to change. There are many ways that faithful believers live this verse out. There are those who do continue to remember those who are incarcerated for any crime, making sure that even those who are doing hard time hear the message that God loves them and will forgive them. There are those who advocate for criminal justice reform, so that those who have been convicted of crimes are still treated with the basic dignity that all people created by God deserve. There are other followers of Jesus who live out that this exhortation a bit differently and walk alongside people are imprisoned by addiction or grief and help them find freedom from those prisons as well.
This morning’s scripture exhorts us to show hospitality to strangers. How that is done has culturally changed since when it was first written, but the function of sharing God’s love with others by how we welcome and include them into community has not changed. This morning’s scripture exhorts us to continually praise God and profess his name. The words and songs we use to do that can change over time, and that is fine. The words and tunes we use to praise God are not as important as the sincerity of our hearts in praising a great God.
Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Jesus is the ideal that we strive for, the model we seek to pattern our lives after. If our focus stays on the form, on the how we have always done it of our faith, then we will have a faith that we are really comfortable with but it will not be a faith that ever moves much closer to Jesus. Instead, if the focus of our faith is placed the function on why we follow Jesus, on the love of God that can change our hearts, then we will find ourselves changed. We will find ourselves becoming ever more like Jesus. We will live more consistent lives where beliefs about what is right and our actual actions are in complete agreement. We will not have to worry about being viewed as a face or a heel by the world around us, because if we consistently focus on why we follow Jesus we will consistently show the face of Jesus to the world around us.
This morning’s scripture gives concrete examples of how to live a life that has been transformed by a savior that is constant and does not change. The specific ways we carry those out may be different, but the types of actions that we are spurred to because we follow Jesus should be the same. So brothers and sisters in Christ, let us continue to show radical hospitality to strangers, let us show compassion to others, let us practice lives marked by faithfulness, and fidelity, let us love people instead of money, and let us praise God continually. This was how a Christian was to live in the time Hebrews was written and it still how a Christian should live today. May our own faith honor our past and traditions, but may we also be willing to make changes to more effectively share the good news with the world around us today. May we have a faith that is based in the good news of saving grace and we share with this world Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.