By: Maggie Leonard
A couple months ago, I sat in a lunch with other Presbyterian pastors from the central Atlanta region. As we shared glimpses of our lives with one another, Lindsey Armstrong, one of the pastors of First Presbyterian Church Atlanta, relayed to the group her excitement about starting up a new Wednesday morning Bible study on the book of Hebrews. She had hoped for 20 participants and wound up with eighty! As it turns out, Hebrews is a challenging book and she had come across surprisingly few resources to help prepare for the study sessions. We all nodded, passed on our sympathies for so few resources, and promised to be in touch if we came across anything.
As I got in my car, I couldn’t help but think, “I bet the few resources she has found are from a culturally homogeneous group of academics. We do really good interpretation at Mercy, in fact, our folks are incredible at biblical interpretation—especially the hard stuff. We are also really good at connecting Bible stories concretely to our lives… maybe First Pres would be interested in hearing the street perspective of Hebrews in addition to doing their own wrestling with the Scriptures…”
It turned out that they were!
For the past couple months, once a week we have been working our way through Hebrews and sharing videos, podcasts, or handouts that summarize key points of our discussion with our friends at First Presbyterian Church Atlanta. They have gifted us by hearing our voices and we have gifted them with our reflections. It has been a truly empowering, engaging, and energizing experience for us. We as a community, teachers and participants both, have been challenged by this Scripture, but ultimately we have grown a great deal in the struggle, and it’s not over yet!
Hebrews is written more like a sermon than a letter. The author of this sermon desperately tries to explain Jesus’ significance to his audience; much of his cultural explanations are a bit beyond us. Frequently as we read a passage, we remind one another not to forget the forest for the trees. While it may be easy to get caught up in the language of angels, high priests, and blood sacrifices, ultimately this book points to God’s grace.
So far, my favorite quote in this book, as folks from Mercy now well know because I re-quote it anytime the first word is repeated, is “encourage one another every day, so long as it is called ‘today’” (3:13).
The author of Hebrews seeks to comfort us with the certain knowledge that we are loved by God and may be liberated from our mistakes because God has cared for them. Whether or not we acknowledge it, our conscience has been wiped clean and we are called to do work in the world that reflects guiltless hearts freed to love. We are not alone, God’s beloved people-—all people-—surround us and are called to motivate and help us along the way. We need not live in fear!
This is not a new message, it is God’s encouragement and hope for us since the beginning of time. However, we just don’t get it. We can not do it on our own. So God came to us, Emmanuel, “with us is God,” to model a way for us. The way of love, however, always makes us nervous. It questions our desire to hold power over one another. So we killed love. But even that dysfunction, brokenness, shame—whatever you want to call it—did not have the last word. Resurrection, new life, was born out of that death.
Hebrews tries to make sense of that death within the context of the Jewish religious system. It is ultimately a word to inspire courage and diligence for God’s people to do good work.
I am grateful for this opportunity to offer and receive encouragement from my sisters and brothers at First Presbyterian Church Atlanta. This has been a study that has sufficiently challenged us, and in the midst of our struggle, born much fruit for our faith journey.
We look forward to further partnership opportunities.