Preached at the Bishop’s Chapel, Roslyn, Henrico, Virginia, on the occasion of the 10th Annual Living Savior Lutheran Church Men’s Retreat.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Don’t forget to take your buddy with you!”
This was a common reminder that I both received as a scout and gave as an assistant Scoutmaster when I was involved in the Boy Scouts of America. The Buddy System was drilled into us from an early age. Going to go swimming at the creek? Take your buddy with you. Off to buy candy or supplies from the camp trading post? Take your buddy with you. Hauling water for the patrol? Take your buddy with you. Your buddy was your lifeline if anything went wrong. If you were having trouble swimming or were injured or had some other sort of emergency, he was there for you. And if anything happened to him, you were there for him. As long as the two of you were together, the reasoning went, you could reasonably help keep each other safe out in the woods or on the water, and if you were to get lost hiking on the trail, you could help each other stay safe until help could find you. After all, the woods can be dangerous at night. Sometimes, there are bears. Sometimes, there are things worse than bears.
Our epistle text today reminds us that there are dangers facing Christians and that it is dangerous to go it alone. The devil’s still out there, roaring like a lion, seeking someone to devour, and though the author of Hebrews has the assurance that “the strife is over, the battle done,” dangers still lurk in the shadows, looking to draw members of Christ’s body away from him to fall away from the living God. The world in which the epistle to the Hebrews was written was full of threats to the young Christian community. Greco-Roman culture, which was about to deliver the coup-de-grace to the supremacy of Hebrew culture with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (prior to which this epistle was written), was sensual and sensuous. Roman bloodlust was married to Greek hedonism, and popular philosophies current at the time sought to teach adherents how to live lives that were focused on pleasure and free from pain. Enslaved fighters maimed and killed one another in the arena for the entertainment of the masses. The oldest profession, prostitution, existed in every town, and slaves, the backbone of the ancient economy, were often used as sex objects by their masters and mistresses. Affairs were sometimes encouraged. Pornographic images were common both in the fine arts and in graffiti. Jerusalem itself was a crossroads of cultures that were contrary to the values of the early Christians. People and goods came from all the corners of the empire and from the far off kingdoms and empires of central Asia, India, and China, and with them came many beliefs and practices that could play to desires and baser instincts of men struggling to stay faithful in the church. Living in the empire could be a dangerous place for someone with a weaker faith or with certain predilections. “Weaker brothers” could be easy pickings for the devil and his minions working through the prevailing culture to lead Christians astray.
Not much has changed for us, of course. Society is still geared toward pleasure and pain, and there is much out there that can damage a man’s faith. Our cinemas are full of movies that tend toward the graphically violent and sexual, which invite us to act out in our fantasies what we see on the screen. Pornography is rampant, just as it was in ancient times, and it distorts our view of women, sex, and ourselves. Anti-Christian philosophies still circulate. New Age philosophies and pagan ideas about God hide themselves behind Christian words and insinuate themselves into churches. Suddenly God wants us to live our “best lives now,” wants us to pursue money or be happy just the way we are. Epicurean ataraxia, freedom from pain, behind a smiling Christian face. The Christian message is changed so that now, rather than the incarnate God who dies for sinners, Christ is just our friend who doesn’t see sin but instead encourages us do as we please. “Don’t change!” the culture says, “You can do whatever you want. Jesus doesn’t care.” The devil uses this distorted image of Christ and contrary cultural messages to try to draw us away from our faith in Christ and bring us to ruin.
And even if we see these dangers for what they are and know that the Devil is trying to use them to shipwreck our faith, the devil still tries to trick us by playing to our pride. Men are macho, after all, and we can handle all these temptations on our own! We’re supposed to be strong, right? Masculine guys can handle temptations to vice and false beliefs. Pride doesn’t want us to change. If you’re familiar with the Canadian backwoods comedy, The Red Green Show (it used to be on PBS on Saturdays late in the evening), you may remember the little maxim known as “The Man’s Prayer” that the members of Possum Lodge recite together. “I’m a man. I can change. If I have to. I guess.” Played for laughs, the “prayer” is a play on men’s unwillingness to change their behavior and hobbies for their wives or girlfriends. But it reveals something about masculine pride. “ We can forge through adversity because we’re strong men and men don’t need help!” And when we do need help, we are afraid to ask for it because men aren’t supposed to be weak. We’re not supposed to be prey to our passions (especially if we’re old German or Scandinavian Lutherans–then we are supposed to be truly stoic). And invariably, if we trust in our own manliness or strength to fight temptation, we fail and fall prey to the devil’s predations because we are too proud (or afraid) to admit that we struggle.
But there is good news! Though these things–enticements to sin, fear, and pride–all threaten, Christ has died and risen again and destroyed their power, and those who trust in his work are saved from the destruction they bring. The power of those sins that seek to lead Christians astray was nailed to the cross on Golgotha and buried. Furthermore, Christ did not leave his flock without a helper when he ascended. The Holy Spirit now dwells in the hearts of those who are redeemed by and trust in Christ’s work, and the Spirit guides them in how they should live and strengthens them when faced by temptation. And when they struggle and stumble when they are weak, the Spirit leads them back to Christ, who forgives them and receives them into his open arms. In one sense, then, the Holy Spirit is our “buddy,” going along with us to protect us from harm and keep us accountable and bring them back to Christ when we stray.
But the Holy Spirit provides Christians with other “buddies,” too. This is why the author of Hebrews encourages his readers to support one another in the faith lest any of the brothers fall into sin and unbelief with hardened hearts. The redeemed community has been bought by the blood of Christ, and the author of Hebrews wants his readers to know that as brothers in Christ, they can and should support one another in the faith so that none of them stumble or fall into unbelief. As members of the body of Christ, they are recipients of his saving love on the cross which gives them strength to resist the devil and removes the dangers that come with sin and death. Sin, death, and the devil mean nothing now that Christ has conquered them, but the faithful can be tricked into believing that they do. Therefore, God has given them brothers in Christ strengthened by the Holy Spirit to speak the Gospel to them and encourage them and, if necessary, call them to repentance lest they fall away or become “hardened,” driven into unbelief, and to restore them to the community when they repent. The community of the Hebrews, redeemed in Christ and guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, could speak the promise of Christ’s work which they have received to one another again and again, encouraging each other to grow in faith and trust in Christ’s sacrifice. They are “buddies” to one another, guided by the Spirit to alert each other to dangers and pitfalls.
You and I, as brothers in Christ and sharing in his promises, likewise have received Christ’s forgiveness in the face of sin and have received the Holy Spirit’s guidance and protection. We, too, live redeemed in the knowledge that Christ died for us, and therefore we can also be “buddies” to one another in our life of faith. In Christ, we can guide and encourage one another to live the lives of redeemed men of baptized children of God, and help each other to persevere in our faith in him, lest we stumble and fall into unbelief and become hardened, losing the promise. And because we are redeemed in Christ, we can remind one another of his love and his forgiveness when we do stumble and fall prey to certain sins and desires, letting the Spirit work through us to bring each other back into the fold of him who gave himself for the welfare of our souls. In Christ, we are all part of the same family bought by his blood. We are brothers–buddies in Christ. Let us therefore love and care for one another as brothers do.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.