Losing philadelphia

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Stevie Williams in Philadelphia’s Love Park

“Let mutual love continue.”

In the Greek it is only three words long, but it might be the most powerful homiletical imperative ever written.  Scholars squabble quite a bit about the origins of the Letter to the Hebrews.  While it was initially attributed to Paul, by the turn of the third century, Origen was already questioning if Paul had actually written it.  While it is often called a letter it really reads more like a sermon or even a series of sermons.  It is thought to be addressed to Jewish Christians living in the Diaspora, but even that can’t be known for sure.  Yet, despite all of the uncertainty over its authorship, style, and intended audience, it is still one of the most powerful texts in the New Testament Canon.

Unlike most of the other New Testament letters, the “Letter” to the “Hebrews” is written in a much more general style.  It speaks not so much to the particularities of a church in a time and place, but serves a theological backbone for the Church catholic that will continue to grow in the 1900 years since its writing. As the “Letter” comes to a close, the author begins to offer short reflections on the life of faith; exhorting his hearers to continue to live following The Way, despite the persecution that has been, is ongoing, and will continue to come, and it can all be summed up by this three word Greek sentence that opens our Epistle lesson this Sunday, “Let mutual love continue.”

That love that the author writes about is different from the love we hear about most often in the New Testament.  Instead of admonishing us to agape, self-sacrificial love, the author invites us to philadelphia, brotherly love.  We are to love our fellow disciples as if they are our sisters and brothers.  As Bryan Whitfield noted in a 2010 commentary on this text, “We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.”

In a world where there is a church designed to meet every possible whim and fancy of ecclesiastical taste on every street corner, this idea of treating our fellow disciples as brothers and sisters is fairly foreign.  Rather than seeing the church as a family with which we stick through thick and thin, more often than not these days, if something doesn’t tickle our fancy in our church anymore, we pick up and move.  Sometimes the reason for leaving is theological, but 99.9% of the time, it is adiaphora – things indifferent.  Whether you are no longer in love with the preaching style, the musical style, the choice of Tawny Port over Welch’s Grape, or the ongoing open question about the place of LGBT Christians in the church, our inability to “let mutual love continue” has created a culture in which there is no longer philadelphia in most churches.  Rather, we simply pick up our ball and go home.

The persecuted Church of the turn of the second century didn’t have that luxury, and, I would argue, neither should we.  Instead, let mutual love continue, learn to live in disagreement and find God in discomfort, and remember, that even when the music changes, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

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