Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. ~ Hebrews 1:1-4
This week, in the midst of news that horrified us, frightened us, and made us weep for one another, there was at least one small, sweet item. On Thursday morning (London time), the Duke of Cambridge (aka Prince William) took Prince George to his first day of school. Reporters called the little prince “adorably nervous,” in his navy blue uniform and matching backpack. One article noted that the prince, who will be known at school as George Cambridge, will be taking French and ballet among his subjects this year, though Thursday was just a half day of meeting teachers and classmates and becoming familiar with his classroom. Just like millions of American schoolchildren.
Why should we care? Wasn't’ there an American Revolution that sundered our relationship with the British monarchy? Well, yes, but now that we have taxation AND representation on our own terms, we can enjoy royalty, much as we enjoy TV and books. And if the twentieth anniversary of the death of George’s beautiful and beloved grandmother (that would be Princes Diana) taught us anything, I am pretty sure that it was this: We are still fascinated. Young George Cambridge is the first son of a first son of a first son, all of whom, if life goes as planned, will eventually be crowned monarch over the United Kingdom.
First sons have traditionally been given honored status since long before monarchies were around. The bible is filled with stories of first sons being usurped by later-borns, which tells us, that was pretty unusual. First sons would traditionally be entrusted to carry on the family name and work, and would inherit most of the parents’ wealth. When someone sends his first son as his representative, it is just as if the father himself had shown up. It’s an honor.
Our L. O. P. W. (that is to say, Loosely Organized Presbyterian Women) will studying the Letter to the Hebrews this year, and so I will be visiting the letter about once a month in the pulpit. And as regards sons of honored status, the letter opens with these words:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. ~ Hebrews 1:1-2
This is a stunning theological claim. In earlier times, the prophets kept us up-to-date on God’s thoughts, and we trusted them on that. Seemed legit. But now, more recently, God has spoken to us through a Son. A Son! And that Son is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” The spitting image, you might say. It’s just as if God came, in the flesh. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us, in its opening phrase, of what lies at the heart of our lives as Christians: God didn’t send just anyone to us. God came. This is the heart of what draws us together. This is what gives us our unique identity. We are in Community with Jesus Christ.
The implications of this are enormous, and it’s all about community.
I’ve been reading about community this week, specifically, about the ways in which contemporary American society contrasts with more tribal communities. The book is Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. This book has challenged my understanding of what it means to be in real community, and the gifts that can come from belonging to one. The author writes,
“…human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.”[i]
I’m not sure anyone ever feels truly “competent” as a Christian…. that’s the work of an entire lifetime. But belonging to the community of Jesus does give us some real opportunities to experience these things that can bring that kind of deep contentment. We can use our gifts as we reach out to help one another and those outside our doors. We can feel a sense of authenticity as we become more and more deeply rooted in the gospel. And we can grow to feel deeply connected to those who share our concerns and commitment.
The author shows how people tend to move more into tribe-like behaviors and feelings in the midst or in the aftermath of horrible events—War. Attacks. Natural disasters. This is because of how we respond: we pull together. Things like religion and race and sexual orientation fall away, and we become, simply, people with certain capabilities who instinctively use them to help one another. Catastrophes are also great levelers. One survivor wrote, “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain: The equality of all.” True communities are egalitarian, and their power structures are fluid, based on the specific gifts needed at different times.
On September 11, 2001, I was a seminary student in New York City. In normal times, New York is a place where millions of people have to get through the day without being overwhelmed by one another, so they will, for instance, stride purposefully forward without making eye contact; they will strive to maintain boundaries around their personal space even while stuffed together in crowded buses or subway cars; and they will do what they can to ignore one another’s weirdness—and neediness—at all costs.
In the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks, I noticed a palpable change come over the city. It was clear my first time riding the 1 train after the subways were re-opened. As we stood on the platforms waiting, I realized that we were all actually looking at one another. We were even smiling, tentatively, at one another. It was as if everyone understood that everyone else had more than likely experienced some kind of terrible loss. As a result, a great tenderness had swept over the city, a sense of caring and kindness, because we all knew we were in it, whatever “it” was going to be, together. We were no longer strangers; we were bonded. For a time, we were one community.
In this week of deadly hurricanes and earthquakes striking the US and its neighbors, people are learning what it means to enter more deeply into community by caring for one another in times of disaster. And truly, things like religion and race and immigration status fall away. Of the 70 or so people who died during Hurricane Harvey in Texas, at least one was a “Dreamer” who was brought to the US from Mexico as a minor. And he had traveled from another part of the state to help in rescue efforts. Despite the legal limbo he would now be in—if he were still alive—he knew himself to be part of a larger community that he wanted to help and defend in this time of disaster and loss. And so he put aside his own life, and responded to the higher calling of the moment. No one has greater love than this, said Jesus, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… or neighbors.
The letter to the Hebrews was written to communities that were also going through times of trial and trouble, like much of our nation and region today. But with Jesus as the foundation of their community and ours, we know that the only possible response to such trials is to reach out to one another, to protect and defend one another, and to remember the loving sacrifice and service of the one who is “the reflection of God’s glory.” The one who is “the exact imprint of God’s being” shows us what it means to be made in the image of God, and will always show us the way through and guide us home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2016).