Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Once for All” (Hebrews 7:26-27)
October 28, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ death on the cross is not a fairy tale. We do not gather every week to worship just because we value tradition or community or liturgy. We gather every week to worship Jesus, whose death on the cross really happened.
Today I am preaching from the Letter to the Hebrews. Although scholars do not know who wrote this letter, it is clear that it was written to those who had converted from Judaism to Christianity. In doing so they became vulnerable to persecution from the Roman authorities because at that time Judaism was a sanctioned religion in the Roman Empire while Christianity was not. Christianity was not sanctioned in the Roman Empire until 313 with the Edict of Milan under the emperor Constantine, who also called the Council of Nicaea in 325 which produced the Nicene Creed, which we reaffirm together every week.
Before Constantine’s Edict of Milan, those who converted to Christianity risked their lives. In response to the violent persecution against Christians some converts denied Jesus or went back to Judaism in order to save their skin. And lest we point fingers it is important consider whether we ourselves would risk being thrown to the lions or crucified or burned at the stake. The Letter to the Hebrews urges Christians to persevere in their faith in Jesus Christ in spite of persecution.
One of recurring themes in the Letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is our Great High Priest who through his death on the cross atoned for the sins of the whole world, including yours and mine, and fulfilled the entire Old Testament sacrificial system once and for all—as we read in today’s passage:
For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself (Hebrews 7:26-27).
Jesus died “once for all” on the cross to atone for our sin, and his death is enough.
Many years ago I heard a preacher tell a story about a hitchhiker who was weighed down by a huge overflowing backpack and slowly trudging along the side of the road, his thumb held out. A pick-up truck pulled up. The cab was full so the driver invited the hitchhiker a ride in the bed of the truck. As they were going down the road the driver noticed in the rearview mirror that the hitchhiker was squatting down in the bed of the truck, still weighed down by his backpack, still straining under the load.
When they stopped at a gas station the driver stepped out of the truck and saw the hitchhiker still squatting down and grimacing under the load of his backpack. “Excuse me,” the driver asked, “why are you carrying the backpack instead of just laying it down in the truck?” The hitchhiker replied, “I’m just trying to do my part.” Now whether that is a true story or a made up “preacher’s story” the point is clear: in spite of Jesus’ sufficient “once for all” death on the cross we are still tempted to try and “do our part.” But when it comes to atoning for your sins, there is no part for you to do. Jesus has already done it all for you.
In the back of The Book of Common Prayer there is an often overlooked section entitled “Historical Documents,” which includes the “Articles of Religion.” These articles were completed in the late sixteenth century and summarize the doctrine of the English Reformation. In Article XXXI, “Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross”, the sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s “once for all” death on the cross could not be more clearly expressed. Think about the reality of the sin in your life, and more importantly, think about the reality of God’s love for you, as you listen to this: “The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone” (874).
The leading figure of the English Reformation was Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who is often betrayed as simply a lapdog for Henry VIII who needed to procure a divorce. But Thomas Cranmer was a brilliant theologian who slowly embraced the Reformation theology that had spread on continental Europe, theology that was not new theology but a return to biblical theology that emphasized the sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s “once for all” death on the cross.
In the prayer Thomas Cranmer wrote for Holy Communion in the first English Book of Common Prayer of 1549 he emphasized this as well. “Eucharistic Prayer I” in our current Book of Common Prayer is this exact same prayer, and begins:
All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world (334).
Do you believe that? It sounds too good to be true, but it is true. It is the gospel.
The sufficiency of Jesus’ “once for all” death on the cross is expressed again later by the writer to the Hebrews, “It is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all…by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:10, 14).
And it is not just the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews who emphasizes this. Scripture also tells us that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)—that “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18)—and that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
In his classic 1990 book The Ragamuffin Gospel the late preacher Brennan Manning recounts the following story:
In a large city in the far West, rumors spread that a certain Catholic woman was having visions of Jesus. The reports reached the archbishop. He decided to check her out. There is always a fine line between the authentic mystic and the lunatic fringe. “Is it true, ma’am, that you have visions of Jesus?” asked the cleric. “Yes,” the woman replied simply. “Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins that I confessed in my last confession.” The woman was stunned. “Did I hear you right, bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past?” “Exactly. Please call me if anything happens.”
Ten days later the woman notified her spiritual leader of a recent apparition. “Please come,” she said. Within the hour the archbishop arrived. He trusted eye-to-eye contact. “You just told me on the telephone that you actually had a vision of Jesus. Did you do what I asked?” “Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession.” The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed. “What did Jesus say?” She took his hand and gazed deep into his eyes. “Bishop,” she said, “these are His exact words: ‘I can’t remember.’”
Brennan Manning then adds, “Christianity happens when men and women accept with unwavering trust that their sins have not only been forgiven but forgotten, washed away in the blood of the Lamb” (118-119). Jesus’ death is enough.
Back to Thomas Cranmer for a moment…Like those to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written, Cranmer ended up suffering greatly for his faith in Jesus Christ. When Mary I (Mary Tudor, also known as Bloody Mary) became Queen of England she launched a vast persecution against English Protestants. No Protestants were safe, not even Archbishop Cranmer. Like those to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written, he was tempted to abandon his beliefs in order to save his skin. In fact, he actually signed a recantation of his Protestant beliefs.
But later, knowing he would likely be sentenced to be burned at the stake, Thomas Cranmer recanted his recantation and reaffirmed his belief in the Protestant faith, reaffirmed his belief in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s “once for all” death on the cross. So on March 21, 1556, sixty-six year-old Thomas Cranmer was dragged to the street in Oxford, his long grey beard swaying in the wind. In his 1563 book Actes and Monuments, which later became known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, one of the best-selling books of all time, John Foxe records what happened next:
Then was an iron chain tied about Cranmer. When they perceived him to be more steadfast than that he could be moved from his sentence, they commanded the fire to be set to him. And when the wood was kindled, and the fire began to burn near him, stretching out his arm, he put his right hand into the flame, which he held so steadfast and immovable (saving that once with the same hand he wiped his face), that all men might see his hand burned before his body was touched.
John Foxe concludes:
His body did abide the burning with such steadfastness, that he seemed to move no more than the stake to which he was bound; his eyes were lifted up into heaven, and he repeated ‘his unworthy right hand,’ so long as his voice would suffer him; and using often the words of Stephen, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’ in the greatness of the flame, he gave up the ghost (386-387).
This really happened. There is literally an “X” in the middle of Broad Street in downtown Oxford that marks the spot where Thomas Cranmer breathed his last earthly breath. Thomas Cranmer did not die for a fairy tale. Would you?
Jesus’ “once for all” death on the cross is not a fairy tale. It really happened. As we reaffirm every week in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.”
Jesus Christ’s death on the cross has already atoned for all your sins “once for all.” When it comes to atoning for your sins, there is no part for you to play. Jesus’ death is enough. That is the good news of the gospel.
And as you know the Nicene Creed does not stop there, for we continue, “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures” (The Book of Common Prayer 358).
If you were to ask the Risen Jesus today to tell you about the sins of your past, sins for which he has already forgiven you, he would reply, “I can’t remember.”
Perhaps today the Holy Spirit will remind you in your heart that you are fully known, fully loved, and fully forgiven by Jesus Christ, whose “once for all” death on the cross is enough—that you are fully known, fully loved, fully forgiven by Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who indeed takes away the sin of the world, including yours.
Perhaps today you can put your backpack down.