...the first tent... is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right. But when Christ came... he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.... For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ ... purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant... -- from Hebrews 9:8-15
I spent most of yesterday struggling to understand these passages in Hebrews. I find them challenging, because I don't understand why Jesus had to die in order for our sins to be forgiven. God was forgiving the sins of the Jews for millenia before Jesus was born! In fact, that was an integral part of the old covenant. God's old covenant consisted of laws, ordinances, and statutes that had to be obeyed by the Israelites or God would punish them. The way to redeem the transgressors of the old covenant was through rituals of food and drink and "baptisms" of blood. The old system of blood sacrifices was meant to purify the flesh of sins, and following temple rituals became the determining factor in whether you were "in" or whether you were "out."
The problem with the old covenant was that it could not "perfect the conscience of the worshiper." All the rituals of sacrifice did not touch the heart of the person God loved. God wanted mercy, not sacrifice. So God made a New Covenant:
...this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:31-34
God's freely given forgiveness turns our hearts to him. Forgiveness, especially undeserved forgiveness, allows us to turn to God with love, not fear; and, for love, not gain.
So how does the death of Jesus redeem us? I wonder if this has something to do with suffering. On Sunday, I came across a little gem of a book, called "Drops Like Stars," by Rob Bell. (Zondervan, 2009) Bell writes about the redemptive qualities of suffering. Suffering can redeem us -- it just depends on how we react to the suffering. "Does it make us better, or bitter?" Rob Bell writes that suffering can unite us. When we suffer, we often become more empathetic, more compassionate towards other people who suffer similarly. We become connected to them: our heart to their heart.
I know that suffering can also teach us right from wrong. For we know something is wrong, say stealing for example, when it hurts us. As St. Augustine understood, not even thieves like to be stolen from. Now, we are all guilty of sin, continually. But only when we understand suffering, do we understand how our sin makes others suffer. If sin is lack of love towards another person, or ourselves, or God, suffering can reconnect us: heart to heart. Suffering deepens compassion, and love. I wonder if there would be true love if no one ever suffered.
Thinking of suffering and forgiveness, reminds me of a prayer that was found on a piece of paper on the body of a dead child in Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945:
"O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us, remember the fruits we bought thanks to this suffering, our comradship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen. Amen. Amen."
This prayer unites suffering and forgiveness. Although found on the body of a Jewish child, it helps me, a Christian, understand God's forgiveness, and our redemption. Forgiveness connects us to God -- visualize a vertical stem planted in the ground, connecting us to God. God points us to others. Suffering connects us, heart-to-heart, with other people -- visualize an horizontal stem, stretched wide, connecting us to everyone else on the planet. Together these stems make a cross. Jesus, suffering as we do, forgiving as we ought to forgive, points us to God.
Dear and Wonderful Saving God, thank you for this day of insight into passages that have troubled me in the past. Thank you for tying so many of these loose ends together with the help of the insights from many other people. Love always, Pam.