Let mutual love continue.Hebrews 13:1
I had a conversation this week with a friend who described their boss to me as a “practicing Muslim.” And this is what got me to thinking about this, about what it means to be a “practicing Christian”? What would we have to do for others to describe us as “practicing Christians”?
We all know what a Christian is – someone who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, our Savior. Or, someone who believes what we confess each Sunday in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. We all have an idea of what a Christian is, but what about a “practicing Christian”? That’s a little harder to answer, isn’t it?
But it’s important. Because I should think that all of us want to be described, by those who know us, as practicing Christians. People who not only believe in the teachings of Jesus, but who strive to live by them, to put them into practice.
I once heard a thought-provoking question that gets at this idea. If being a Christian was suddenly outlawed in our country, would there be enough evidence to arrest and convict you? If so, you are most likely a practicing Christian. But, still, we might ask: What is it, a practicing Christian?
Our Baptismal Promises
Before I get to the answer provided in Hebrews, I want to offer a more traditional answer, one that is found in our Lutheran Rite of Confirmation. When we join the Lutheran Church, or when we are confirmed in the Lutheran Church, we make some important promises. We are asked: “Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism?” And then we are told what this means, in a series of five promises. Here they are: “to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
I think that this is a pretty good answer to what it means to be a practicing Christian. A practicing Christian is a follower of Jesus who strives to live out their baptismal promises.
But in today’s second reading (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16), we have another way to think about what it means to practice our Christian faith. It is not a complete list, but it is a good list. So I thought I would focus on it for my sermon today. And look at the five marks of a practicing Christian that are identified in this reading from Hebrews.
The First Mark in Hebrews 13 – Mutual Love
The first mark of a practicing Christian identified in this passage is arguably the most important: “Let mutual love continue.” A practicing Christian is someone who loves. We practice our faith by loving God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength; and by loving our neighbor as ourselves. “Let mutual love continue.” Or in other translations, that would be let brotherly love continue, because the Greek word used there is actually philadelphia, which literally means brotherly love. This brotherly love or mutual love should always be present among Christians. We should, as the CEB translation puts it, “keep loving each other like family.”
Practicing Christians are, above all else, people who love another. It is the great commandment that Moses taught to God’s people. It is what Jesus called the “first and greatest commandment.” It “covers a multitude of sins,” Peter teaches us. It is “the more excellent way,” Paul shares with us. As Christians, the first and last thing we are taught to do is to love. To be a practicing Christian is to be a person who loves God and all that God made. And Christian communities, if nothing else, should be communities where it is obvious that people love one another.
The Second Mark – Hospitality to the Stranger
But there is a possible pitfall for loving communities. And this pitfall is what the author of Hebrews addresses in the very next verse. Because when we form a loving community in a church, the very love that we have for one another can sometimes make it more difficult for new people to enter into our life together.
I still think of what my daughter once told me, of her experience visiting a Lutheran church when she was away in college. She had a good experience of worship, she said. The liturgy, the sermon, communion, was all good. And this church community seemed to like one another, maybe even love one another. But there was a problem – they ignored my daughter completely on her first Sunday there. No one greeted her, or even shared the peace with her. At the end of the service, when she went to the visitors’ table in the narthex, no one even went over to say hello. And all this happened at a Lutheran church. Right here in North Carolina. This, to me, is mutual love gone wrong.
And so, the author of Hebrews goes on to say in the very next verse, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to the stranger.” A loving community should always be welcoming and loving to the stranger, not just to each other. There is always a seat open for that person. No matter who they are, they should be welcome here. And it is the job of all of us to make sure they feel that way. Hospitality to the stranger is the second mark of a practicing Christian.
The Third Mark – Extending Our Love Outward
But what about those who cannot come to our community? Hospitality is rather passive, when you think about it. It waits for someone to come to us. But the church is called to do more than that. We are also called to love those who cannot be here. And so, the next verse of this passage in Hebrews teaches us to “remember those who are in prison.” They, too, must experience our love. But I think of those in prison more generally as anyone that cannot come to us. It is a reminder that we must take our mutual love beyond these walls.
This is also one of the reasons why our congregation’s outreach ministries are so important. Ministries such as Meals on Wheels, Community Table and Community Inn, and the Pfeiffer Friends program, to name a few. These are all ministries devoted to extending our mutual love beyond these walls. They are ways to show hospitality and love, not only to the stranger who visits us, but to those who don’t.
The Fourth Mark – Marriage and Family
Let mutual love continue. Show hospitality to the stranger. Remember those in prison. The next mark of a practicing Christian is one that takes place in our homes. Because if we’re not practicing our faith in our homes, we’re not practicing it all. So the author writes, “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled.”
Marriage and family, when you think about it, is where community begins. And if we neglect our marriages and families, even if it is to show hospitality to strangers or to visit those going through tough times, then we’re not really practicing our Christian faith.
I once heard an interview with an Olympic athlete that I have not forgotten, because it is such a powerful example of this point. This athlete was describing his family life growing up. His father was a beloved doctor in the small town where he grew up, often making house calls, and not charging people who were facing financial challenges. A good, kind, generous man to his town. But when he got home at night, he was very different. He was abusive, in a way that the people of that community could not have imagined. He loved his neighbor, but not his own family.
When the writer of Hebrews teaches that mutual love should continue, it is not just in our church and in our community. It is also in our homes, in our marriages, and with our families.
The Fifth Mark – Practicing Contentment that Leads to Generosity
The fifth mark of practicing Christians that I want to look at today is from verse 5: “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he himself has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’”
This verse changes gears on us, it would seem, and teaches us to keep our lives from the love of money, and to be content with what we have. That seems quite like a change in direction, doesn’t it? From love to money?
But sometimes love means opening up our wallets or our purses. Love means being generous with what we have, Helping those who are in need. And in order to be generous with what we have, this verse reminds us that two other things are necessary.
First, we are taught that we must not love money. Paul reminds us of this, too, when he says that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. It is not money itself, mind you, that is the root of evil, but the love of money. We must love God, and love each other, and not love money.
And the other thing that is necessary to be truly generous is to be content with what we have. Because if we are not content now, we will never have enough. There will always be something else that we feel we must have to be happy, if we are not content with what we have. And this need to accumulate prevents us from being truly generous. So, we are taught to keep our lives from the love of money, and to be content with what we have.
And after sharing these five marks of a practicing Christian, the author of Hebrews reminds us of why we can do all of this: Because Jesus has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Jesus promises to be with us, every step of the way. When we share our mutual love with one another. When we show hospitality to strangers. When we visit those who are in prison, or otherwise unable to join us. When we love and honor our own families. And when we keep our lives free from the love of money, and share generously with those who have less.
We can do all of this because of the One who is always with us, Jesus Christ our Lord. And may his love and presence in our lives help us to be Christians who practice their faith in ways that are evident to all. To the glory of God. Amen.