by Daniel Harrell
We’d all like to think we have guardian angels, which the Psalmist promises God provides to protect us and show us the right way (91:11). I’d like to think such angels were with us last week as a Confirmation Class in Colombia as we walked the hilly streets amidst some of the world’s craziest traffic careening down mountainsides. Such angels were common Old Testament fare, and showed up now and then in the New Testament too. More than protection, however, their role was often disruption for the sake of a newer and deeper understanding of God.
While in Rome last summer with another group of Colonial students, we saw of centuries of Christian faithfulness sown deep among ruins but also flowering bright in its glorious cathedrals. We retraced the steps of countless Christians and layers of worshipping communities who disrupted, infiltrated and eventually transformed an empire: passionate Popes and Kings, artists and inventors, philosophers, theologians and scientists all touched by angels. The faith we practice this morning in one tested and tried by time and by fire, proven right by people who dared believe amidst hardship, hopelessness, persecution and loss. They pushed back against corruption and oppression with love and truth, they sacrificed for the sake of righteousness, they found resurrection sufficient to confront and redeem evil. I set about twenty years ago on a summer sermon series to reflect on some of these people on whose shoulders we stand, deciding it best to tackle them a letter at a time, which brings us this year to Letter S and probably the most popular book never to make it into the Bible.
Entitled The Shepherd of Hermas, it was widely read in the early centuries of the church as a welcome spiritual companion, much like Pilgrim’s Progress or The Chronicles of Narnia in our own day. It’s the story of an angel disguised as a shepherd who walks a poor man named Hermas down the persecuted path of faith prior to Christianity’s legalization in the Roman empire. Many assumed the visage represented Jesus, who described himself as a Good Shepherd. Most regard the book as written in Rome and about Rome in the second century, but others date it earlier, tying it to the Hermas whom the apostle Paul greets at the end of his letter to the Roman Christians. You’ll hear Old Testament echoes as well as connections to writings destined to join the new Testament. Early lists of the authorized New Testament books place The Shepherd between the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of Paul.
Hermas describes himself as a former slave who goes into business but fails, losing whatever profits he earned. His marriage is rocky and his kids are constantly in trouble. He runs into a former girlfriend bathing in the Tiber river and can’t help but lust after her. He needs an angel. The Shepherd comes to the rescue and whisks Hermas away to a solitary place, only to have his former girlfriend show up and chastise him for his bad behavior. She’s followed by an older woman, a mother figure who reveals a series of visions to see if she can’t straighten Hermas out. (She’s especially concerned that Hermas get his kids into a good school. She could have been from Edina.).
Hermas gets five visions in all, followed by twelve commands and ten parables. The popularity of the book lay both in its narrative arc and its ethical directives. The Shepherd served as a shepherd for many in the early church as to what a good Christian life looked like: simple, blameless, loving, patient, hungry for justice and truth, teeming with prayer and full of joy.
First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things, and made all things out of nothing. He alone is able to contain the whole, but Himself cannot be contained. Have faith therefore in Him, and fear Him; and fearing Him, exercise self-control. Keep these commands, and you will cast away from you all wickedness, and put on the strength of righteousness, and live to God, if you keep these commandments.
The conditional caveat of obedience for the sake of love and good deeds, evident throughout Scripture, is experienced by believers as an ongoing challenge. Like sheep we do stray—wavering in our faith depending on the circumstances. Good times elicit gratitude, but also complacency. Difficulties raise doubt, but also a renewed commitment to prayer. We sin and then we repent, sin and repent, trusting in grace over and over for yet another chance and the ability to do better.
It can become something of a hamster wheel, leading the Shepherd, playing off the book of Hebrews, to insist that grace had its limits. Expectations of Jesus’ coming back any minute left no time for more sin and forgiveness once you’d emerged from the baptismal waters. Baptism then was more of a culmination of one’s faith than a starting point. Early Christians were dead serious about their baptisms—you underwent a severe examination as to intent followed by a three-year period of instruction and proven virtuous living, accompanied by daily exorcisms and fasting. Only at the end of all of this would you be allowed to wade into the water. You could not take grace for granted. Once clean you stayed clean. As we read in the Shepherd:
The Lord has sworn by His glory, in regard to His elect, that if any one of them sin after a certain day which has been fixed, he shall not be saved. For the repentance of the righteous has limits. Filled up are the days of repentance to all the saints, but to the heathen, repentance will be possible even to the last day.
Clearly this was an incentive for staying a heathen as long as you could.
Hermas agonized over the proliferation of sin among Christians in his day. “They have blasphemed against the Lord,” he observed, “and in their great wickedness they have betrayed their parents. They have added to their sins lusts and iniquitous pollutions, and thus their iniquities have been filled up.” The same can sadly be said of Christians in every era. The Shepherd consoled Hermas,
…the Lord, knowing the heart, and foreknowing all things, knew the weakness of men and the manifold wiles of the devil, that Satan would inflict some evil on the servants of God, and would act wickedly towards them. The Lord, therefore, being merciful, has had mercy on the work of His hand, and has set repentance for them; and He has entrusted to me power over this repentance. And therefore I say to you, that if any one is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such a man his repentance will be of no avail; for with difficulty will he live.
You get a second chance, but only then, Hermas writes, “if you repent with all your heart, and drive all doubts from your mind.” Two strikes and you’re out, no matter how sorry you say you are for your sin. Time to get off the hamster wheel. Tough grace, though if we keep Hebrews in mind, most likely the problem The Shepherd addresses is apostasy, a word you don’t hear around church much anymore. Hebrews describes it as “spurning the Son of God, profaning the blood of the covenant, outraging the Spirit of grace,” bringing to mind Jesus’ own mention of the unpardonable sin of grieving the Spirit. An appropriate synonym might be treason or betrayal, a deliberate infidelity that Hebrews describes as willfully persistent.
My best friend in high school had become Christian in the same Young Life Club as me. We joined Bible studies, sought to live proper lives as best we could amidst raging adolescent hormones and teenage temptations. We did our darnedest to love our neighbors as ourselves. We grew incredibly close as brothers in Christ, and after being admitted into the same college, decided to room together freshman year. However, that summer, my best friend bailed on Christianity and showed up at school a totally different guy. He’d given it thought and reasoned it ridiculous to live a life trying to please a God who let so much evil in the world, all for the sake of a tedious eternity of playing harps after he died. Live it up now, he concluded, get drunk and get high and have fun, which eventually led to his dropping classes and flunking out. I confronted him about his flushing his life go down the toilet; tried to appeal to the faith we had shared; but he told me to buzz off and mind my own business, though the language was much more colorful. We are Facebook friends, and today’s his birthday, but he never returned to his faith.
Scholars think the Shepherd of Hermas likely reflects the rigorous views prevailing in the early church—a military-like discipline was needed for Christianity was to survive the persecution it faced. Read further in Hebrews and you read about abuse and imprisonment and plundered possessions, severe loss for deciding to follow Jesus. While a sure thing, it doesn’t always feel like it. A life of faith feels more like walking across a swinging bridge rocking too and fro high above a deep cavern of reality. It’s a strong enough bridge to hold you and get you across—but it’s not always easy to trust it. Some people can’t. Others won’t. Still others do but then don’t, deciding that it’s not worth the risk or the trouble. What can be so good on the other side?
I take for granted you’re out here this morning because you’re convinced the Christian life is worth living, even if you’re not living it as well as you’d like. You’ve fallen for Jesus and can’t let him go, even as the church feels like it’s coming unglued all around us, a headline that made the cover of the paper yet again this morning. All the more reason for rigorous faith—that conviction and experience amidst hardship and loss that the way of the cross is true life and the will of the Lord is true love and the only hope for ourselves and our world. There is an aspect of obedience in this—do not worry, don’t hate, no lust, no lying, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, forgive without limit, love your neighbor, love your enemy—“if you love me you will keep my commandments” Jesus said. But it’s not all up to us. “If you love me you’ll keep my commandments, and my Father will love you, and we will come to you and make our home in you.” This is a remarkable assertion, and it’s a promise fulfilled. Way back in Ezekiel the Lord said of his people, “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your hard heart of stone and give you a new heart of flesh, so that you may follow my statutes and keep my commands and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” And so we are by the Sprit of God who dwells in us. Therefore if you don’t love the Lord and your neighbor as yourself, it’s certainly no longer because you can’t.
It used to be people dreaded Communion Sundays when they knew they harbored sinful thoughts and resentments against others. Because Communion previewed heaven itself, to partake with sin in your heart was drinking to your own damnation—profaning the blood of the covenant, so to speak. Bonhoeffer warned against justifying sin instead of justifying sinners. To the extent that we insist on our own goodness and rightness, we resist any change the spirit can make happen inside us.
Hermas taught that the Holy Spirit received at baptism intercedes on behalf of the believer. However, if one grieves the Holy Spirit, the intercession turns into prayers against the sinner. For Hermas, as our lives are already situated with Christ, to mar that glory makes us unworthy of the salvation we’ve received. Grace cannot be taken for granted. And thus we confess our sins and make amends and pass the peace before passing the cup.
Keeping our baptismal promises, honoring the glory in us and following the ways of the Lord still requires angels. For most of us these angels take the shape of a shepherding community to encourage and help and guide and correct and forgive and the very living and breathing and yet broken body of Christ for each other. We take communion together this morning in public to bear witness to the stubborn hope that is ours in Christ, a rigorous and relentless commitment to love and to joy no matter what.