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Either Progress or Slip Back

Either Progress or Slip Back

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 — Week of 2 Epiphany, Year Two

Confession of Saint Peter the Apostle

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer)

EITHER the readings for Wed. of 2 Epiphany (p. 245)

Psalms 38 (morning) 119:25-48 (evening)

Genesis 9:18-29

Hebrews 6:1-12

John 3:22-36

OR the readings for Confession of St. Peter (p. 996)

Morning Prayer: Psalms 66, 67; Ezekiel 3:4-11; Acts 10:34-33

Evening Prayer; Psalms 118; Ezekiel 34:11-16; John 21:15-22

I chose the readings for Wed. of 2 Epiphany

The annotation in my Access Bible for Hebrews 6:1-12 is titled “Either progress or slip back.” I remember years ago reading an entry from the dairy of Pope John XXIII. I can’t find the reference, so I’ll just trust my memory. It was a brief note about a day that sounded fairly normal to me. Not much had happened. He had been absorbed in the trivial demands of the day. He hadn’t had time to read or study. He was writing in his diary late in the evening. With his simple eloquence, he mourned that he had lost a day, a full 24-hours, without growing or learning. Something was gone that could not be retrieved.

The writer of Hebrews opens this 6th chapter with a grand challenge: “Therefore let us go on toward perfection…” It is so easy in our culture to condone mediocrity with the excuse “Nobody’s perfect.” The author of Hebrews will have nothing of it. Strive for perfection. Strive for conscious union with God. He writes today, leave behind “the basic teaching about Christ” and be like fertile ground “that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated.” He urges his readers to exercise the three virtues of faith, hope and love: For God “will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

I am reminded of the standard that Paul offers us in our striving. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and temperance. There is no law against such things. …If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22f)

The testimony tells us that we can live with this fullness. We can practice faith, hope and love. We can produce the fruits of the Spirit. We can live in conscious union with God. In fact, anything else is loss, something wasted that cannot be reclaimed.

More than any other New Testament writer the author to the Hebrews communicates this sense of tragedy when we fail to progress, when we slip back. In contrast to other writers who are sure that access to restoration is always available, the writer of Hebrews believes “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened… and have fallen away.” Whenever we fall away from the enlightened life of grace that we have been given, there is something lost that cannot be reclaimed. The past slips behind us and cannot be changed. It’s meaning can be changed, but its facts cannot. Sometimes we find it is simply to late for acting.

I know I’ve quoted this before, but I can’t think of a better expression of that sense of loss than a passage toward the end of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. As the Whisky Priest anticipates his execution the next day, “He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted — to be a saint.” (Penguin, NY, p. 211)

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