Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Hebrews 6:1-12) transports me back to the 1930s of western NC, when some extension expert, thinking they were doing the local farmers a big favor, introduced Japan’s multiflora rose to the region as a means of soil conservation, live fencing, wildlife cover, and windbreak. I’m not sure how long it took before the locals realized that this plant is a noxious invasive, with the ability to spread like kudzu into cultivated areas, where left unchecked it establishes a monoculture all to itself. A pretty one, to be sure, but you can’t really live on a steady diet of rose hips. And unlike kudzu, the multiflora rose has one of the nastiest defense mechanisms when it comes to our non-chemical, manual attempts to cut them down or pull them up: long and prolific thorns. Being one to avoid the Round Up and other chemical solutions, I can attest that repeated attempts to drive back the thorny ground cover from the edges of the garden is enough to make the most prim and proper of preachers cuss.
The writer of Hebrews is addressing a thorny situation in the life of the church. He talks about the blessing of ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and then produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated. But in contrast to this ideal pastoral scene of a community soaking in grace and producing love, he writes about the worthless soil that soaks in that same rain but produces nothing but thorns. Being the prim and proper preacher that he is, the writer says that this ground is on the verge of being cursed. It’s interesting that the writer began this passage encouraging the believers to get past the basic doctrines and move on to what he thought was more important. Don’t keep laying the foundation, he said. Don’t dwell on the theologies of repentance and faith, baptism and laying on of hands. Don’t even spend more time debating the doctrines of resurrection and eternal judgment. This really is an astounding set of verses, coming from one who obviously spent a lot of time doing theological reflection. Leave it behind, he says. And his logic, his rationale, is equally fascinating. He seems to say that people can get the basics of belief, but this is only a taste of what the good life of salvation is all about. And tasting is not enough to get the Way of Jesus into every fiber of one’s being. Folks can taste the grace and fall away, and then it’s might nigh impossible to bring them back, if all you’ve got is doctrine and a belief system to offer them. No, the writer says, leave all this behind and move on to what he called the perfect way. And what is this? Producing good fruits, something useful to community life. The soil–the soul–that soaks in grace, and generates the useful fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, that’s a picture of sustainable salvation.
It seems more than obvious that at some point in the history of the church, some ecclesiastical extension agent introduced the multiflora rose into the community of faith. From what I read in this Hebrews passage, this invasive could be characterized as an inordinate focus on doctrinal matters, those issues that can on the one hand create flowery words, but also produce some of the longest and most prolific and painful and thorniest of arguments. And as prim and proper as we might imagine God to be, the threat of this noxious species overtaking the church puts God on the verge of spitting nails and cursing the very ground. How many souls have been lost to the community, because they came in and tasted the grace of God, but it was laced with the rose hips of heavy-handed credal conformity, and they were soon pricked by the endless bloodbath belief wars that aim to prove oneself right and everyone else wrong on some matter of doctrine? And so we can envision the Master Gardener doing everything possible to preserve some space for the grace to soak in so that the good fruit can grow and flourish, resigned to the reality that part of being God means being on the verge of cussing, forever hacking away at the pretty but pesky invasives that threaten at every edge. The best we can do is seek out that good space that allows us to grow and produce some useful fruits.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.