“My Mind Stayed on Jesus”
The African-American spiritual “I Woke Up This Morning,” begins this way:
“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.” That is sung three times, then, “Halle-lu, Halle- lu, Halle-lujah!” That may be the heart of the message of “The Letter to the Hebrews.” Keep your minds stayed on Jesus.
I wrote in a previous blog of my interest in the Letter to the Hebrews. I’am teaching on this New Testament book this fall and winter. Several of you asked that I update you here as this project unfolded.
The “Letter” is really a sermon addressed to an exhausted congregation of first century Christians. They were drifting away from the faith and from one another. (For more background click on link above to my earlier blog.)
Amid the challenges, troubles, and distractions besetting the congregation addressed in this vigorous letter, the message is, “Keep Your Minds Stayed on Jesus.”
Turns out, that’s a problematic message for many liberal or mainline congregations. You might think that being focused on Jesus Christ would be sort of like the go-to for Christian congregations. But at least in my experience, that’s not so. A quip about my own denomination, U.C.C. (United Church of Christ) is that it stands for “Unitarians Considering Christ.”
Why would this be the case?
More than half a century ago the theologian H. R. Niebuhr observed, “That churches tend to be churches of one person of the Trinity or another.” Many mainline churches have been first person of the Trinity churches. Definitely true of the church in which I grew up. Emphasis was on God the Creator, God the Father, God the Holy One. “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise” was our kind of hymn.
On the other hand, most evangelical churches, the bulk of which these days tend politically conservative, are pretty Jesus focused. If there is anything that liberal and mainline types know it is “we’re not like them.” And we sure as hell don’t want anyone to think we are. So, if having a big thing about Jesus risks guilt by association with the Religious Right, forget it.
Related to this is that often the way a focus on Jesus seems to get expressed is in what might be called “Christian triumphalism.” As in, “We are the ones — the only ones — who have the truth.” “No one gets saved/ to heaven except those who ‘accept Jesus.'” “We are the true religion, all others false, bad, etc.” It sounds and is so un-generous, and so un-Jesus like.
The one part of the church that is focused on Jesus, but isn’t politically conservative, is the African-American or Black Church in America. I remember one of my fellow pastors, African-American, schooling me about preaching at his church. “It’s got to be about Jesus,” he said. In other words, it can’t be all contemporary events, or abstract social justice, or wise moral counsel or learned reflections on the elusive and unknowable God. “It has got to be about Jesus. If you don’t get to Jesus,” he added, “it may be a lot of things, but — for us — it ain’t preaching.”
Such a focus in the African-American Church in the U.S. provides a clue to understanding Hebrews. The congregation to which it was addressed was, like the Black Church for most of its history, beset on every side. They were not the socially powerful or the privileged. They were suppressed and oppressed. They were hanging on by a thread in a world that told them they were nobody, that saw them as sub-human, as outsiders. So Jesus, who as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “was crucified outside the gates (of the city)” made sense. An outsider. Crucified like a common criminal. Said to be sub-human.
For the congregation addressed in “Hebrews,” the point of keeping their “minds stayed on Jesus,” was to keep focused on what really matters, on the heart and soul of the faith, amid all kinds of challenges, discouragements and distractions. It wasn’t about bragging on Jesus or putting down other faiths — which (apart from Judaism) weren’t really on the radar at that point. It was about keeping a firm hold — “holding fast” — as it is put in Hebrews to what kept you anchored amid the storm.
Don’t know about you, but conditions these days seem pretty stormy — for almost everyone. “Keeping our minds stayed on Jesus” is a bit like the secular counsel to, “Keep the main thing the main thing.” Stay focused. Stay focused on Jesus.
Hold fast to the one who knows our every weakness, who has shared our suffering and temptation, and yet who reigns at the right hand of God.
In the midst of the raging storm stand firm by holding fast to this strong anchor: Christ crucified and risen. Keep your minds stayed on Jesus. That’s the core of “The Letter to the Hebrews.”