Conscience and Community Print
Theology
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 05 May 2010 12:02

The letter to the Hebrews uses the word “conscience” a number of times.  The Old Covenant sacrifices are ineffective because they “cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience” (9:9), but the blood of Jesus “cleanses your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (9:14).  Sprinkled with the blood of Christ and the water of baptism, we are cleansed from an “evil conscience” so that we can draw near to serve God in His house (10:22).

The author of Hebrews does want to assure individual Christians that they can stand before God without fear.  Under the Old Covenant system, everyone had to stand at a distance.  No one could draw near, not “boldly.”  Because sins had not been removed once and for all, everyone was left cowering with Adam among the trees of the garden, hiding from the presence of God.

But the letter is not only concerned with individual consciences.  The author is also interested in the promotion of Christian community.

That is the drive and direction of the whole book.  All the fascinating treatment of angels, the wilderness and Joshua and the conquest, priests, sacrifices, sanctuaries, and men of faith culminate in the practical exhortations of chapter 13.  The purpose of a new and better covenant, a new and better priest, a new and better sacrifice is to prepare a people who will “offer to God an acceptable service (latreuomen) with reverence and awe.”  The whole point is to make us acceptable bridal food for the God who is a consuming fire (12:28-29).

That acceptable priestly service is not liturgical in a narrow sense.  The church is a temple, and all ministry in and out from the church is part of the pleasing sacrifice.  Christian liturgy involves love for the brethren, hospitality to strangers, visiting prisoners, sexual purity, contentment and freedom from rapacious greed, continuous praise, sharing, submission to leaders (13:1-6, 15-17).  With such sacrifices God is pleased.

But why would this involve a cleansed conscience?  Why can’t people with bad consciences welcome strangers and visit prisoners?  Why do we need a clean conscience to do good and share?

This is the challenge posed by post-Enlightenment modernity, which promises to achieve a peaceful and just society without any need for Jesus, especially without any need for the indecency of blood and cross.  By a sheer act of will, we can make ourselves decent folk, and we can all just get along.  If we don’t quite get utopia, we can get a reasonable approximation, good enough for government work.

The Enlightenment’s dream can be realized in part for awhile, at least in civilizations where a faint echo of the gospel still lingers.  It cannot work in the long run, as the last whispers of the gospel slip into silence or are drowned by more insistent voices.  Men are created in God’s image and cannot escape the knowledge of God.  They know that those who practice sin will die.  People can harden their consciences against God, suppress guilt, but they cannot completely eradicate it.  The nagging sense that we have violated God’s law cannot be shaken.

Guilty people need to appease their guilt.  They want to get rid of it, and they often realize that they cannot get rid of it themselves.  Sometimes they salve conscience by masochistic behavior, by taking out the punishment on themselves.  They make themselves the sacrificial victims hoping that their own blood will cleanse their conscience.  Sometimes people take out their guilt on others.  They turn sadist and treat other people as scapegoats.  Rather than owning up to their sins, they blame other people or society for their failings and deploy their victim status to manipulate others.

Neither masochism nor sadism is a basis for community.  Sadists don’t make good neighbors or friends.  Masochists look less dangerous, but they are equally incapable of the self-gift that is necessary to any genuine love.  As the prophylactic shield of Christianity has been stripped from the West, sadism and masochism, always lurking in the shadows, have come out in the open in everything from popular entertainment and pornography to eating disorders and proliferating body piercings.

There cannot be true love, true fellowship, true communion until guilt is dealt with.  Once our consciences are cleansed, we are freed from masochism.  It is not our blood that atones, but the blood of Jesus.  We are freed from sadism: It is not the blood of our neighbor that atones, but the blood of Jesus.

Through the one sacrifice of the one priest, we are cleansed in conscience so that we can be priests, servants of God in the church, doing good to all men and offering to God acceptable service, acceptable sacrifice, acceptable blood, the only acceptable blood of Jesus.



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