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To Chill or Cherish “One Another”


Hebrews 12:18-24

(Part One)

Smart-alecks bother me. Cain bothers me, because Cain was a smart-aleck. “Do I have to shepherd the shepherd?”, Cain taunts God in a witticism that Cain thinks is clever and funny but which God finds smart-alecky, “Can’t that shepherd shepherd himself?”

You know the story. Cain envied his brother Abel. Cain envied Abel so very intensely that his envy exploded and in his fiery rage he slew his brother. Whereupon God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper? Do I have to look out for that ‘creep’ who is so clueless and useless that he can’t look out for himself? He’s a shepherd. Let the shepherd shepherd himself.” (You have to read the text in Hebrew to appreciate the word-play.)

Cain’s envy; Cain’s hostility; Cain’s rage: lethal rage, murderous rage. Cain thought that by killing Abel he had gotten rid of Abel and everything about him. Cain had to learn that no human being ever gets rid of another human being. Abel’s blood cried from the ground, the text tells us; Abel’s blood continued to cry from the ground. Abel’s blood kept on crying out long after Abel himself was dead. What did Abel’s blood cry? Revenge! Curse! Wretchedness!

People still envy; people still hate; people still rage; people still slay — if not in deed at least in intent (and to God it’s all the same). The result? An inextinguishable cry: revenge! curse! wretchedness!


Anyone who attends to the news sees all of this illustrated every day. The world illustrates the truth of scripture ceaselessly. The world does? What about the church? What about us? We who are Christians know that the determinant of our lives is Jesus Christ our Lord. He makes us who we are; his truth, his light, his life — these make us who we are. And yet while Jesus Christ is certainly the definitive determination, the counter determination remains: Adam, Eve, Cain, and so on. In other words, we must always be alert to the spirit of Cain in us and in the church. We must be quick to identify Cain as soon as Cain insinuates himself here, with his envy, hostility, rage, murderous heart.

Prophet and apostle are realistic when they caution believing people against that carelessness which naively thinks that Cain’s spirit could never infiltrate the church. Prophet and apostle know what can arise within any congregation or Christian organization.


(i) [Galatians 5:26] For this reason the apostle Paul cautions the Christians in Galatia, “Don’t provoke one another; let’s not have any provoking of one another.”

A psychiatrist under whom I studied taught me that as people move into adulthood they develop adult attitudes and behaviours. But emotionally they never leave their early stages behind; just under the surface the most mature adult is still emotionally a child and an adolescent. If even the most mature adult is jabbed or prodded or pricked or provoked, what surfaces instantly is the child or the adolescent.

Do you remember when your children were very young? Two of them were sitting in the back seat of the car. The back seat was certainly big enough for both. Before you were two miles from home the two youngsters concluded that the back seat wasn’t big enough. One encroached on the other’s space. The second one jabbed the first. The first then ridiculed the second. The second then poked the first again. Ten miles from home and the back seat was a battleground.

Children? The same behaviour is seen in animals. The last time I was at the circus (few things delight me more than a circus) I watched the “tamed” lions and tigers inside the steel-mesh cage. They were all perched on their stools, sitting on their haunches, front paws between their hind legs, when one lion stuck out a paw and poked the lion beside him. The second lion ignored it. Whereupon the first lion poked his neighbour again. Now the second lion turned to the first and roared fearsomely. The first lion (the provoker) then roared back as though he had been attacked without provocation and was now highly insulted. As I watched these animals I thought to myself, “That’s my family! That’s our society! That’s humankind!”

The apostle Paul cautions us about the spirit of Abel in the congregation: “Don’t provoke one another.”

(ii) [James 4:11] The apostle James adds, “Don’t speak evil against one another.” Would we? Would we ever speak evil against one another? Yes, sadly, if envy rooted itself in us and festered into hostility.

There are two ways of speaking evil against one another. One way is to say what isn’t true. Another way, much more subtle, is to way what is true but isn’t necessary. There is much about every one of us that is perfectly true and just for this reason we should never want it broadcast. Then we ought to accord others the same consideration we want accorded us. There is much about every one of us that we don’t want broadcast not because it isn’t true, but because it is.

Paul tells us that our speech is to edify; our speech is to build up, build up both the hearer and the speaker. In addition, our speech is to impart grace. If human speech imparts the grace of God, then our speech is to be the vehicle of Jesus Christ’s self-declaration and self-giving. Unless our speech is the vehicle of Christ’s self-declaration and self-giving we are speaking evil against one another. And this, James tells us, we must not do.

(iii) [Proverbs 25:9] Next the writer of Proverbs insists, “Don’t disclose another’s secret.” Secrets are important. Secrets are essential to privacy. Privacy is essential to personhood. Personhood is essential to intimacy. Therefore secrets are essential to intimacy.

A few weeks ago I was asked, more or less casually, what I had been about for the 44 years I’ve been ordained. While the question was more or less casual, the questioner not looking for anything beyond the ‘chatty’, I decided to answer it seriously. “For the last 44 years”, I replied earnestly, “I have been preoccupied with the meaning of intimacy: intimacy with God, intimacy with others, but always and everywhere intimacy because I have little use for superficiality. In fact I can’t understand people who want to live without intimacy, although I meet such people constantly.”

Secrets (confidentiality) are essential to intimacy. We don’t have to answer every question that is put to us. There are some questions about us that we shouldn’t answer, just as there are questions about our most intimate friends that we shouldn’t answer.

There are even some questions (I have to be careful here) about our life in God that we shouldn’t answer, at least not answer for anyone at all. If someone asks us profoundly there is no harm in answering; but to answer a mocker or a trifler just because we have been asked is to throw pearls before pigs (in the words of Jesus); it’s to give what is holy to the dogs. To answer a trifler is to trivialize an intimacy that is beyond any words to articulate.

There are secrets (other people’s secrets) we ought not to disclose because to disclose them would break confidentiality; there are secrets (our own) we ought not to disclose because to disclose them would be exhibitionistic at best; at worst, to disclose them would trivialize them, cheapen them.

(iv) [Galatians 5:15] Lastly, Paul sums it all up for us as we endeavour to avoid victimizing each other here, Cain-like: “Don’t bite, devour, and consume one another.” If we begin by provoking each other, we shall end by biting, devouring and consuming each other. If we speak evil against one another, if we disclose each other’s secrets, we shall certainly bite, devour and consume one another.

Then all of this we must avoid lest the sin of Cain recrudesce and spread among us within our fellowship.


(Part Two)

Cain isn’t the last word, however; Jesus Christ is the last word. The blood of Abel isn’t the last cry to be heard; the blood of Jesus is. The book of Hebrews (12:24) insists, “The blood of Jesus speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” The blood of Abel cried for revenge. The blood of Jesus announces reconciliation. Within the fellowship of the reconciled, within a congregation, there is a particular way of relating to one another.

(i) [Romans 15:7] “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” How did Christ welcome us? Not by pretending that we aren’t sinners; not by pretending that our sinnership doesn’t make us more prickly than a porcupine and more obnoxious than an odour. Christ welcomed us, rather, by absorbing it all in himself; and having absorbed it all, inviting us to step toward him in the access he thereby created for us.

To be sure, we don’t absorb each other’s sin in the same sense that Christ has absorbed ours. After all, sin is uniquely an offence against God; he is uniquely victimized in our sin. And since only a victim can forgive, there is a welcome wherewith God welcomes us in his Son that is uniquely God’s welcome.

At the same time there is a derivative welcome that we must extend to each other as we absorb in ourselves the consequences of each other’s sin: the prickliness, the obnoxiousness, the ill-temper, the defensiveness surrounding self-interest. We absorb it, and therein we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.

(ii) [Romans 12:10] Yet more than a welcome is needed; warmth is needed. It’s always possible for us to deceive ourselves about the welcome we accord others; we can assume that because our welcome is polite it’s also warm; that because the invitation has been issued it’s also winsome. But this assumption is false. For this reason Paul adds, “Love one another with brotherly affection.”

On my first assignment following ordination I frequently dropped into the home of my colleague-in-ministry in rural New Brunswick. He had graduated from theology (University of Toronto) in the same year as I, but since we had never had any classes together we had never become acquainted with each other. I was glad to have a fellow-Torontonian handy when I was so far from home. As often as I dropped into his manse he and his wife welcomed me politely. They always put on the kettle and made tea, supplementing the tea with his wife’s prize-winning baking. But their welcome was never warm. As soon as we had settled and conversation had begun I was asked, “What do you think of the communicatio idiomata?” — or something like that. (Communicatio idiomata is an expression used to describe an aspect of Luther’s thought.) I replied cautiously. I was always nervous when I replied because I knew that my colleague didn’t want help with the answer; he wanted to test me. I always felt I was under review, always felt I was being examined, always felt I had to prove myself. Plainly he wanted to see if I agreed with the answer. The tricky thing was that I didn’t know whether I was supposed to agree with Luther on this point. On the one hand, my colleague, a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist, often spoke of Calvin as a second-generation Lutheran; on the other hand, he regarded Calvin as a decided improvement on Luther. Therefore I didn’t know whether the communicatio idiomata was or wasn’t, in my colleague’s opinion, one of those areas where Calvin had improved upon Luther, was or wasn’t something I in turn was supposed to approve. I never knew where I stood with this couple. Yes, they welcomed me, but they welcomed me only to put me on trial. I never felt “brotherly affection”.

How different it was in my congregation, Streetsville United Church, whose pastor I was for 21 years before going to teach fulltime at Tyndale. The congregation there abounded in affection. In that congregation I found oceanic affection. To be sure, all congregations possess civility. (Without civility the congregation would fragment.) All congregations are aware of proper procedure. (Without proper procedure nothing can get done.) But the Streetsville congregation had affection. At least in my interactions with the congregation I found myself bathed in a sea of affection.

Wherever I went as guest-preacher I commended this congregation. When other pastors told me how emotionally isolated they were in their congregations I told them they needed a “rest-cure” in Streetsville. The welcome there was shot-through with brotherly affection.

(iii) [Colossians 3:16] But of course we can’t spend all our time in the bathtub of affection. At some point we have to do something besides soak. “Admonish one another; admonish one another in all wisdom.” The apostle is being very careful here. We do have to correct one another; we do have to reprove, rebuke one another. From time-to-time we do have to disagree with someone else in the congregation; more than disagree, oppose. But our having to do this must never become an occasion for abusing or despising those with whom we disagree. The substance of the matter (disagreement, correction, rebuke, opposition); the substance of the matter is one thing. The style or manner or mood of our disagreement is something else. Yes, we must admonish each other (church-life isn’t a matter of mutual flattery); but we must admonish each other in all wisdom (church-life isn’t the occasion of “getting even”).

Think of Peter and Paul. Paul felt that Peter had “sold out” to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The church-members in Jerusalem insisted that when Gentiles became Christians they first had to become Jews. Judaism was the stepping stone to faith in Christ. Paul thundered, “No! The gospel invites Gentiles to embrace Jesus Christ as they are without first becoming Jews.” Peter didn’t see it this way. The result? Paul said, “When I saw Peter I opposed him to his face.” Two things are to be noted here. Paul opposed Peter (no compromise), and opposed him to his face (not behind his back).

It isn’t the case that affection and admonition are mutually exclusive. Rather, they imply each other. If we truly love one another with brotherly affection, then we shall admonish each other and receive admonition without taking offense.

(iv) [1 Thessalonians 5:11] Yet our mutual admonition is always for the sake of mutual encouragement and edification. Not surprisingly, then, Paul adds, “Encourage one another and build one another up.”

To encourage is to supply with “coeur”, heart. All of us need to be supplied with heart. It’s easy to be dis-couraged, dis-heartened, have one’s heart taken away. It’s easy if only because we live in a world that is the venue of seething spirits, only one of which is holy. We live in a world that is riddled with principalities and powers, all of which are fallen. We seek refuge in a congregation that is neither better nor worse than any New Testament congregation, none of which was problem-free. Then we must be all the more careful to encourage one another, hearten one another, build each other up.

(v) [John 13:14] It all comes together in one final imperative: “Wash one another’s feet.” Our Lord says that we are to wash one another’s feet. In first century Palestine the washing of feet was the work of the lowest servant; it was the most menial of menial tasks. Who washed whose feet at the last supper? The master was the servant. It was a demonstration of our Lord’s uncontrived humility; it was an instance of self-renunciation. More than this, it was an anticipation of the self-renunciation of the cross. For there not only did the master become servant, but the Son of God became sin in order that sinners, you and I, might become sons and daughters of God.

(Victor Shepherd Westport Presbyterian Church, 2014)













To Chill or Cherish “One Another”


The blood of Abel cries for revenge.

(i) Don’t provoke one another. (Galatians 5:26)

(ii) Don’t speak evil against one another. (James 4:11)

(iii) Don’t disclose one another’s secret. (Proverbs 25:19)

(iv) Don’t bite, devour and consume one another. (Galatians 5:15)


The blood of Jesus, “which speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24), announces reconciliation.

(i) Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you. (Romans 15:7)

(ii) Love one another with brotherly affection. (Romans 12:10)

(iii) Admonish one another in all wisdom. (Colossians 3:16)

(iv) Encourage one another and build one another up. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

(v) Wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)