Most of us know Stephen Colbert as the former host of the popular late-night comedy show The Colbert Show—and still more will come to know him this Fall as Letterman’s replacement on CBS’s Late Show. But only a handful of 7-year-olds know him as their Sunday School teacher. In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Colbert revealed that he teaches Sunday School at his Catholic church.
Colbert was raised Catholic, but by his own admission he’s “highly variable in [his] devotion:”
“From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I’m first to say that I talk a good game, but I don’t know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother’s faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I’m moved by the words of Christ, and I’ll leave it at that.” (Neil Strauss, “Stephen Colbert on Deconstructing the Colbert Nation” in Rolling Stone Magazine, September 2, 2009)
You see, there was a time when Colbert had lost his faith. In a separate interview, he describes it initially as “a college angst thing,” but when pressed by the interviewer he goes a bit deeper:
“I had very sad events in my childhood. The death of my father and my brothers was understandably a shattering experience that I hadn’t really dealt with in any way. And there comes a time when you’re psychologically able to do so. I still don’t like talking about it. It still is too fresh.” (Neil Strauss, “The Subversive Joy of Stephen Colbert”)
For many, suffering proves the crucible in which faith is tested. I use Stephen Colbert as a positive example, in that while he’s gone through a period of questioning his faith, he’s on an upward journey. We could easily name others—celebrities and otherwise—that aren’t so lucky.
The writer of Hebrews understands this all too well. Recall that we’ve been examining an early Christian community that experienced enormous pressure from the surrounding culture. The author of Hebrews intends to encourage his readers to endure, to maintain a clear focus on the gospel even as they were increasingly regarded as social outcasts. But, as Marie E. Isaacs notes in her commentary, the author’s encouragement is “both carrot and stick.” Some of his encouragement comes in the form of several “warning” passages, such as the one we’ll look at today:
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution,3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Hebrews 2:1-4)
If you read closely, we’ll see hints of the two dangers that dominate the writer’s thinking. First, we see a clear warning against those who become spiritual burnouts—that is, who “drift away” from “what we have heard” (v. 1). Second, we see a (subtle) warning against those who become functional atheists—that is, who “neglect such a great salvation” (v. 3) and live life as if God were never present. These themes reappear in a total of (at least) five distinct warning passages throughout the book (2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:14-29)—though we could probably name more depending on our exact interpretation of “warning.”
What point might we make here? The author understands that the gospel is something that we either cling to or drift from. What about you? Would you define yourself as clinging to the gospel, or do you find yourself drifting now and again?
The good news is actually embedded in the very structure of the book—though we have to take a step or two backwards to notice it. If you look at the larger context here, we see this “warning” embedded in the book’s larger scope of the majesty of Jesus. Take a look:
HIGHER THAN THE ANGELS (1:5-14)
- The Son of God (1:5-6)
- The King of Israel (1:7-14)
LOWER THAN THE ANGELS (2:5-18)
- The nature of the incarnation (2:5-9)
- The purpose of the incarnation (2:10-18)
The author is making a broader point about the person of Jesus—the One who steps from heaven’s glory to the sullied streets of humanity. We’ll address this a bit further next week, but for now do you see how this “warning” serves as something of a “hinge” between these two themes? It’s as if the author of Hebrews is saying: Keep holding on! Jesus—though worthy of honor—endured the same shame you’re going through. Keep going. Endure.
Sadly, we can all think of those who slip away far too easily. The good news is that through God’s grace each of us can find our way home again. Stephen Colbert had this experience earlier in his life:
“…once I graduated from college, some Gideon literally gave me a box of The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs on the street in Chicago. I took one and opened it right away to Matthew, Chapter 5, which is the opening of the Sermon on the Mount. That whole chapter is essentially about not worrying. I didn’t read it – it spoke to me, and it was an effortless absorption of the idea. Nothing came to me in a thunderbolt, but I thought to myself, ‘I’d be dumb not to re-examine this.’” (Strauss, “The Subversive Joy…”)
If I sat down with Stephen, I don’t know that he and I would find perfect agreement on Christian doctrine. Still, we may rejoice at the trajectory he seems to be on, and being “moved by the words of Christ” has often been a first step into a larger world of faith. It will be interesting to see what influence—if any—this will have on CBS’s future Late Show comedian, but for now we can say simply this: there are many for whom faith is a prolonged journey. Along its path there are many ups and downs, the ratio of which depends entirely on the person. But what endures—what we cling to—is the person of Jesus, who stands fast regardless of culture or circumstance. Wherever you are on your journey, my prayer is that you find joy, find life, find hope in the message of Jesus, whose death and resurrection provide the promise of forgiveness and transformation.