Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sermon: 20 Pentecost (18 October 2009)

Sermon: 20 Pentecost 2009 (18 Oct 2009)
(Job 38:1-7, 34-41/Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c/Hebrews 5:1-10/Mark 10:34-45)
A Royal Priesthood

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

For twelve years the five kings of the plain – including Bera, king of Sodom – had served and paid tribute to Chedorlaomer, king of Elam. In the thirteenth year they rebelled. Chedorlaomer and his allies Amraphel, Arioch, and Tidal massed their armies and came against the kings of the plain routing them and taking possession of property and people. Abram’s nephew Lot was captured in the raid against Sodom.

When Abram learned of Lot’s capture, he assembled his 318 trained men – his family army – and pursued Chedorlaomer. Though certainly outnumbered, Abram divided his forces and attacked by night; God gave him victory over his foes. So Abram rescued Lot and brought back to Sodom all his goods, as well as the women captives and all the people.

Then the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings with him. Now Melchizadek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hands.” Then Abram gave him a tithe of all (Gen 14:17-20).[1]

If you are a faithful Roman Catholic, it is the Pope, the Bishop of Rome; if an Orthodox Christian, the Patriarchs; if a Tibetan Buddhist, the Dalai Lama. These men – Pope, Patriarchs, and Dalai Lama – are the spiritual leaders of their respective global faith communities. Even more, in some sense, they are the physical embodiment of the faith, the earthly focal point; the positions they hold – not the men, but the positions – are essentially indispensable. Just try to imagine Roman Catholicism without the papacy: Christianity, yes, but Catholicism, no.

For the first century Jew, the equivalent was the High Priest. Only he could enter the Holy of Holies and atone for the sins of the nation: no high priest, no atonement; no high priest, no reconciliation with God. The priestly tribe of Levi was responsible for all temple worship, from administrative responsibilities, to liturgical worship, to offerings and sacrifices. Without this brotherhood of priests – and the high priest specifically – the first century practice of Judaism was impossible.

So, the loss of the priesthood – the loss of the High Priest, in particular – was especially difficult for first century Jewish Christians. Who, in their new faith in Jesus as Messiah, corresponded to the high priest? Was there any equivalent gain for this great loss? How do you have a faith without a priesthood, and a priesthood without a high priest? It is no wonder that these themes and questions figure so prominently in the letter to the Hebrews – a letter written to show the Christian faith as the fulfillment of Judaism, as superior to it in every way. How can the Christian faith be superior if it lacks a priesthood and a high priest? So, if we are to make our way through the letter, it is to the priesthood that we must turn our attention.

I am used to students asking, Why do we have to learn this? what’s this good for? and other such questions. And I can image that you might have similar questions now: We’re not first century Jews, so why do we need to know about the priesthood? Without this knowledge, though, it is impossible to understand who Jesus is for us and for the world, and who we are for one another and for the world. These issues of priesthood lie near the heart of Christology – the nature of Christ – and ecclesiology – the nature of the church. Bear with me a bit, and trust that it will become clear.

The first man was the first priest. Adam, because he was the pinnacle of creation, fashioned by God from the dust of the ground, was able to represent all of creation before God through his worship and obedience. Only man is able to come before God and give voice to creation’s praise and thanksgiving. Our Eucharistic Prayer (Anaphora of St. Basil) acknowledges this unique priestly vocation of man:

Countless throngs of angels stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, they offer you unceasing praise. Joining with them, and giving voice to every creature under heaven (emphasis supplied), we acclaim you, and glorify your Name, as we sing, Holy, holy, holy…

But man is more than creature; man is creature fashioned in the image of God and enlivened by the breath/Spirit of God. And so, man is uniquely able to bear the image of God before creation and thus represent God to creation. Again, our Eucharistic Prayer recalls this priestly role of man:

You formed us in your own image, giving the whole world into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures.

Man – male and female – was created to be a priest: to represent creation before God and to represent God before creation. The first role of the priesthood, formed into our bodies and breathed into our spirits, is representation. That capacity for representation was an essential part of the nature and vocation of man.

But, much changed with the fall. Man could no longer perfectly represent creation before God, for now man was a creature in rebellion against God. Nor could man truly and adequately represent God before creation, for the image of God in man was distorted by sin. Thus, the original priesthood of man was lost. Though our disobedience took us far from God, God did not abandon us to the power of death, but appointed other priests – patriarchs like Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and later the descendants of Aaron, to serve a new priestly role: the ministry of reconciliation. These men offered sacrifice for the sin of the people, offerings of blood to cover the penalty of sin. Of course, these priests were subject to the same sins as the people, so, before offering sacrifice for the people, they first offered sacrifice for themselves. Theirs was, at best, an imperfect priesthood due to their complicity in sin and due to the inherent limitations of their ministry. While their priesthood might facilitate reconciliation – forgiveness of specific transgressions – it could not accomplish restoration – the recreation of man as perfect image bearer of God and representative of all creation. The Jewish priesthood – the Aaronic priesthood – with its high priest bore this limitation: a priesthood as guilty before God as the people, unable to fulfill the original priestly vocation of representation.

So, Paul writes to the Hebrew Christians:

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sin. And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb 5:1-4).

What is needed is a priesthood prior to the Aaronic priesthood, a priesthood uncontaminated by sin, a priesthood not merely of reconciliation, but also of restoration. And that, Paul argues, is precisely what we now have in Jesus – our great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.

So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him:
“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten you.”

As He also says in another place:
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:5-6).

To the first century, Jewish Christians who deeply felt the loss of the Aaronic priesthood and the high priest, Paul points to Jesus, our Great High Priest from the order of Melchizedek, an order prior to and superior to Aaron, an order free from the sin that affected the Aaronic priests. This Melchizedek that greeted Abram on his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer was no mere human priest. Look at his name: Melchizedek – the king of righteousness. Look at his title: the king of Salem – the king of shalom, the king of peace. Look at his actions: he brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High.” This was a eucharistic feast – a victory feast of thanksgiving – served by the righteous king of peace. This Melchizedek was a shadow of Jesus certainly, and an epiphany of Jesus perhaps: Jesus in person, Jesus in bread and wine, Jesus our great High Priest from before time and forever. So says the church.

“Where is the high priest?” ask the Jewish Christians. “Look to Jesus,” answers Paul.

But what of those other priests – those who offer sacrifices, those who intercede for the people with God and who intercede for God with the people, those who pray and sing and order worship: not the high priest, but the great brotherhood of the priests? Where are they in this new faith in Jesus the Messiah?

St. Paul doesn’t answer this question; he is more interested in Jesus as high priest. But St. Peter and St. John do: priests abound, they insist – and not just in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, but everywhere in the church.

4 Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

9 [But] you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pe 2:4-5, 9).

St. Peter speaks to the church here – to the whole church – and proclaims the church – the whole church – a holy priesthood, a royal priesthood. St. John echoes this understanding in his greeting to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

4 John, to the seven churches which are in Asia:Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, 6 and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev 1:4-6).

Clearly, according to Peter – the rock upon whom the church was founded – and John – the beloved disciple and theologian – every member of the church is a priest of God the Father of Jesus Christ, our great high priest. Baptism is ordination to the Christian priesthood. You exercise your priestly vocation every time you intercede with God in prayer on behalf of another or on behalf of the world; every time you show forth his praise with truly thankful hearts, not only with your lips but with your lives; every time you give up yourselves to his service and walk before him in holiness and righteousness; every time you go out into the world to do the work God has given you to do, to his glory and honor. The priesthood is not the limited calling of a few, but the open call to all members of Christ’s body. To be in Christ is to be in the priesthood.

Within the priesthood of all believers there are many and varied ministries: some are deacons, some are presbyters/bishops, some are teachers, some are pastors; some show hospitality, some give generously, some heal, some prophesy, some sing, some comfort; some exhibit wisdom, some have knowledge, some discern spirits; some do this and some do that, but all are priests exercising their priestly vocations through specific ministries.

I recently experienced the priesthood of all believers in a very profound and personal way, through a family tragedy – the sudden and unexpected death of a young niece. As the extended family gathered at her parent’s home on the night of the death, the grieving mother looked especially to one sister-in-law for comfort. Why? Because two years earlier – almost to the day – this sister-in-law had experienced the similar loss of her own daughter. That night she was truly a priest, exercising her Christian priesthood in offering comfort and hope to grieving parents. She was uniquely qualified to do so through what she herself had suffered. Our gracious God works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Even death and suffering are redeemed in his hands, for God is not helpless before his creatures. Sometimes our priesthood is born of suffering, which brings up back around again to Jesus, our Great High Priest.

5 So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: “ You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.”

6 As He also says in another place:
“ You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek”;

7 who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, 8 though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. 9 And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, 10 called by God as High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:5-10).

Christ, our Great High Priest, suffered and died so that he might become perfectly able to help us who suffer and die, so that he might be the author of our eternal salvation.

Does our faith have a high priest? Yes, Jesus Christ the King of Righteousness, the King of Peace, the high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Does our faith have a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of priests? Yes, all the members of the body of Christ ordained through baptism and called to many and various ministries of grace in their priestly vocation. What remains is for us to exercise our priestly calling: to represent God before the world, to represent the world before God, to proclaim good news, to preach reconciliation, to call all to repentance and to speak words of forgiveness – to exercise the priesthood of representation and reconciliation as Christ, our Great High Priest, exercises his priesthood of the restoration of all things.

To our Great High Priest be glory and honor now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all New Testament Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. and all Old Testament Scripture quotations are from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint, copyright © 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology.

1 comment:

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