Who is the Priest?
A sermon based on Hebrews 5:1-10 by Nathan Nettleton, 22nd October 2000
Christ is our high priest, the sole mediator between the world and God, but as the body of Christ we share in Christs task of reconciling earth and heaven.
Often when someone turns up at the door of the church looking for some kind of help, the first thing they ask when I answer the door is, Are you the priest? Youll be pleased to know that I dont usually give them a theological lecture on the difference between a priest and a pastor, but I do often feel myself wince as I say Yes. You see I do understand the distinction, and its something I feel quite strongly about. In fact it is one of the reasons Im a Baptist.
The first verse of our reading from the letter to the Hebrews is as good a place as any to begin to explain why. More importantly it is good place to start to explain why our true priest is Jesus Christ and how what we are doing here in our worship relates to what he is doing as our great high priest. The verse says, The person chosen from among mortals to be high priest is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. Put in charge of the things to do with God on behalf of others. We were talking about this in the home group on Thursday night and Frances made a helpful comparison. She said it was a bit like the role of a Union Representative when the workers wanted to communicate or negotiate with the big bosses, they send in the union rep to do it for them. Thats not a bad illustration, because in the ancient Jewish temple, to which this description in Hebrews is alluding, the idea was that God was present in the Holy of Holies - the furthest in place in the Temple, and there were limitations on who could get how close. Gentiles could only get into the outer courtyard. Ordinary religious Jews could get in further. Then further still, only the priests could go.And then finally, into the Holy of Holies where God was, only the High Priest could go, and then only once a year. So when it came to dealing with God face to face, you had to rely on the High Priest to be your union rep and do it for you.
Our reading from Hebrews went into a bit more detail describing the high priests role in offering sacrifices on behalf of people who came to make up with God after they had sinned. It speaks about the necessity for the priest to be one who understands his own weaknesses and so be able to be understanding and supportive of those he has to represent. Then it says that no one can take on this honoured responsibility unless God hand picks them for the job.
With that job description spelled out clearly, the passage goes on to describe how God has chosen Jesus Christ to be our high priest for ever. It points out that he had to go through everything we go through before he was perfectly suited to the job and it describes him as being so identified with human suffering that he did his priestly work of offering up prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears. And it says that having been appointed by God to be our high priest he has become the source of eternal salvation for us and for all who obey him.
Now although this terminology might be foreign to you, you are familiar with this because this is how we worship every week. Ken voices the question for us each week, saying Who shall stand in Gods holy place? and we all answer by quoting Psalm 24 and saying those who have clean hands and pure hearts. Then Robert voices the logical despair: Surely then, since all have sinned, we will remain far from Gods saving presence? We answer that by turning to Christ. We speak of the free gift of Gods grace and point to Christ as the one who is able to present us faultless and joyful before the glorious presence of God. We are naming Christ as our priest.
Those acknowledgements set up the whole movement of our worship. We are declaring that everything that we do from that point on in our service we do only because Christ is our high priest through whom we can approach God and hear from God. And what we go on to do is all spoken of in this passage from Hebrews. We confess our sins and seek forgiveness; we offer gifts; we offer up prayers; we offer the sacrifice of our praise and of our lives offered in gratitude and service. All this is possible only because Jesus Christ is our high priest who has direct access to God and can represent us to God. Christ mediates between us and God. Not just us individually Christ mediates between creation and creator, between heaven and earth. Christ mediates in order that there might be reconciliation. And as priest, as mediator, it is a two way thing. Christ represents us to God, but he also represents God to us. Whenever we gather here, we are one side of an act of reconciliation between heaven and earth and that reconciliation is only possible through the one and only mediator, the one and only great high priest, Jesus Christ.
However, there are some other things that need to be said about priesthood, arent there? If I said Amen and ended my sermon here, some of you would come to me quoting 1st Peter and saying that it says that we are a royal priesthood; and some of you would come quoting our liturgy and saying that we share in Christs priesthood; and some of you might even come quoting a doctrine by name - the priesthood of all believers. Is it not true then that Christ makes us all priests? Well, it depends on exactly what you mean by that question.
If you understood by that question that you individually have been made a priest and that you therefore have right of direct access to God without any mediator - that you can walk straight into the holy of holies without reference to anyone else - then you would be wrong. In that sense none of us are priests. None of us - not you, not me, not the Bishop, not Mary the mother of Jesus - has access to God other than through our high priest Jesus Christ. There are churches that teach that at least part of our access to God also requires the mediation of a properly ordained clergy person. I dont accept that, but all access requires the mediation of Christ.
What then does it mean to say that we are a royal priesthood or that we share in Christs priesthood? What it means is this: we are the body of Christ. Literally. The term the body of Christ is not just a figurative name for the church, it is a literal description of our relationship to Christ. We are his body. In our baptism we have been incorporated into Christ and we share in all that Christ is and does, including his priesthood. Because Christ prays for the world, we pray for the world - in Christ. Because Christ gives his life for the world, we give our life for the world - in Christ. Because Christ strives to reconcile earth and heaven, we strive to reconcile earth and heaven - in Christ. Everyone of us shares in the priesthood of Christ, but not in individual isolation. We share in the priesthood of Christ only in as much as we are part of his body. The doctrine is called the priesthood of ALL believers, not the priesthood of each individual believer.
So, I still squirm when people ask me if I am the priest, because no, I am not THE priest. But here around this table together we do perform priestly functions. We make offerings for sin. We consecrate ordinary things and stand in the presence of the holy. We pray for the salvation and healing of the world. We mediate between heaven and earth, representing the world to God and God to the world. We do all this in Christ and through Christ because we have been immersed into the life of our high priest and all that he is is shared with us in the grace of God.