A sermon on Hebrews 5: 5-10 by Nathan Nettleton, 29 March 2009
Priests don’t often get very good press these days. When priests appear in the news, it seems that it is usually for some sort of serious abuse of money, sex or power. There has been a priest up in Brisbane getting quite positive press in recent weeks for being in conflict with the hierarchy of his church, and the public have been rallying around him. Personally, I agree with him on many of the things he is fighting for, but I still think he’s on the wrong tram. If you are in a church that defines itself by conformity to a certain body of teaching and its authorised teachers, and you find yourself fundamentally out of step with that body of teaching, then at some point you have to accept that you don’t belong in that church and you can’t continue to act as one of its authorised representatives. I see he has, this week, accepted a deal which will see him leave after Easter, so perhaps he has come to accept that too. The concept of being a representative is an important aspect of what it means to be a priest. That’s one of the reasons we take it so seriously when a priest betrays our trust. It reflects not only on them, but on all they represent.
And so in an era when the first things that come to many minds when they think of priests are scandal and disrepute, it is more of a problem than ever to think of Jesus as being a priest, our great high priest. But that is what our reading from the letter to the Hebrews calls him. Jesus was “designated by God a high priest”, the writer tells us.
Evidently this idea was a problem at the time too. The problem then was a little different then though. To those who knew well the Jewish priestly traditions, as this writer obviously did, there were all sorts to problems with calling Jesus a priest. For starters, Jesus was from the wrong tribe. Israel’s priests came from the tribe of Levi, and Jesus was from the tribe of Judah. Then there was the fact that Jesus never served as a priest at the temple. We do have record of him preaching in the synagogues as a rabbi, but that is quite a different role. Rabbis were not priests. Rabbis taught and preached. Priests offered sacrifices at the altar, and there is no suggestion that Jesus ever did that. What’s more Jesus clashed openly with the priests. Just two weeks ago we heard the story of Jesus disrupting the temple business and denouncing it as a den of thieves.
The writer to the Hebrews is clearly aware of these problems and seeks to address them. The references to the mysterious legendary figure of Melchizedek the Priest are part of this. By saying that Jesus has “been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek,” the writer locates Jesus in a priestly order that pre-dates the priestly order of the Levites. It is also an order that is not uniquely Jewish and so it opens up the possibility of a more universal priesthood. But more important, certainly for us, is the claim that it was God who appointed Jesus as our high priest. The writer is clearly wanting to dispel any suspicions that Jesus was some sort of dubious self-appointed priest, or that he had simply been given that title by his fan club. Jesus never sought to glorify himself in this way, says the writer. And indeed, since one of the basic functions of the priest is to be a representative of God, how one is appointed is pretty important. Anyone who claims for themselves the role of representing God is to be viewed with scepticism. It is God who decides who will represent God, and God has appointed Jesus to do so. As the writer says, Jesus was appointed by God with the words of scripture:
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”; (Psalm 2:7)
and “You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)
These questions of Jesus’ right and authority to be called a priest are dealt with in the first half of the reading we heard, because they are establishing that Jesus is and can be our priest. They aim to reassure us that our need for a priest is able to be met in Jesus. But that raises another question. Who, in this day and age, needs a priest? After all, the temple is long gone, and even the Jews do not still offer the sacrifices prescribed in the Hebrew Scriptures, so what do we need a priest for?
The essential role of a priest is not the offering of sacrifices. That was a means to an end, not the end in itself. The essential role of a priest is one of mediating between God and the people. The priest represents God in words and action to the people, and represents the people in words and actions to God. Sacrifices were one of the actions used, but in the absence of sacrifices, the priestly role of representing God to us and us to God continues. Why? Because God is God and we are not. Because God’s ways are not our ways, and without someone who can bridge the gap, who can make God known to us, we will give up in despair. As the Bible often attests, those who encounter God too directly usually fall down and scream and think they are going to die. We need to draw close to God, but we need help to do so. We can’t do it ourselves, so we need someone who is special and unique, someone who is greater than us, to enable us to do it. And so, says the writer, we can be assured that Jesus is the special unique son of God, appointed by God to be our high priest, the one who can bring us safely into the presence of God.
But there is something else going on in the reading we heard tonight, in the second half. Here we are not being told how different Jesus is from us, but how much like us he is. Why? Because the perfect priest is not only a godly person, but also a person of the people. A person people can relate to, and even more importantly, a person who can relate to the people. Because the priest does not only represent God. The priest also represents the people, to God. And you can’t represent people you can’t understand or relate to. If you are going to represent people, you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes and have a good feel for what they are going through.
If we are going to have someone representing us to God, we don’t want it to be someone who can’t relate at all to our struggles and so would just tell God that we are a hopeless messed up bunch and that God might as well give up on us. We want someone who knows what it is like and so can plead our case with compassion and understanding. And so, having just told us how different from us Jesus is, the writer now wants to tell us how like us Jesus is. Often such a point is made by looking directly to the cross and showing how much Jesus suffered there, but this writer doesn’t go straight there. Instead we are told that “in the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” This may be an allusion to the story of Jesus praying anguished prayers in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he was killed. Our gospel reading tonight also pointed to Jesus’ awareness that his time was running out and the forces of death were closing in on him. But whether or not it is intended as a reference to that incident, the picture we are given is one we can relate to. It is a picture of Jesus weighed down and struggling with the harsh realities of life in a frightening fractured world and tearfully pleading for help and a way out. We know that feeling. Many of us know it only too well. And what we are being assured of is that Jesus is right there with us. He’s there in the midst of what we are going through, on his knees weeping with us and pleading with God with us and for us.
And no doubt, the reason the writer goes for that image, rather than for the potentially sacrificial image of the cross, is that it is the role of the priest in prayer that he most wants to assure us of. The role of the priest is to pray with us and for us, to represent us to God in bringing our prayers to the attention of God. And we can be assured that Jesus can be an effective and faithful representative of us, because he has been there with us, struggling as we struggle and crying our to God as we cry out.
In the early church they had a saying about Jesus. They said, “he was not like us, and therefore he can help us; he was like us, and therefore he will help us.” That’s the message of this reading from the letter to the Hebrews.
In a few minutes, Garry and Jan will be leading us in our prayers of intercession. What they are doing, here in the final stages of the catechumenate, is learning something of the priestly role. Not because they are about to be ordained as priests, but because they are about to be immersed into the membership of the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ, we all share in his priesthood. In him, we together stand in the gap, as participants in his priesthood, representing God to the world, and the world to God. And like him, it is our experience of pain and doubt and struggle that enables us to be faithful in bringing the prayers of a broken world to God. So let’s stand to affirm our faith before we join Jesus, and Garry and Jan, on our knees in prayer for one another and the world.