Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lent 5 - Sun, April 2, 2006 - A Royal Priesthood

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

So, Jesus Christ, " a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek." I have to say, that's one of the more obscure references in our Bible, and not one we spend a lot of time thinking about. Melchizedek, it turns out, was the King of Salem in the Old Testament, and he offered some hospitality and a blessing to Abram and Sarai as they travelled on their way to the land that God was going to give them. Melchizedek gets about three verses in the entire Bible, not counting the reference made to him here in our second reading for this morning.

But it's not really Melchizedek that the writer of Hebrews is trying to get us to think about - it's the concept of Christ as our high priest. Now, again, we have a concept that's a little hard to understand. We Lutherans don't spend a lot of time talking about priests, much less high priests. Our church leaders are called pastors, not priests like in the Anglican or Catholic traditions. And even they don't have high priests. So what are we to make of this imagery of Christ as our high priest?

Well, the priestly concept has its biblical roots in the Old Testament. In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we hear about the priestly class, and how they're supposed to perform their duties, and what they should wear, and how they're supposed to behave and keep themselves pure. Historically speaking, the priests were the ones who ran the Temple in Jerusalem after it was built, which wasn't until the time of King Solomon. Then, after the Temple was destroyed for a second time at the end of the first century A.D., priests ceased to exist. There was no Temple for them to perform their duties in, so they were all laid-off, so to speak.

But the need for priests still existed. You see, underneath all the religious rituals that the priests performed, and underneath the funny clothes that they wore while they were doing them, there was something fundamental going on. The priest had a unique function in the religious world, in the world of the faithful believers, and that was this: the priest was a representative. Now, if you're thinking that I mean the priest represented God to the people, you would be right. The priest stood up in the Temple and became a living image of God for the people gathered there. The priest was a flawed image, to be sure, being human and not divine, but in the moment of performing his duties, the priest was taken as the representation of God - the words he spoke were God's words, whether they were words of condemnation and judgement, or words of forgiveness and mercy. The curses he uttered were God's curses, the blessings were God's blessings.

But the priest was more than just a representative of God. The priest was also a representative of the people. The priest would stand before God during the service, and be the image of the people to God. His words of confession were the people's words of confession. His pleas for mercy were their pleas for mercy. His thanksgivings for forgiveness were their thanksgiving. And so just as the priest was a representation of God to the people, he was also the representation of the people to God.

And so we have the writer of Hebrews calling Christ our high priest. Which makes perfect sense. No, Christ never performed rituals in the Temple, but he was the living image of God to us, and he was the living image of humanity to God. His crying out to God for mercy, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, and even his death on the cross were all carried out by Christ as the representative of humanity. His cries for mercy were and are our cries. His suffering is the suffering we ought to be going through. His death is the death we ought to be going through. But he represented us, so that we wouldn't have to go through all that.

Likewise, just as Christ did all these things representing us, he also did things representing God to us. His healing of the sick and suffering was God's healing. His ministry and love of those around him was God's love. His proclamation of forgiveness and inclusion was God's proclamation. God, being incorporeal and having no body, couldn't do these things - couldn't touch, couldn't hug, couldn't speak words of forgiveness that we could hear, so Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the incarnation and bodily representation of God did it instead. Christ brings us before God, and God before us - the ultimate high priest.

But while Christ is the ultimate high priest, he is not the last priest. Maybe you've heard the phrase, "the priesthood of all believers?" It was a phrase that Martin Luther was fond of, and it comes from the first letter of Peter. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." Here, Peter and Luther are talking about the same kind of priest that the writer of Hebrews was - someone who represents God to the people and represents the people to God. Someone who cries out to God for forgiveness and then turns around and proclaims God's forgiveness to everyone there.

Now, this "you" that the writer of Peter's Letter is talking about, this "you" that Luther is thinking about is you. You, the person sitting there in the pew listening to these words. Peter and Luther aren't thinking about ordained clergy, per se, or about diaconal ministers especially, or even about particularly dedicated and educated lay people. They are thinking about you - the regular Jill Christian sitting in the pews. You are part of a royal priesthood - you are a priest.

So at this point, you might be thinking, "Whoa, not me. I'm not a priest. I'm not called to be a pastor. I'm not knowledgeable enough, or skilled enough to be a priest. I'm not a perfect Christian - how can I possible represent God to people and people to God?" And in a sense, you would be right. None of us is knowledgeable or skilled enough, or even perfect enough as Christians to be God's priests. None of us are worthy enough to stand up and say, "Here is God's Word to you - you are forgiven, go in peace." But that's not how we're called to this royal priesthood. As it turns out, the call to be a member of the priesthood of all believers comes not from how worthy we are, but from baptism. When you were baptized, each one of you, the Holy Spirit came into you, bringing God's Law and forgiveness into your hearts, making you worthy to speak on God's behalf. It sounds scary, I know, but every baptized Christian becomes authorized, and even called, to be one of Christ's priests - to proclaim forgiveness to all who need it. In fact, during the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of the service, when I say, "As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins..." that's a bit misleading. I don't have the authority of Christ to declare forgiveness because I'm ordained. I have the authority to do it because I'm baptized. And you have that same authority. You, just like me, are a priest of God.

So, given that we are all part of this royal priesthood, given that our baptism calls us to live as priests of Christ - representing the people to God and God to the people - how do we do that? Well, one way is to come to church on Sunday. You see, as a priest of Christ, when you come to church on Sunday, and say the words of confession, and hear the proclamation of forgiveness, when you hear the Bible readings and come forward to receive Communion, you are not just doing it as yourself. As a priest representing the people to God, when you come to church on Sunday, you are bringing with you all the people in your life who aren't there in that pew. You represent those family members who can't make it, those friends who don't like church, those co-workers who think you're a little odd for going to church. And when you confess your sins, you're confessing their sins, too. When you hear forgiveness, you're hearing their forgiveness. When you pray, you're praying their prayers. When you come forward to receive Communion, you are carrying in your heart all those people that you know. When you come to church on Sunday, you are representing these people before God.

But that's only half of what priests do. The other half you do when you leave the church doors and go back out into the world for the rest of the week. That's when you represent God to those people. The patience you show with others, that's God's patience. The love you show, that's God's love. The forgiveness you offer, that's God's forgiveness. Just as you represent the people to God on Sunday, you represent God to the people the rest of the time. By the power of the Holy Spirit given to you in baptism, you are one of God's priests out there in the real world.

Francis of Assisi wrote a prayer that is very famous now. He said, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy." He may not have intended it as such, but it is the prayer of a priest - to follow Christ in his steps as high priest - to bring the world before God and to bring God to the world. As we come to the end of Lent and look to the Easter resurrection, may this prayer also be our prayer, and may God help us to carry out our baptismal priestly call. Amen.

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