Monday, October 29, 2012

What it Means To Be A Priest

Hebrews 5.1-10

The writer of Hebrews tells us a great deal here about his understanding of Jesus, but he starts with his understanding of what it means to be a priest. Of course, in the traditional Methodist understanding of priesthood we are all priests, so perhaps he is also telling us what it means to be a Christian.
Part of our job is to be a go-between, a bridge, between God and people on the fringe of our church life - people who are supporters rather than joiners - and people in the neighbourhood too for whom we are their community church. A lot of people look to us to do God shaped things for them. They're not ready yet to it for themselves. They might never be ready! They want us to do religion vicariously for them, on their behalf.

Of course, being a Christian doesn't mean that it's necessary for us to do anything on behalf of other people or that we have to represent them to God as a priest would normally do. None of us needs an intermediary, we can all approach God directly if we want to and - as the writer goes on to say - Jesus has made this possible for everyone by his once for all time sacrifice to make us acceptable to God no matter how unworthy we might otherwise be. But quite a lot of people, who would call themselves believers in a fairly loose and undogmatic way, or who think of themselves as honest seekers after truth, do look to us - the regular churchgoers - to do religious things vicariously for them. They're glad someone is praying and they would like us to pray for them in their hour of need, and perhaps help them to have a dignified funeral for their loved ones, or provide a worshipping community where they can celebrate weddings and baptisms. In that sense they do look to us to fulfill a priestly function for them. And being a righteous servant, getting alongside them in Jesus' name, is a priest-like function, a representative role.

You might say, 'What, me? I'm not good enough to lift other people and their concerns up to God! But isn't this what we all do every time we offer our intercessions, our prayers of concern for other people? And the writer reminds us that when we do this we must remain conscious of our own weakness. We can pray for other ignorant and wayward people, he says, only because we know how weak and wayward we are, and because we also know that we are loved and accepted by God through Jesus. We can deal gently with other people only by first recognising that God has dealt gently with us and we no longer need to offer anything to God as a way of saying sorry for our shortcomings. And, of course, representing our community to God and praying for them is something that we can do and an honour that is given to us only because we are called to it by God. The priestly task of a christian, or a church community, is not a job in the ordinary sense. It's not something we apply for or choose for ourselves. It's a vocation that is entrusted to us.

Anyway, enough about us! What are the implications of all this for what the writer believes about Jesus?

The first thing he says is that Jesus was chosen or appointed by God to take on the priestly task of representing all of humanity, and indeed the whole of creation, to God and making it an acceptable gift. I think he perhaps differs from other New Testament writers in seeing Jesus' mission as a vocation given to him at a particular point in time rather than something he was born into. He isn’t perfect from birth, he is made perfect through suffering. In the writer’s understanding Jesus is a man to whom was allotted a unique and timeless task, a role that stretches back to the beginning of all things and forward to the end if all things, but he is a man who was made perfect for the task rather than someone who was born perfect.

Whether that's quite the same as what the Creeds have go say about Jesus I'm not sure and maybe the difference has to be acknowledged, although we might think that what the creeds say is the logical conclusion of the writer’s line of thinking.

The second thing the writer asserts is that Jesus is not the sort of high priest who was in charge of the Jerusalem temple in his own day. Instead he belongs to a much older pattern of priesthood. He is a royal priest according to the order of Melchizedek, who had been the king and priest of Jerusalem in the time of Abraham. Later Israelite kings also modelled themselves on the pattern of Melchizedek, but the writers of the Old Testament didn’t entirely approve and only hints of this kind of royal priesthood remain.

However, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews hasn’t forgotten this tradition, and he includes a quotation from Psalm 2, one of the psalms once used at the coronation of the ancient kings of Judah, when explaining how Jesus was called to the priesthood. ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you,’ God tells the king during the coronation ceremony, and those are the same words that Gods uses when he designates Jesus as the true and everlasting high priest.

Jesus understood that the kind of priesthood he was being called to was a new and radical kind where he would be offering himself as a sacrifice, not animal or human substitutes, and the writer tells us that he wasn’t immediately reconciled to the idea. He offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, hoping to be saved from death, and the writer insists that God heard him even though in the end Jesus wasn’t spared and he understood that he must submit to suffering and death for our sakes in order to be able to complete his work.

The Gospels also describe Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, but Hebrews does so with an amazing amount of psychological realism. He is clear that Jesus really did not want to accept the way of the cross and was dismayed and desolated by the knowledge that he would have to submit to such a terrible death. This is why we can be sure that, no matter how afraid or alone we might sometimes feel, Jesus understands our feelings and is there with us.

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