“We are all priests according to the Order of Melchizedek.”

The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

“We are priests forever according to the Order of Melchizedek”

October 21, 2018
A sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Baptism of DNJC

“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

On the Feast of the Epiphany we reflected on the surprising gifts which the Magi brought to the child in the manger at Bethlehem. Gold-a kingly gift, Frankincense-a priestly gift, and Myrrh-a prophetic gift. Without repeating the whole sermon from that day (hopefully) that story reminds us that from the beginning Christians have struggled to understand just what the mission of Jesus was in this world.

It also reveals to us that as a Community of Faith we have wanted to better understand not only what our Lord did—but also who he was and is. This no doubt rose from the realization that there were two essential facts: Jesus is the “eternally begotten son of God” He is Emmanuel—God with us. At the very same time, Jesus is fully and totally human — “like us,” we are told, “in all things but sin.”

On the surface, those two astonishing facts might appear to be contradictory. It is no surprise, then, that some believers, in attempting to reconcile them or to make sense of them were led in what the Church said was “the wrong direction.” They were said to be proponents of heresy — “wrong belief” or “wrong teaching.” I do find it amusing that a Roman Catholic Sister I knew, (who had some very unusual theories about God) once said to me, “Every good homily contains at least one heresy.” I can not promise that I will have only one today, or that this will be a good sermon. But here we go anyway.

Theologians, (who are quite interesting people by the way), perhaps inspired by the gifts of the Magi — in the Bronx we would have been careful to avoid the term “wise guys” — that meant something quite different — came to speak of the “three-fold office” or “three-fold ministry” of Christ. When they claimed that Christ was a King they often contrasted his rule with that of earthly Kings. His was a ministry of service, and not of exploitation. He came to “serve and not to be served.” Clearly there is an example of that in the Gospel today when we are reminded that the person who is “powerful” is the servant of all.

The same holds true for the office of Prophet. The prophet was not one who made predictions about the future, but rather was one who boldly, honestly, and powerfully tells how God sees things. There is a clear distinction between God’s perspective and ours. In God’s view, every person is beautiful and deserving of love and respect. There are no outcasts or outsiders. The abundance of the earth is to be shared by all. Every, gender and orientation is created by God and is to be treated with dignity. Every life is sacred from beginning to end. God, we told, “has made of one blood all the peoples of the earth.” Thus, Christians are called to reject as sin the evils of racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia! Until we do, God’s kingdom will not be realized.

We are also reminded that the ministry of the Prophet is a difficult one. We often do not like to hear what prophets have to say. They challenge us and call us to change and grow — they call us to conversion. That can be both painful and frightening. Our beautiful reading today from the third part of the Prophet Isiah reminds us of this. It is sometimes called the “Song of the Suffering Servant.” Prophets were not afraid to speak truth to power. But, there is often a price to be paid for that. Most prophets were abused, jailed, or even killed. That gift from the Magi reminds us that myrrh was used to anoint the body of the deceased before burial.

Today, though, I am more interested in the last of those three ministries — the ministry of office of the Priest. Our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews has a good deal to say about that.

I have to take a moment to gush about the Letter to the Hebrews. I love it! It is one of my favorite parts of the Christian Scriptures. I find it to be a constant source of encouragement, hope and strength. I recall that once, during confession, a very wise and holy priest gave me an unexpected penance. He asked me to read the 12th chapter of Hebrews. Those comforting words remain with me to this day: “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” That very same passage reminds us that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” who love us, support us and pray for us on our journey. As people of faith we are united with those from every time and generation who have made this same journey. We are never alone or forgotten.

One of my favorite blessings from our Scriptures is the one which I shared at the beginning of this sermon today — and is taken from the 13th Chapter of Hebrews. Although it uses the term “great Shepherd of the Sheep,” — rather than Priest, or High Priest, I think it is saying the same thing. And although this is a blessing reminding us of Christ, it could just as easily be a blessing from Christ — asking that God who made us good enable us to do good in his name to the glory of God. In the simplest way it is a prayer that God will make us useful and helpful.

This statement of the office of High Priest, though, is a quite unusual one. If we took it literally, as defined by the law of Moses, it would seem to be an impossibility. Priests, after all — according to the Law of Moses — are descendants of Aaron. If one is an Aaronite, one does not choose to be a priest, one is born a priest. And, since the time of Solomon, supposedly, High Priests should be descendants of Zadok-who anointed Solomon as King. No one else may choose to become a priest. Jesus, we are told, is a descendant of David — not of Aaron or Zadok. So, on that basis, it would not seem to make sense at all to speak of Jesus having a priestly ministry or office.

The Letter to the Hebrews, though, shares another insight. God is broader, vaster, and wiser than any code of law or conduct. God has often done surprising things — that was true in the time of Jesus and will always be true.

We are introduced to an unexpected figure in Hebrews today. The King-Priest Melchizedek. In the 14th Chapter of Genesis Abram had a good deal of family drama going on. His beloved nephew Lot had gotten into serious trouble by choosing the wrong side in a war. He had chosen to live in the big city of Sodom.

The King of Sodom, and his supporter Lot, had been captured and were in danger of being killed or sold into slavery. Hearing of this, Uncle Abram rounded up his troops and charged off on his white camel to the rescue. Wayward nephew and grateful king were rescued and freed. But the rescue party (and the rescued) were licking their wounds and were tired, hungry and thirsty.

At that very moment, the King-Priest of Salem (a name meaning peace) showed up without any warning. We are told that his name was Melchizedek-which literally means “King of Righteousness.” The Letter to the Hebrews, presents him as a very mysterious figure: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.”

Melchizedek first provided a meal for the weary party — bread and wine (doesn’t that sound familiar!). He then gave them a blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” Then, in thanksgiving, Abram gave Melchizedek — actually he returned to God in thanksgiving—a tenth of all his possessions. Note this is not intentionally a sermon about stewardship!

Melchizedek is a priest of the “Most High God” “El Eliona Adonai.” In other words, he is a priest of the same God that Abram worships. This is the very first time in the Torah that the word Priest (kohein) is used.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes on to explain what this means when used in reference to Jesus. Jesus is our High Priest. He was not born to the office as a descendant of Aaron or Zadok but was called to it by God. He is, thus, a priest forever “according to the order of Melchizedek. “

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”

We are told that in our Baptism we are sealed as Christ’s own forever. We are given a share in the three-fold office and ministry of Christ as priest, prophet and king. We, like Christ are called to make real, present and visible God’s love in this world. We are called to work for peace, justice, reconciliation and healing. We are called to suffer and be made perfect through loving service to others. We are called to be priests forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

May the resurrection from the dead of our great high priest then truly enable to us to say, “We know who Jesus is” and we recognize, love and serve him—present in every person that we meet.

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
September 16, 2018

“Finding God in Sacred Scripture.”

 Millard S. Cook

“Faithful God,
in Baptism and Eucharist we are made one with you.
May we who have shared in holy things
always bear witness to your covenant,
in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

There are a few experiences which I think every one should have—once! One of those experiences was to be a teacher in a boys’ Catholic High School. Actually, I did it twice—once in Savannah, Georgia and once in New Rochelle, New York. Yes, I do think that once would have sufficed! I also taught at a few colleges over the years—a much different experience. And so, my ears are clearly attuned to the talk about teachers which we hear today. I will say this, the vocation of teacher is a most important one. The etymology of the word “educate” from the Latin e ducare suggests “leading out.” The implication is that the teacher is one who leads from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from “cluelessness” to awareness, from a state of not knowing to truth. It is no mistake that the most important title given to Our Lord during his public ministry was “Rabbi,” a word which is usually translated into English as “teacher.”

Today, I would like to so something slightly different. I would like to share with you an ancient Christian and monastic method for entering into Sacred Scripture. This hallmark of Benedictine spirituality is called Lectio Divina, or “Divine Reading.” Traditionally, it has been divided into three components—or “movements,” Lectio—or reading, Meditatio—or meditation and Contemplatio—or contemplation. In the recent past, people have gathered in groups to share this Spiritual Practice—the most famous example of this would be “Contemplative Prayer,” or “Centering Prayer.” Traditionally, though, this was a solitary practice engaged in—in a private setting.

The first thing to note that it is normally based on a short reading from either Sacred Scripture or from the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. It begins with a brief period of silence and continues by reading the passage aloud. This allows the passage to be accessed both visually (through reading with the eyes) but also to be “heard” with the ears.

The passage on which we will focus today is one which you have just heard—and is taken from the Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark. I invite you now to listen with me:

“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

Normally, there would be another period of silence following the reading of the passage. This provides a time to allow the spoken and written word to be taken in, to be devoured by the practitioner.

The second stage, ‘Meditatio,” the word does not mean what most people think it means when they hear it. In fact, historically, there has been a kind of internal Benedictine debate about what this should be called. Some have suggested that a better word is “Ruminatio”—or “to ruminate.” In this stage we apply our intellect, and all the knowledge which we possess. From a human perspective, we ask the questions: “What is happening in this passage?” “What is this passage all about?” “What can I learn from this passage?” “What is God saying to me—or to us through these words?”

As I prayed on this passage in preparation for today in Lectio, here are some things which occurred to me.

We are told that Jesus “went on with his disciples.” I like this image. Jesus and his closest companions are on a journey. They realize that to be safe on the journey they will need each other. And yet, this is time away from all the responsibilities and worries that face them every day. They are, as the French would say, “en famille.” They are at home. And in this free context, they are able to be themselves, without worrying what anyone else will think of them or say about them. Over time they have come to know and to love each other. And so, they are able to be completely open and honest with each other. They have no fear of saying what they think and feel—of sharing what is important to them. In this amazing intimacy, they are able to laugh and to cry with each other. Perhaps they even use nicknames for each other (at least they would if they were Southerners).

We are told that they are visiting a series of villages. Villages are amazing places. Then, as now, things move at a slower pace than in big cities. There is less noise, fewer interactions with others, and fewer distractions and interruptions than in the big cities. Thus, they are able to focus on essential things—on things which really matter. It is one of those times of “retreat” and “reflection.” In their solitude, perhaps they pray together. Perhaps they pray the Psalms as they walk along. Perhaps they sing Hymns or perhaps even secular songs which they have learned. This free time “away from the crowds,” provides an opportunity for them to have the most meaningful, significant and important conversations. It provides an opportunity for Jesus to teach them—and to model for them, what it means to teach, to guide, and to mentor others. It also gives them space—which every family needs—to hash out disagreements. It gives them the time to argue, to reconcile, and to share from their hearts.

The final context which we are given is that they are in the region of Caesarea Phillipi. Wow! Now the trip becomes really interesting. In the time of Alexander the Great, there was apparently a shrine there to the god Pan. During the reign of the Herodians, a kind of “model Greek city” was built there and dedicated to the Roman Emperor Augusts. So, for observant Jews, this would definitely have been a kind of “foreign territory.”

One of the amazing things which often happen when one visits a place in which there is a different culture and often a different language spoken is that one is given an opportunity to learn and to grow. Foreign places provide an option to be “open to the new” in a way that one can not do at home. And if it is a place in which there is some tension with one’s own native place, there is often the amazing opportunity for “self-discovery.”

To give a small example of this, in the Fall of 1981, after my graduation from Avery County High School, I traveled to France and lived for a semester with a French family in the village of Cormentreuil—a suburb of the large historic city of Reims. Imagine that you are 18, and for the first time, travel outside the Blue Ridge mountains—and to another country and culture. The greatest discovery for me in France was that I was “an American.” The French whom I got to know (and to love) had some interesting ideas about “America,” and about ‘Americans.” To my surprise, they thought I was one. They were suddenly lumping me together with people from California and Iowa—and yes, with people from New York and Pennsylvania. And they had concluded that the movies and television shows which they had seen represented the whole country. I had not been raised in an inner city—I was raised on a farm some ten miles from the smallest town. I had only seen Cowboys and Indians in movies! And, I had never given much thought to how the policies of the U.S. government would be perceived—and at times, in a very negative way by others. I was a farm boy, a mountaineer, perhaps a Southerner. But an American—that was a concept which was too big for me!

Jesus and his friends, quickly learn the importance of sticking together—of supporting and depending on each other. That is what it means to travel as a group into “foreign territory.”

As the discussion unfolds, Jesus takes the opportunity to ask them what others are saying about him. To paraphrase, “What is the word on the street about me?” “What do you hear others saying about me?” The response is quite informative: There is all kinds of speculation about you. To be honest, many people don’t know what to make of you. Some are comparing you to John the Baptist or to Elijah—perhaps even Moses or one of the other prophets.

Fascinating—a prophet! Someone who boldly proclaims the truth as God sees it. Someone who speaks truth to power. Someone who makes everyone uncomfortable by asking difficult and unpleasant questions. Someone who may be attacked, persecuted and even killed by power structures which are threatened. Someone it may be dangerous to know and to hang out with. Someone who may call others to conversion, to change, and to service. Not someone to be taken for granted or to be treated casually. Someone who will insist that every person be treated with love, respect and dignity. Someone who will insist that the hungry be fed, the naked be clothed, the sick be nursed and prisoners visited. Someone who will welcome the outcast, the alien—anyone who is “other.” Someone who will build bridges and tear down walls! That is a prophet.

The most important question, though, is one which is addressed not only to his friends, but also addresses to each of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus, who are you to me? What does it mean to say that you are the Messiah–my teacher, my Lord, my Savior? Are there things in my life which cause me to be a “Satan,” –an opponent–someone who gets in the way of your ministry, service and love? What do you call me to give up, to renounce to follow you? What is my cross that you ask me to carry?

The final stage of this Spiritual practice is called contemplatio or contemplation—and is a step which I will invite you to take at some point during the coming week. It is said that we do the first two steps but that it is God who does the third. In the silence in which we rest after listening and the hard work of trying to understand the passage, God speaks to us. This is a gift which God gives us.

Perhaps we receive answers to the many questions which arose in our rumination or perhaps we receive guidance. Perhaps we are just comforted by God’s love and care. Perhaps nothing appears to happen at the time—and it is only later that we realize that we received strength and energy to continue. Perhaps in our tiredness and frailty we fall asleep and rest as the disciples did in the Garden.

There is an old prayer derived from Scripture, ‘May God bring to completion the good work which he began in you.” Through our entry into Holy Scripture may our hearts and lives be transformed to be the people that God has lovingly created us, called us, and empowered us to be.