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
“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.