Sunday 21st October. Trinity 21, Proper 24
Isaiah 53: 4-end. As beautiful and moving a description of the sacrificial, redemptive death of Jesus that you will ever read, written hundreds of years before He was born in Bethlehem.
Hebrews 5: 1-10. Jesus is "a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" making an eternal sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Melchizedek is a mysterious character from the book of Genesis who is seen by many as a precursor to Jesus.
Mark 10: 35-45. The nature of Christian leadership is to be marked by servant-hood. Those in any position of authority must always realise they sit under God and are here to serve the people and lead them into God.
We say Jesus died for our sins? That He is our high priest? A priest after the order of Melchizedek? WOW - Hold on - what does all that even mean?
I will start with our reading from Hebrews.
A high priest is the person appointed to offer sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple to atone for the sins of the Israeli people. (Atone: make a person at one with God)
There are three characteristics outlined by Hebrews that any high priest must have;
He must be human;
He must be able to empathise with human weakness and represent human beings to God;
He must offer sacrifice on behalf of the people.
Where Christ’s priesthood differs from other high priests is that He didn’t have to atone for his own sins because He was without Sin which the letter goes on to explain (7.27), but also His priesthood is higher than the traditional priesthood inaugurated by Aaron from whom the traditional high priesthood of Israel are derived.
Jesus’ priesthood is higher than that. Jesus is a priest “after the order of Melchizedek”.
Melchizedek is a mysterious, enigmatic and compelling character that appears only in chapter 14 of Genesis and psalm 110 which is a messianic psalm but his influence on Christian understanding of the self-sacrifice of Jesus is immense when seeking to understand Jesus Christ.
It is Melchizedek that blesses Abraham, the first patriarch and progenitor of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.
Melchizedek has no genealogy. He was appointed by God most high as an eternal priest.
He was priest-king of Salem, the ancient original name of Jerusalem.
Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe. The first mention of a tithe in the Bible, and this is given as recognition that He was sent, appointed by God for tithes are given to God, not human beings.
Melchizedek came bearing bread and wine. Does that sound familiar?
In saying that Christ’s high priesthood is after the order of Melchizadek he is saying that Christ’s priesthood is “once for all” and is derived from the direct call of God.
So Jesus is fully identified with who He represents, fully human in his weakness and suffering: Fully identified with US.
And Jesus was heard by God (verse 7) in his suffering referring to the anguish in the garden of Gethsemene.
Through His suffering his humanity was made “perfect”, a familiar word used a lot in Hebrews that means completeness and effectiveness.
Jesus is the high priest chosen and appointed by God, fully identified with humanity, who can therefore perform the one sacrifice that can finally achieve the salvation of our souls. His self-sacrifice.
In shorthand form, “Jesus died for our sins”. “Jesus died to save us”
Our first reading from Isaiah puts this in the most beautiful poetic form;
I can’t improve on it or really comment on it further.
Bu for an eloquent expression of what Christians believe about Jesus Christ you could do little better than meditate on Isaiah 53: 4-end. Written hundreds of years before Jesus was born in Palestine.
Now it stands to reason that the rules of engagement in this extraordinary new world inaugurated by Christ were not going to be ordinary.
In the Kingdom of God, things were going to be different.
In Mark’s gospel the disciples are portrayed as having feet of clay at the best of times, not fully understanding what Jesus was about, no better illustrated by two disciples, James and John who rather than embrace the fullness of the kingdom and its values see rather an opportunity of barefaced political ambition. They haven’t understood, and Jesus gives them two answers to their request for advancement.
Jesus points to suffering as His destiny and asks whether they can share that with Him?
Secondly He tells them that it is not in his gift anyhow. That is up to God Himself. Jesus is God’s willing agent, not a works manager dealing out favours.
Lastly He gives a positive vision of the structures of the new life and the new society which is based on His own character and destiny.
To “serve” and “give His life as a ransom for many.”
This has been the foundational model for all Christian ministry ever since.
How any church can actually survive without precedence, rank, honours and power is another matter entirely.
The Anglican church has definite hierarchical power structures, it goes without saying, but also churches that have tried to flatten or democratise their structures have encountered different pressures and complications.
But we all should at least know that the original intention and still powerful underpinning of ministry is one of "service", and those words of Jesus to James and John are still there to remind us of that intention.
My basic understanding of this church, any church, is that we are an organic body with different roles and responsibilities within that body and we all need each other.
Any church group needs someone to lead and teach and keep the body close to the gospel imperatives that have come to us in the Biblical revelation – that is my understanding of ordination and my particular gift which is my service to the body.
But we all have a gift and we are all called to offer it in service to the body of Christ.