Category: hebrews

Stand Fast in the Faith – Lectionary (RCL) Reflection for Pentecost 25B

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25  New Revised Standard Version

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

16 “This is the covenant I will make with them 

  after that time, says the Lord.I will put my laws in their hearts,

    and I will write them on their minds.”

17 Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts

    I will remember no more.”

18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

                        19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

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                The reading from Hebrews 10 begins where we’ve left off several times. The Levitical priests must offer the same sacrifices again and again in the Temple/Tabernacle. They have effectiveness, but they need regular boosters (think flu shot or maybe COVID vaccines).  However, when it comes to the offering of Jesus, acting as our high priest, who offers himself as the perfect sacrifice, it only takes one dose (sort of like the measles shot). Then, when Jesus has completed this once for all offering, he takes his place at the right hand of God until the moment when his enemies are made a footstool for his feet. That is, he will sit upon the throne next to God until all those who oppose his work on our behalf finally submit themselves to his authority. Thus, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” This is the good news given to those who will receive it with open arms.

                The previous readings from Hebrews have been making this claim for the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood/offering. It is a central part of the message in the Book of Hebrews. We can see here that the author of Hebrews is working with Platonic categories that distinguish between the material/spiritual and earthly/heavenly dimensions.  Thus, the Levitical priesthood provides the earthly counterpart to the heavenly priesthood of Jesus. That is why Jesus offers the perfect sacrifice that needs to be offered only once. Again, it’s important that when we read this, we do not read it with supersessionist eyes such that Christianity supersedes/replaces Judaism.

                The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have made verses 15-18 optional. Nevertheless, these verses which direct our attention to the message offered by the Holy Spirit through the prophet Jeremiah might be worth hearing. In these verses, Hebrews points us to Jeremiah 31, where Jeremiah speaks of the new covenant God makes with Israel, a covenant in which the law is written on the heart rather than stone tablets. In other words, if the law of God is internalized then it need not be codified. People will simply walk in the ways of God without having to be reminded by external symbols such as stone tablets. Therefore, God “will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Thus, Jesus will have reconciled to God all those who believe. As a result, there is no longer a need for sacrifices. With one offering by Jesus the High Priest of himself everything is wiped clean. It is not that the law and the sacrifices are meaningless, however, in Christ, they take on a new identity. What was a largely material engagement is now essentially spiritualized. The earthly is now heavenly.

                To this point, the reading has focused on what God has done for us through Jesus. Now we hear what this means for us. As we move into this final section of the reading it’s important to remember that Hebrews spiritualizes things. So, having been made clean through Jesus’ sacrifice, we can now enter the sanctuary (the holy of holies) through the blood of Jesus with confidence. This sanctuary is not an earthly temple/tabernacle. It’s a heavenly one. In this vision, there is a curtain that has been opened so we can enter the sanctuary. This is the new and living way so that we might approach the altar with an assurance of faith and hearts cleansed from an evil conscience, our bodies having been washed with pure water. This could be a reference to baptism as the means by which the believer identifies with or embraces the gift of salvation in Christ.

                In speaking of entering the sanctuary likely serves as a call to join together as a congregation in worship. As one participates in the worship of God, one enters the heavenly sanctuary. This message is reinforced in verse 25, where the author tells the readers not to neglect meeting together, which appears to have been the habit of some in the community. Why is this important? We’re told that in gathering together they can encourage one another as the “Day” approaches. That day would be the Second Coming of Jesus referenced in Hebrews 9— “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly awaiting him” (Heb. 9:28). By joining together in worship, the believers prepare themselves for the coming Day of the Lord. Again, we see that Hebrews has a strong apocalyptic dimension.

                Stepping back to the prior verses, the author of our text tells us that we are to approach the heavenly altar/throne, “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). It is important that we highlight this reference to the word “faith,” which will be developed more fully in chapter 11, where we learn that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” It is, Hebrews tells us that it was through faith that the ancestors, including Abraham, receive approval (Heb. 11:1-2). We see that vision of faith present here in the call to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” 

                This call to not waver in one’s faith needs to be understood in context. The issue here is not one of “doubt” as we often think of it in the modern context. This isn’t a call for theological certainty. It is a call to stay with the program, to not give up in the face of persecution or pressure. It is a call to endurance. This is why the author addresses those who are absenting themselves from the community. Modern Christians, especially American Christians, think in individualist terms when it comes to matters of religion or faith. The community is secondary. In fact, for many “church” is nothing more than an “institution.” When looked at through consumerist eyes, the question is usually, what do I get out of this exchange. For the author of Hebrews, by absenting yourself from the community you not only endanger your own faith, but also that of the rest of the community. So, having decided to follow Jesus, a decision confirmed through the washing of water (baptism), don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize. You can do this, our author tells us, because God is faithful to the promise!  In other words, don’t squander the gift of salvation. Jesus is faithful to the promise, so we should be faithful to it as well.

Mediator of a New Covenant – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23B (Hebrews 9)

Hebrews 9:11-15 New Revised Standard Version

11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

15 For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.

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                The overarching message of the Book of Hebrews is that Christ is both our perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice. The calling of this high priest is rooted in the priesthood of the mysterious Melchizedek. This has been a major point of discussion in the previous two lectionary readings (Revised Common Lectionary). As we’ve seen, the danger here is that when Hebrews speaks of the priesthood of Jesus and a new covenant supersessionism creeps in. That is, Christianity is understood as replacing Judaism as God’s covenant people because the covenant Jesus initiates is a better covenant. That has had horrific consequences down through the ages.

                With the danger of supersessionism in mind, we can attend to the message of Hebrews that speaks of the difference between old and new covenants. As I’ve noted in an earlier reflection the contrast doesn’t have to be between Judaism and Christianity, with Christianity replacing Judaism. Rather, Hebrews seems to have a different vision, one that contrasts the earthly and the heavenly. Now the sacrificial/priestly system of ancient Israel does provide the model for the earthly side of the equation, but the interpretive grid here is Platonism. We’ve already established that the author is steeped in some form of Platonism. Therefore, it’s not surprising that there are similarities between what we read in Hebrews and the writings of the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo.

                As we come to this reading from Hebrews 9, we are again told that Jesus is our high priest and that in this role he brings good things to us. While he holds this position, it is interesting that the author doesn’t speak of the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, the author takes us back to the Book of Exodus and the tent or Tabernacle. Whether or not the author of Hebrews knows the Gospel of John, the reference to the tent here does bring to mind the message of John 1:14, that the Word (Logos) of God became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us.

                Whether or not the Jerusalem Temple still stands when this is written doesn’t seem to matter to the author who takes us further back to that mobile worship space. Thus, Jesus doesn’t enter the Temple. Instead, he enters the Tabernacle where he performs the priestly duties. This tent is not made by human hands. It is not of this creation, which suggests this is a heavenly tent, not an earthly one. That should be a clue to what is going on here. The author’s Platonism seems to be at work here. The earthly tent/temple is a shadow of the heavenly tent/temple. This heavenly tent is where Jesus does his priestly work.

                Not only does Jesus act as priest in this perfect, that is heavenly, tabernacle, but he also offers himself as the sacrifice that brings redemption. Standing behind all of this is the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the priest entered the Holy of Holies and offered sacrifices of redemption.  This annual event stands as a shadow or analogy for what Jesus does as both priest and sacrifice.

                If we go back to the beginning of the chapter, which is omitted in this reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary, we read:

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? (Heb. 9:1-2).

Note how Hebrews speaks of the law being “a shadow of the good things to come” but it is “not the true form of these realities.” This is Platonism at work. The earthly is the archetype or shadow of the true and perfect heavenly form. As we sometimes say of Platonism that which is in heaven is “the really real.” What Jesus does on the cross is enter the heavenly Tabernacle and perform the priestly duties, which the Jewish priests perform as a way of prefiguring what happens in heaven.

                So, when it comes to the Temple/Tabernacle sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests, it’s not a question of effectiveness. The blood of goats and bulls does sanctify and purify the flesh of those who are defiled, but the blood of Jesus goes further. As we read through Hebrews, it’s important to remember that in the ancient world animal sacrifices were a regular part of life, in Israel and its neighbors. It’s just the way things were—in fact, that’s one of the concerns of I Corinthians, should one eat meat from the pagan sacrifices?

                In any case, when it comes to the blood of Jesus, which is offered without blemish, through the Spirit, purifies the conscience from dead works. While the cross may be in view here, it is not mentioned. What is important to the author is that the ones who are purified of dead works through this act Jesus’ part can now worship the living God. As for the identity of these dead works, Ron Allen and Clark Williamson helpfully note that “the ‘dead works’ should not be confused with the mitzvoth of torah. ‘Dead’ works are not ‘deeds of loving kindness’; they are sins that pollute the conscience” (Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 43].

                 Having defined how Jesus acts as both priest and sacrifice so that in doing so our consciences are purified and we’re now able to worship God with clean consciences, Hebrews moves on to Jesus’ role as “mediator of a new covenant” (v. 15). The reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary ends in verse 15, though the nature of this covenant and how it is implemented is described in the rest of the paragraph. This covenant, we’re told, requires blood, as is true of all covenants. So, just Jesus’ blood purifies, it becomes the foundation for a new covenant. The idea of a new covenant is rooted in Jeremiah 31, where we are told the new covenant will be written not on stone but on our hearts. Since the reading ends with verse 15 and doesn’t go further, we are simply told that this new covenant that Jeremiah promised is mediated to us by Christ. What is said here is a restating of the earlier declaration in Hebrews 8:6, that Jesus “is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.” This is where things get tricky. The question is: if God made the first covenant with Israel, why would God need to redo things? Nevertheless, here in chapter 9, the message of the new covenant is that with the new covenant comes the “promised eternal inheritance.” It would seem that the key is the death of Jesus, which “has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” For Hebrews the difference appears to be that the offering made Jesus is made once for all, offering the ransom that redeems. Therefore, we receive the eternal inheritance.

                As we ponder this word about Jesus’ offering of himself to God fully, we can read this not only in light of the cross, which is never mentioned here, but in terms of his act of worship of God. Fred Craddock writes:

Christ’s offering of his life to God was the ultimate act of worship in order that we, with purified consciences, may “worship the living God.” What, then, is this worship if it is not the offering of ourselves to God in ways appropriate to the nature of God and the needs that present themselves to us? On this matter, the word of Hebrews is not unlike the urging of Paul to the Roman Christians: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1 NRSV). [“Hebrews,” New Interpreter’s Bible, 12:118].

Thus, Hebrews invites us to participate in the work of Christ by sharing in the worship of God and all that this entails.

The Perfect High Priest – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22B (Hebrews 7)

Hebrews
7:23-28 New Revised Standard Version

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

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                When we arrive at chapter seven of Hebrews, we again encounter a conversation about the priesthood of Jesus. As in chapter 5, so in chapter 7 we are told that Jesus, the Son of God, holds a priesthood different from that of the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood. Instead, he is a priest like Melchizedek, the mysterious priest/king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham after Abraham’s military victory (Heb. 7:15-17). Now, Jesus takes that same priesthood, and unlike the Levitical priests, death is not an impediment to his continuation in office. Instead, he will hold this office forever, making intercession for those who approach God through him. That is, Jesus serves as the mediator between humanity and God. Thus, he mediates for us, as our high priest, salvation.

            The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have left out the preceding verses that contrast the new and the old covenants. Unfortunately, this contrast between the two covenants has led to the assumption that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism as God’s covenant people. The old priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is set aside because it cannot do what Jesus as a priest according to the priesthood of Melchizedek can do. That is because Jesus has been declared a priest forever. It’s understandable that the lectionary creators skipped over the verses that give rise to supersessionism, but they provide the foundation for our reading. Therefore, we must wrestle with them, even if we reject the implications.

            The reading for the day is rooted in the author’s reinterpretation/midrash of Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The assumption is that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham, from whom he receives tithes, as well as Moses and Aaron, through whom God makes a covenant with Israel at Sinai. The difference between Jesus and his predecessors is that his appointment is everlasting. It is not affected by death, so he does not have a successor.

            These verses chosen for this reading by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary focus more specifically on the longevity of a priest. Because the Levitical priests are human, and as a result, they sin they must offer sacrifices on their own behalf. Additionally, due to their human state and thus affected by sin, they also die. That’s just the way things work in the world. But Jesus is different and his priesthood is unique. That is why he has taken up the priesthood of Melchizedek, which doesn’t appear to have any successor. Melchizedek appears and then disappears (Genesis 14). With this priesthood open, Jesus receives his appointment to this priesthood, which is an expression of a divine oath as revealed in Psalm 110:4.

            Hebrews raises an interesting question about the priesthood. Formerly, there were many priests because death took them away from their posts. Now, we have this perfect, sinless, high priest, who lives forever and who can mediate our salvation before God forever. The Jewish answer to this assertion would likely be that they understand that the priests were many and would be taken in death, but priests are mediators, not saviors. Their authority is not inherent in their person but in the office itself. Hebrews suggests that it is not just the office but the person who mediates salvation. Is one really superior to the other, or just different? What distinguishes the two is that Jesus’ priesthood is undertaken not in an earthly Temple, but a heavenly one. For a first-century reader, who viewed reality in terms of a three-storied universe, this made perfect sense. But we no longer live with that worldview. We may continue to use that language in worship, but I’m assuming most of us, at least those reading this post don’t view the world in that way. So, whether we like it or not, we have engaged in a bit of demythologization. But, if we work with the passage theologically, then we can envision Jesus’ heavenly ministry of mediation.

            Although it is spelled out more clearly in 1 John (1 Jn. 2:21), Hebrews also embraces the idea that Jesus is the advocate with the Father is the promise that we have an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Therefore, unlike other priests, Jesus doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for himself. That is because he is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). For the author of this homily, this should give us confidence in Jesus’ ability to intercede on our behalf. In fact, Jesus’ priestly offering comes once and for all, as he offered himself up to God. That is because he is the Son who has become the priest forever. In this, there is good news!

            As I pondered the message of this passage, I began thinking about how we speak of priesthood within the Christian community. Some parts of the community have clergy who are called priests. They are called upon to officiate at the altar. They are priests because they mediate the relationship between God and humanity through the sacraments. The question that has arisen through time is whether the efficacy of the sacraments is dependent on the holiness of the priest. Hebrews would suggest that this is true. The offerings of the Levitical priesthood are deemed insufficient because they, like us, are sinners. But Jesus’ offering is effective because of his holiness.

            In the early centuries, when persecution was rampant, questions emerged about the efficacy of sacraments administered by priests and bishops who had saved themselves by offering sacrifices to the emperor or turning over scriptures to the authorities, or simply signing affidavits that acknowledged the divinity of the emperor. There were those in the church who concluded that any sacraments, including baptisms, performed by such priests were, invalid. In fact, ordinations of priests by bishops who had saved themselves in this way were invalid. Thus, any sacraments administered by these priests were invalid. The reasoning was similar to what we see here. The validity of Jesus’ offering is rooted in his holiness. Augustine answered those who argued in this way (the primary group he addressed are known as the Donatists), by suggesting that the validity of the sacraments was due to the holiness of God present in the church, not in the holiness of the individual priest. For those of us who are members of traditions that do not speak of their clergy as priests, but instead speak of the priesthood of all believers, how might understand this word about the priesthood of Jesus speak to our priestly calling? We might even ask what this passage says to us about leadership in the church.

            When it comes to leadership, none of us are “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” In other words, we’re not divine beings. Perhaps we ought to leave the priestly duties to Jesus, who is properly equipped to intercede on our behalf. As Roger Ferlo notes: “In effect, the passage declares, priests and ministers come and go, but Christ holds his priesthood permanently.” Therefore, “Christ holds title to the word ‘priest.’ He holds the true priestly authority—and authority characterized not by power but by humility—offering a sacrifice to God on our behalf ‘once and for all’ (v. 27) when he offered himself.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 208]. Perhaps if we clergy understand this word, then we will better understand our own calling. Christ is the only true head of the church.   

            Christ’s calling to the priesthood is rooted in his status as the Son (that is, the Son of God) who has been made perfect forever through his sufferings. As the Son of God, who lives forever, there is continuity in his priestly ministry. Because of this continuity, we don’t have to worry about whether we have a priest to mediate the relationship between us and God, because as the author will later add, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  

            So, while recognizing the possibility of supersessionism in the passage, might we contemplate the promise that Christ has been, is, and always will be with us. Yes, Priests and pastors come and go, but Jesus is always there for us. 

Jesus: Priest Forever – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21B (Hebrews 5)

Abraham Meets Melchizedek  (Mosaic in Basilica di San Marco)

Hebrews 5:1-10 — New Revised Standard Version

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son, 
    today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are 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, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

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                Priests were ubiquitous in the ancient religious world. Every nation and tribe had priests who were tasked with mediating the divine-human relationship. As Paul noted regarding the Athenians, they were extremely religious with idols to just about every god under the sun, including an altar to the “unknown god” (Acts 17:22-24). This priestly work often included offering sacrifices, sometimes to appease the gods and at others to give thanks for the blessings provided to the people. Every religion and deity had its own requirements. What was true more broadly was true of the Jewish people. Jewish life, at least theoretically, centered on the Temple (though many, perhaps a majority of Jews, lived far from Jerusalem, and so they found other ways to connect with what was centered in Jerusalem). Thus, the Jews had priests who mediated that divine-human relationship, with the priestly responsibilities spelled out for the most part in the Torah (especially the Book of Leviticus). Since Christianity is rooted in Judaism, it should not surprise us that early Christians envisioned Jesus taking on a priestly role. The tricky thing was that Jesus was not of priestly descent, and Judaism was pretty explicit about who could be a priest and who could not. Jesus didn’t fit the bill. So how might Jesus be a priest while not being of the priestly line? The answer to the question is found here in the Book of Hebrews.

                We’ve already encountered a reference to Jesus’ priestly role in the previous lectionary reading from Hebrews 4:12-16. In that reading, we’re told that “we have a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” Jesus, acting as our high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses,” because just like us he has been tested. Though tested, he did not sin. Therefore, he provides the way for us to go boldly before the throne of God and receive grace and mercy. Our reading for the week picks up where we left off the week before. In this passage, the author (we do not know the identity of the author or the recipients of the book) takes us deeper into a conversation about what it means for Jesus to be our high priest.

                 As we will see, according to the Book of Hebrews Jesus is a “priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” This is the answer to the question of how Jesus can be our high priest despite not having the expected pedigree for a priest within Judaism. Before we get to Jesus’ priesthood, we must first understand the nature and roles that describe and define the Jewish priesthood. The first thing to note is that high priests are chosen from among humans. As such they are “put in charge of things pertaining to God,” acting on behalf of the people of God.

                The first responsibility given to the priests is offering gifts to God and making sacrifices for sins. This is important because as we move further into Hebrews, it is Jesus’ role in dealing with our sins that takes center stage. Here, we’re focused on the Aaronic priesthood. These priests can deal “gently with the ignorant and wayward since he himself is subject to weakness. Now, remember that Jesus, acting as a priest, can sympathize with our weaknesses, but unlike this priest, he doesn’t sin. Because this priest is liable to sin, he must offer sacrifices on his own behalf. It’s important to note here that the sacrifices did their job. They brought things back into balance. The problem is that they have to be repeated regularly. It’s a bit like medicine I take. If I stop taking it, I’ll go back to where I was. So, the priests offer the sacrifices regularly. But what if there was a sacrifice that was offered once and for all. It would be like taking a pill that solved my problem once and for all.

                We have a contrast between the normal priestly duty and the one taken up by Jesus. In addition to that information, we are reminded that one doesn’t decide to become a priest of one’s own accord. This is not just any job. It is open only to those whom God has called. This is what happened with Aaron and his descendants. God appointed Aaron as high priest and gave to his tribe (Levites) responsibility for the religious life of the people. In time, according to the Old Testament records, the political authority would be given to another family, that is, until the monarchy fell with the Babylonian captivity. In Second Temple Judaism, the priesthood took on more political authority, especially during the Maccabean period.

                Of  course, the Gospels trace Jesus’ ancestry back to Judah, by way of David (thus marking his kingly role). Not being of the Aaronic or Levitical line, Jesus didn’t have a natural path to becoming a priest. So, if he were to serve in this position, he would need to claim a different kind of priesthood from that of Aaron, which was tied to the Jerusalem Temple (before 70 CE). With that in mind, Hebrews offers a different path that draws on references to a mysterious figure who appears only briefly in Genesis and one of the Psalms.

                Before we get to that priestly line, we need to hear again the word about vocation. Hebrews notes that “Jesus didn’t glorify himself in becoming a high priest.” Instead, it was the one (God) who sent him who glorifies him. Thus, Hebrews wants to make sure we understand that the priestly status is a high one. Therefore, a person has to be appointed/called, just as Aaron was.

                Hebrews tells us how Jesus was called to the priesthood. In making the case for this unique form of priesthood that has similarities to the Aaronic priesthood, but is different, the author quotes first from Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Heb. 5:5). In other words, he has divine status.  Taking note of the divine acknowledgment of Jesus’ status as Son of God, the author continues by quoting from Psalm 110:4. That passage declares of Jesus: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Who is Melchizedek? He is the mysterious priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem), who comes out and meets Abraham after a military victory and to whom Abraham offers tithes in gratitude for the victory (Gen. 14:17-21). We should note that this priesthood is older, according to the biblical story, than the Aaronic priesthood. Thus, in the mind of the author, it is superior. Though not mentioned by the author, by connecting Jesus’ priesthood to Melchizedek, we are told that Jesus is both king and priest (as was true of the mysterious Melchizedek).

                While the author affirms Jesus’ divine status as Son of God, the author also affirms Jesus’ humanity, inviting us to reflect on the “days of his flesh” when he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). Here is a reminder that Jesus did his priestly work from the cross, where he offered prayers to the one who could save him from death but chose not to do so. That is because he learned obedience amid suffering. This is a difficult passage to deal with because it suggests that God subjected the Son to suffering. Even if the Son freely chose to accept the assignment, was it necessary for him to suffer on the cross to be made perfect and achieve salvation for those who obey God? To the author, the answer is yes, and it undergirds his calling as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. In other words, the offering made by the priest holding the Melchizedek order is to offer himself (once and for all) to reconcile God and humanity.  As such, Jesus holds the distinction of being our high priest, not for a moment, but forever!

Naked Before God – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 20B (Hebrews 4)

Hebrews 4:12-16  New Revised Standard Version

12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

 14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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                Jesper Svartvik writes in a critical essay published in the Christian Century  that the Book of Hebrews is the most dangerous book in the New Testament for Jews. That danger is due to the way in which it has been used down through time to elevate Christianity at the expense of Judaism, whose covenant relationship is said to be obsolete. When read this way, Hebrews suggests that a superior covenant is now in place. That which is obsolete is of little or no value. Thus, Judaism has been placed on the dust heap of history. God has moved on to Christianity. This message of obsolescence and Christian superiority serves as the foundation for supersessionism and it has given rise to all manner of anti-Jewish efforts down through history, culminating in the Holocaust/Shoah. So if we do not wish to embrace supersessionism but wish to profitably read, teach, and preach from this book it does seem that we will need to tread carefully.

                This reading from Hebrews 4 that has been chosen for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost appears to be less susceptible to supersessionism, but we will need to keep a close eye on how we interpret and use this passage. What we do see here is an elevated view of Jesus’ personhood. He is the  “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” who can sympathize with our weaknesses since he too has been tested but without sinning. Therefore, we can go before the throne of grace with boldness so we can receive God’s grace and mercy. While the second part of the reading speaks directly to the ministry of Jesus, our high priest, the first part can be read in this way as well. Though it has often been read in reference to the Bible, I’m not sure that this is the most appropriate reading.

                In the first paragraph, we read that the “word of God is living and active,” and it judges our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts. Thus, we stand naked before this word, so that we are laid bare before the one who judges us. The message here is that we can’t hide from God. God sees us as we are, that can be a bit scary if you ask me. I like to pretend that I can hide from God’s eyes, though I know I can’t. That’s the first message, but the second one offers a bit of relief from the rather scary message present in the first paragraph. You see, Jesus is our high priest who understands our predicament. He’s been tested also even though he didn’t give in to the temptations we all face as human beings. Nevertheless, he understands!

                The passage that the lectionary offers us is relatively brief. It’s just five verses. Though it is brief it does pack a lot into these sentences. As I noted above, the reading begins with a statement concerning the word of God, which “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” While I have often seen this used to speak of the Bible—and it could speak of Scripture (at least the Old Testament)—I believe it might be better read in reference to Jesus, who according to John 1 is the word of God (Jn 1:1-14).

                Now, reading Scripture can open our hearts and minds to challenging messages that may have the feel of a sword piercing into our inner being, so that we are laid naked before God. We call that being convicted by the message of Scripture. However, when read in the larger context, it seems to me that the author of Hebrews has in mind something like what John speaks of in chapter one of the Gospel. When read this way, the reference to the word of God takes on life in the person of Jesus. It becomes not just words on a page but a living and active person. In his words and his actions, he becomes that two-edged sword that cuts to the quick. While Hebrews uses the word sword here, might a scalpel be an even better image? In either case, this sharp instrument divides soul and spirit and judges the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” No matter how hard you try, you cannot hide from him. In fact, we are all “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

                As we ponder this word, we might think back to the Garden. Although in the beginning Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25), once sin opened their eyes to their situation, they realized they were naked so when God came to the Garden they hid (Gen 3:8-10). Now in Genesis 3, when God entered the Garden, it appears that not only did they hide, but God couldn’t see them. That’s not the case here. No matter how hard we try, we can’t hide from the word of God (Jesus) who as our judge cuts to the quick.

                Yes, God sees. In fact, Hagar discovered that truth after she was exiled from the household of Abraham and Sarah. When God came looking for her after she cried out for help, she gave God the name “El-Roi,” which means “God sees” (Genesis16:7-13). Adam and Eve tried to hide from the eyes of God, but Hagar welcomed God’s eyes. That’s because God saw her predicament and responded. So, as Jennifer Kaalund writes, “Like Hagar, the audience of this homily is experiencing trials that are testing their faith. God sees and responds. Recognizing the God sees us should not be met solely with fear and trepidation. One should also have a sense of eager anticipation, knowing that the God who sees is also the God who reveals Godself and responds with mercy and grace” [Connections, p. 382].

                While judgment is the message of the first paragraph in this brief reading, grace and mercy is the message that comes through in the second paragraph. The word of God may be sharper than a two-edged sword cutting between joint and marrow so that everything is laid bare before God, but when Jesus acts as High Priest and intercedes on our behalf the result is grace and mercy. The author makes a comparison here to the Temple system in which priests offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the people. The difference, according to Hebrews (and where the danger of supersessionism lurks) is that Jesus both understands our situation because he was tested like us, but at the same time he did not sin. He understands but didn’t give in. The same can’t be said for us or the Temple priests. Nevertheless, an offering is made that allows us to go before the throne of God to seek God’s forgiveness. We can do this boldly because of Jesus’ priestly intercessions. The result is grace and mercy. In other words, God invites us to speak openly and honestly about whatever is on our minds and hearts. We don’t have to hold back. After all, God already can see us warts and all. As a result, we will receive mercy from God and the grace that we need in our time of need. For the original recipients, who appear to be struggling against stiff opposition this is good news. They are not alone. They have a priest who not only understands their situation but is ready to go to bat for them. The same can be true for us. We can go boldly before the throne of God because we have a high priest who is ready to stand with us, even as he lays us bare before God.         

   

Revelation of God and Pioneer of Salvation – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19B (Hebrews 1-2)

 

 

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 New Revised Standard Version

1:1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

2:5Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
   subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

 
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                God once spoke through prophets, but now God speaks through the Son, who is the reflection of God’s glory and the “exact imprint of God’s very being.” This is the one through whom God created all things and who is the pioneer of our salvation. That is the starting point in the lectionary’s invitation to explore the message of the Book of Hebrews. This book, which has the look of a sermon or perhaps a circular letter is one of the more challenging and at times problematic books in the New Testament. It is problematic because it seems to carry a supersessionist message. That is, it emphasizes the Christian message at the expense of Judaism so that Christianity now replaces the Jewish people in God’s plans. Therefore, the Temple and the priesthood offer prefigurements of the work of Christ. For instance, in Hebrews, Jesus is identified with the priest-king Melchizedek. Though somewhat obscure today, except perhaps the famous definition of faith in chapter eleven, it has been a favorite of many down through the centuries.

                Once upon a time tradition attributed authorship to Paul, even though this book is very different from anything that Paul wrote. The book itself does not carry any hint as to its authorship, though the many references to Old Testament figures and practices have led to the assumption that the author and audience were Jewish Christians. The Platonic elements suggest a similarity to the writings of Philo, which might suggest that the origins of the book are to be found in Alexandria. Though that suggestion is contradicted by the reference in Hebrews 13:24, which reads: “those from Italy send you greetings.” Ultimately, we do not know who wrote the book or where it originated. As for the date, the references to sacrificial practices in the present tense could suggest a date before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. However, the suggestion that Jesus’ sacrifice supersedes the Temple sacrifices might suggest a date after the destruction of the Temple, though if the Temple had been destroyed would not be a clear reference to that event helped support the idea that Jesus supersedes the Temple. Again, we don’t know how to date the book.  So, who might have written this text if Paul didn’t (and if the author was writing from Italy/Rome)? Some of the figures to whom this intriguing but sometimes dangerous text has been attributed include Barnabas, Silas, Epaphras, Luke, Apollos, or my favorite Priscilla. But, as Origin noted, only God knows for sure. [Stephen Farris, “Hebrews,” The Preacher’s Bible Handbook, pp. 328-329; Pamela Eisenbaum, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 1st ed., p. 406]. As to the genre of the book, while it is often spoken of as a letter, it has more the feel of a sermon. Why was it written? Perhaps as a word of encouragement to a community struggling to hold things together. What we do know is that it is a thoroughly Christological document. As Stephen Farris notes, the sermon reminds the reader/hearer that “Jesus has traveled the journey before us, and therefore we can take the next step with confidence” [Farris, “Hebrews,” p. 331]. That is, he is both superior to angels and the pioneer of our salvation, and as we will see he is the high priest who acts on our behalf.

            In this first of seven readings from Hebrews, taking us through chapter ten, the author of Hebrews introduces us to the primary subject of this book, the Son of God. This Son is the heir of all things and the one through whom God has chosen to speak in these last days. In this, the Son succeeds the prophets, through whom God once spoke. In making this declaration, Hebrews is telling us that Jesus brings us the final word from God. As we’ll see, Jesus is very different from his predecessors who were humans just like us. This spokesperson for God is the heir of all things and is the one through whom God created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory, which suggests a connection to the embodiment of divine wisdom, as we see in the Wisdom of Solomon  “For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. 26 For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:25-26). Not only is Jesus a reflection of God’s glory, but he is the “exact imprint of God’s very being” who “sustains all things by his powerful word.” This is a very high Christology, suggesting divinity. Hebrews goes further to inform us that when he had finished making purification for sins (the subject of much that follows) he sat down at the right hand of God, “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” This word comes in the last days, the new age that Jesus has introduced. The message, therefore, has an eschatological element to it.  

                If the focus of the opening verses of this lectionary reading focuses on Jesus’ identity as Son of God, the second portion, taken from chapter 2, affirms his humanity, though exalted humanity. This passage draws from Psalm 8:4-6 (LXX). In Hebrews 1:4, the author proposes that the Son is superior to the angels and that he has inherited a name greater than theirs. The angels are servants of God, but “God did not submit the coming world, about which we are speaking to the angels” (Heb. 2:5). In support of this premise, the author turns to Psalm 8, a song that declares that while human beings might be made a little lower than the angels, God has crowned humanity with glory and honor and subjected all things under their feet. Hebrews takes this Psalm and applies it to Jesus, who according to our reading was made for a little while lower than the angels but is now crowned with glory. What was originally intended to speak of humans, in general, is now applied to Jesus, who is crowned with glory through his death, so that by God’s grace he might taste death for us all. In other words, through his sacrifice of himself, Jesus attains the status supposedly given to humanity. He does this on our behalf. All of this is fleshed out in great detail as we move through the book. All that we read concerning this work of Jesus, is rooted in the connection between his actions and those present in the Temple sacrifices. In this, he makes purification for our sins. So that what was enacted on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) on an annual basis, is done once and for all by Jesus. As the pioneer of our salvation, Jesus goes ahead of us, preparing the way by tasting death for us, so that we might share in God’s glory.

                Hebrews tells us that it was fitting that God would bring many children to glory through the work of the pioneer of our salvation through his sufferings. As a result, we become his siblings— “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” It is as his siblings that we share in the glory of God.   

 

Image attribution: God reigning in majesty, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55258 [retrieved September 26, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pantocr%C3%A0tor_de_Ta%C3%BCll.jpg.