Tag: hebrews

High Priestly Duties – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B (Hebrews 5)

Hebrews 5:5-10 New Revised Standard Version

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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                In 1 Peter 2, we’re told that to be in Christ is to be part of a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). That revelation led to the doctrine, especially prominent among Protestants, of the “priesthood of all believers.” The document that guides the ordering of ministry in my denomination—The Theological Foundations for the Ordering of Ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—speaks directly to this understanding of priesthood: “In Christ the individual becomes a member of ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own possession’ (1Peter 2:9). Thus it has been common to speak of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ —the persons who live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the church and in the world. This language highlights the sacramentality of the work of the laity through whose witness and service the grace of God is made manifest.” If we are all part of this royal priesthood, who is the high priest? In the Book of Hebrews, we are told that Jesus is the high priest. Of course, there is a caveat here, and we’ll need to address it. That caveat has to do with the qualifications for being a priest and whether Jesus actually qualifies.

                In ancient Israel, the priesthood was limited to the tribe of Levi, while the high priests were to be lineal descendants of Aaron. As for Jesus, he was neither a Levite nor a descendant of Aaron. So, how might he be our high priest? According to the genealogies in Matthew and Luke Jesus was a descendant of David, which made him a member of the tribe of Judah. That seeming barrier does stop the author of Hebrews from creating a workaround so that Jesus might qualify. While Jesus might not be a descendant of Aaron, Hebrews simply calls Jesus a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

                Before we get to this mysterious Order of Melchizedek, we would be wise to begin with the question of Jesus’ appointment to the office of high priest. Then we can turn to Melchizedek and the implications of this passage for our Lenten journey.  The reading from Hebrews 5:5-10 is part of a larger section of the letter that begins in verse 14 of chapter 4. In the opening lines of the section, the author of Hebrews (Hebrews is anonymous) writes that “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.” We’re also told that this high priest can sympathize with our weaknesses. He was “tested as we are” and yet he did not sin. Therefore, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).  

                Having learned about this high priest who was tested and yet without sin, when we come to verses 5-6 of chapter 5, we are told that when appointed to this position, Jesus did not glorify himself but was appointed to the position by God. Thus, the author draws upon the Psalms to describe the qualifications of this high priest. First, God says of this high priest, “you are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). So, the main qualification here is that Jesus is the Son of God. Then, we learn that Jesus is “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4).  

                The author of Hebrews makes it clear that one does not appoint oneself to the position of high priest. In the verse prior to our passage, we read that “one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb. 5:4). As noted above, Jesus did not descend from the priestly line, so Hebrews links him to the mysterious Melchizedek, who appears in Genesis as the priest-king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham and blesses him (Gen. 14:17-20). This figure suddenly appears and then disappears from the story. But, the author of Hebrews discovers in this mysterious figure the means to unlock Jesus’ high priestly calling. He might not have an Aaronic pedigree, but he has something else, something rooted in mystery. Interestingly, it’s only in Hebrews that Jesus is connected to Melchizedek. But the identification of the too is intriguing.   

                Having been appointed to this position as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek by God, in large part because of his status as Son of God, Jesus takes up his priestly duties. During his earthly life, Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” Here is a reference to Jesus’ priestly duties taken up, it would appear, while on the cross. He was heard because of his submission to the one who appointed him to this role. He was heard because of his submission. Though he held the status as Son of God, in words reminiscent of what Paul said of Jesus in Philippians 2—he “learned obedience through what he suffered.” It was in this suffering that he was perfected and became the source of our salvation. Nothing is said here about being a substitute sacrificed for our sins. The point simply is that his pathway to this priesthood of Melchizedek included the suffering of the cross.  

                Back in Hebrews 4, the author reveals that Jesus is not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He too has been tested and yet did not sin (Heb 4:15-17). That testing includes suffering. Jesus can understand our struggles, our sufferings, because he also suffered. This is the foundation of his priesthood. You might say that he graduated from the school of hard knocks. This is true even though he was the Son of God. That status did not prevent him from experiencing human realities, therefore, we can put our trust in him. In this, we find good news.

Come Sunday: The Church on the Edge of Forever (August 18, 2013)

Thirteen Sunday of Pentecost (Year C)

August 18, 2013

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

city on the edge of foreverOne of the best episodes of the TV series “Star Trek” is one called “The City On the Edge of Forever.”  Dr. McCoy gets an accidental overdose of drug that makes him mad.  He beams down to a planet with Kirk and Spock right behind him.  They arrive on the planet and stand in front of what seems like the largest TV I’ve ever seen.  McCoy, still in his drugged state, leaps into what is called the Guardian of Forever.  The minute he goes in, the landing party loses contact with the Enterprise.  We find out that McCoy has somehow changed history, causing the Enterprise to not exist.  Spock and Kirk enter the portal and find themselves in Depression-era America.  The two meet a young woman who works at a soup kitchen.  She is a peace activist that was supposed to die in a car accident.  However, McCoy saves her from getting hit by a car.  His one action caused a series of other actions that lead to the timeline radically changing.  Edith is able to lead a nationwide peace movement that keeps the United States out of World War II.  This allowed Nazi Germany to develop the atomic bomb and win the war.  To make a long story short, Kirk stops McCoy from saving Edith from the oncoming car.  Edith dies and the timeline is restored, but at a terrible cost.

In last week’s blog post, I talked about how faith is about doing something for God without knowing how the story ends.  This week’s passage in Hebrews has me thinking about how our actions have implications far beyond our own time.  The passage talks about how so many folks acted on faith and didn’t face happy endings.  They were faced with a choice and in faith decided to follow one road.  Because Abraham believed, a nation was born.  Because the Israelite believed, they could cross the Red Sea on dry land.  Choices were made that shaped our future.

What comes to mind for this coming Sunday is about how so many churches and religious agencies are facing tight budgets.  Many churches struggle to make ends meet.  Others end up closing.  It’s easy to look at our sanctuaries, which were once empty and are now barely occupied and wonder if God can work with our faith community.

The answer is yes.  The writer of Hebrews talks about a number of unnamed people who also heard the call of God and chose to step out in faith.  But as they say, there is always a downside:

I could go on and on, but I’ve run out of time. There are so many more—Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets. . . . Through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts, turned disadvantage to advantage, won battles, routed alien armies. Women received their loved ones back from the dead. There were those who, under torture, refused to give in and go free, preferring something better: resurrection. Others braved abuse and whips, and, yes, chains and dungeons. We have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless—the world didn’t deserve them!—making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.

39-40 Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.
Hebrews 11:32-40 (The Message)

The night before his assasination, Martin Luther King gave his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech.  It’s an eerie forshadowing of what he was going to face hours later, but it also sums up what it means to have faith in God and our part in ushering in God’s kingdom.We all have a part to play, but we won’t always get to see the end of the story.  Here’s what he says towards the end of that speech:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? … Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King saw that he was part of something bigger than himself.  He knew that he was doing God’s work and he had the eyes of faith to see what the completed work would look like.

As followers of Jesus, we need to remind ourselves that our actions matter.  We might not see the ending, but we can know that we part of the great cloud of witnesses that will have an effect on people generations from now.

Go and be church.

I preached a sermon in 2010 based on the Hebrews text.  You can read it here.