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A High Priest in a Low Church

Sermon - 10/22/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Hebrews 4:14 - 5:10

[Today's sermon was proceeded by comments from Fred Towne]

In the early service they have a time of joy, and everybody is invited to indicate what they're happy about.  I said I was happy I had a pulse this morning J.

But it's great fun to be getting old.  I'm not kidding -- I'm having a ball.  At my age, I can loaf and do nothing, and don't have to feel guilty about it.  But, I have lived long enough to appreciate the knowledge and the information that we have nowadays that we didn't used to have.  I'm constantly amazed at the tools of learning that are available to us at our fingertips now.  I was ordained in 1940, at my church in Pleasant Hill.  They were not as careful in those days as they are now J.  I had my ups and downs in the ministry, along with every other minister.  There were times of great jubilation and times of depression.  I retired in 1989, but still serve in various capacities.  The ministry kind of gets into your blood.  And it's there to stay.  Someone has said 'old ministers never die, they just go out to pasture in interim after interim after interim'.  

But you know, world knowledge has doubled several times since 1940.  I find that absolutely astounding.  Over 95% of the information and knowledge that we have now in the world was unknown in 1940.  That's staggering.  In 1940, for example, we were just beginning to use some of the wonder drugs, like penicillin.  The explosion of knowledge in the medical field is marvelous.  Is there anyone here who would like to be treated in the hospital based on medical knowledge of 1940?  Is there anyone here that would like to take a trip overseas in a 1940 airplane?  Or drive a 1940 DeSoto across the nation?  That was a car, you remember -- I had one of them.

But you know I think it would be a sin to practice medicine now with the information that we had in 1940.  Just imagine how many things have come to us new, as far as methods are concerned, in the biblical field.  New ways of understanding the scripture.  Methods of interpretation that we didn't know how to use in 1940.  And I submit to you that it's a sin to practice religion now based on our 1940 attitudes and commitments in our understanding.

Do you remember Washington Irving's story of old Rip Van Winkle?  He shouldered his old flint-lock and went out into the Catskill Mountains on a hunting trip.  On the way he got a big supply of liquor, and that helped him go to sleep under the shade of a tree.  When old Rip woke up it was 20 years later.  When he left the village, the image of King George was there in the center.  When he woke up and returned to the little village, it was General George Washington, President of the United States.  Old Rip had slept through a revolution.

Well, I think that's a metaphor for America.  I think that's a metaphor for the religious America, as well as politically.  So if I had a pulpit and were preaching today, I would say, especially to the evangelical worshipers of Billy Graham, WAKE UP!  Light has come.  Don't walk in darkness.  WAKE UP!

Now that I have your attention.  Jesus said 'this is the judgment, that light has come into the world.  And men have loved the darkness better than the light'.  I'm convinced that the calling into the Christian Ministry is a sacred calling, a high commission of God.  The ministry will demand the very best that we have to offer in sincere commitment and honest searching after truth.  Preaching today should never be the insipid commands -- for people 'we ought to do this or we ought to do that'.  It should never be something like 'love your mother, or be kind to one another'.  The minister is not just a "do-good" coach.  The minister is a herald of good news.  The minister is the proclaimer of light.  The one who announces the dawn.  Not just telling people what we should do to get into heaven.  We announce the dawn.

I commend Eliza (Drummond) on her choice of going into service in the inter-faith ministry.  The fact that there's only 1 God does not mean that there's only 1 way to worship and find God.  He, or she, is the God of all people on the face of the earth.  At this point, my wife (who by the way is out of town today) has a poster which says:  "When God created Man, she was only fooling".

Next I want to say that in my book this congregation is doing some wonderful things.  We're not hung up on whether or not a person is orthodox in their faith, or is believing the same thing that everyone else is.  That's 1940 stuff.  The focus of this congregation is mostly about serving our fellow humankind.  And that's what Jesus said it's all about.  'In as much as you gave food and drink and visited your fellow man, you did it unto me'.  

My friends, that's the ministry.  It's a high calling.  I would like to quote a few lines of a poem written by Rudyard Kipling, but I want to read a parody on it written by Peyton Hopkins at the ordination of a young man in 1972.  Just a few lines -- it's called The Minister's Gift:

If you can keep your faith when those about you are wrestling with theirs, and blame their doubts on you,

If you can trust in God when all men doubt him, and yet make allowance for that doubting too,

If you can serve and not get tired of serving, or facing critics look with loving eyes,

Or being slandered, still be understanding, yet don't act too proud that you are wise,

If you can keep your eyes upon the Master, keep serving him your fundamental aim,

If you can meet with crowded pews or vacant, yet preach your best each Sunday just the same,

If you can preach to crowds and be prophetic, or be profound and keep the common touch,

God's truth and love the only light that guides you, and praise from men not valued over much,

If you can live your life in faithful service, the way of Christ the only path you choose,

You'll be the type of person God often blesses, but what's more, you'll be a person he will use, a minister of Good News.

The passage I'd like to share with you this morning is continuing in the study of the Letter to the Hebrews that we began last Sunday, and now reading chapter 4, verses 14 through 5:10.  Very appropriate passage, I think, maybe perhaps a challenging one for us as we contemplate the ministry:

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. 15For 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. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

5 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. 2He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

5 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’;
6as he says also in another place,
‘You are a priest for ever,
   according to the order of Melchizedek.’

7 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. 8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

I fear that priesthood has fallen out of favor these days.  It's not exactly a positive image for us, if it ever has been in the Protestant church.  We have all the cases of sexual abuse of priests that we hear about that has literally cost the archdiocese of Portland to go into bankruptcy.  And now representative Foley from Florida, when his inappropriate contact with Pages in the House [of Representatives] was exposed, what does he do?  He blames it on a priest in his childhood who had abused him.

And if you believe 1/2 of what Dan Brown writes about in the DaVinci Code (and you probably shouldn't, or at least you need to be careful about which half to believe), there's this broad conspiracy among certain priests protecting some dark secret of the church.  And that's not to mention all of the negative images we have in particular of the High Priest in Judaism.  If you think about that movie Jesus Christ Superstar, and the songs from the High Priest -- this dark, sinister character.  On up to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, in which the priesthood, particularly the High Priest, is portrayed very negatively.  

So we have all of this negative imagery of priesthood in general and High Priest in particular, and so this text from Hebrews comes to us as a shock.  It's kind of like being told the Cougars and the Bears are the friends of the Ducks.  And if you're a football fan you know that we got terribly humiliated by the Cougars yesterday, and previously by the California Bears.  So we're not too fond of them right now.  But it's good to read in here that Christ can sympathize with our weakness.  That's how we know he's a friend of the Duck's right now J.  I was so depressed after the game yesterday I was going to call in sick this morning.

In our tradition, the Disciples of Christ, has always emphasizes the priesthood of all believers.  That we all share in this ministry, and de-emphasize the special role of the clergy.  For instance, in the Presbyterian system where the pastor of the church serves as the chair of the session, or the Board.  In our tradition, we're lucky if we even get to attend the Board meetings, and then we're ex-officio without vote.  In many traditions, especially Catholic, but also many Protestant traditions, it is the minister who serves the elements of the Lord's supper to the people.  In our tradition it is the Elders and the Deacons who serve.

And hence we're often known as "Low Church".  In contrast to the "High Church" image.  Judy and I had the opportunity to experience a true High Church when we went to Scotland in 1998 to attend the annual assembly of the Church of Scotland as part of the international delegation with representatives from the United States.  The opening ceremony was filled with such pomp and circumstance as I had never seen before.  Over 1,000 delegates there in the hall.  Trumpet blasts to announce the beginning, and everyone stands in complete silence as the parade of the officers of the assembly come in a procession, all with black robes and white judicial wigs.  Such as we see at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, those old pictures we have.  Wearing these wigs, they come into this procession, the moderator of the church bows to the throne, this large chair overlooking the entire assembly, and then bows to the audience.  Then a Psalm is sung, a scripture is read, prayer said, and then the Lord High Commissioner, the representative of Her Majesty, seated in the throne, reads a letter of greeting from Her Majesty, with all this royal 'we' language.  And then the assembly responds, with points of commission to write a response to her.  I mean, it was incredible.

Later in the week, there was a dinner for the international delegates, and we just so happened to be seated across from the President of the Church of England.  The President is a lay position, someone who is elected every 2 years kind of thing.  I asked him 'So tell me, how does all of this ritual in the Church of Scotland compare to the Church of England?'  And he said the Church of England cannot hold a candle to the Church of Scotland!  The Church of Her Majesty the Queen were just amateurs by comparison.

Well, that's 'high church'.  In comparison, we're no 'low church', we're 'basement church'!  We're subterranean church J.  And keep in mind, these are our ancestral roots in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.  Our founders (3 of the 4) were Scottish Presbyterian ministers who came to this country and there on the 'Western' frontier (West Virginia and Ohio), decided to leave all of the trappings of that church behind to begin this movement that became the Christian Church.

Many of those founders questioned whether or not we should have paid clergy.  For instance, Alexander Campbell, one of the most prominent of those 4 founders, said:  "The modern clergy say they do not preach for money.  Very well, let the people pay them none and they will have as much of their preaching still.  Besides there will be no suspicion of their veracity".

Don't pay any attention to the man behind the curtain.  That's good advice for politicians, but not the church J.

And all of that is simply to say, how do we, in this context today, relate to such a foreign image as "High Priest" presented in this text.  Wouldn't we be better off with just ignoring it?  You know, don't pay any attention to this, they're archaic, no relevance, if not damaging to the otherwise positive image we have of Jesus.

Well, I want to suggest to you 4 reasons why we should not only not ignore this text, but why we need to give it very careful consideration:

Number 1, if we take this to heart, it redeems for us an otherwise negative, and therefore anti-Semitic, tradition within the gospel story that we have around this evil High Priest.  By calling Jesus our High Priest, not only does that affirm the validity of the office, it affirms the entirely priestly institution that we too often reject out of hand.  Be it Catholic, or Jewish, or from whatever tradition.  Rightly understood, priests are not barriers between us and God, but they are bridges to God.  Those, as the author of Hebrews says, are called to attend to things pertaining to God on behalf of the people.  That is a job description for all clergy, by whatever name we call them.

Secondly, to call Jesus "High Priest" also means that we need no other intercessor.  That we all have direct access to God.  One of the chief functions of the high priest in the Jewish tradition was to offer a sacrifice on the day of atonement in the inner sanctum -- the holy of holies -- in the temple.  Only the high priest was allowed to enter, and only on that one day of the year.  And so Jesus, here, presented as the High Priest is not only who gives that sacrifice, he becomes that sacrifice.  Making all other sacrifice unnecessary and unwelcome.  And so the author says we can approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need.  Do you have any guilt in your life?  Get rid of it.  Do you carry any shame?  Get over it.  Approaching the throne of grace with boldness means we claim our sin, we own it, we confess it, and if necessary we repent of it.  And we accept the grace of God, and we move on.  End of story.  Now of course it's a little more complex than that, but you get the basic principle.

Third, the author of Hebrews says we can do this precisely because Jesus as our High Priest shares our humanity.  Shares our weakness.  Faced the same temptations that we face, and therefore knows how difficult it can be.  I remember the movie The Last Temptation of Christ years ago when I got this phone call from this woman who was so upset about this movie -- that could portray Jesus as having any sexual fantasy.  And I said to her:  well, he was human.  It's part of being human.  And she said 'Well I don't believe that'.  And I replied to her:  "Madam, that was declared a heresy by the church about 1,700 - 1,800 years ago, just so you know".  But Jesus is fully human.  Because he was able to resist those temptations he is the pioneer of our faith.  He is the ultimate role model for us.  Not a divine being who only appears in human form, but one just as human as any of the rest of us.  The full humanity of Jesus means Jesus was like us and we are like Jesus.  And at the same time, the full divinity of Jesus means that he is also our Lord and Savior -- the one in whom we can most fully see the light of God that offers salvation in the fullest sense of the word to the world.

Fourth and last, the author of Hebrews sums up all of this in one obscure phrase, lost totally on the modern reader.  When you heard 'You are a priest according to the order of Melchizedek', I mean, be honest, what was your response?  Huh?  Who the heck is Melchizedek?  What does he have to do with Jesus.

Melchizedek makes an appearance in the Hebrew scripture a grand total of 2 times.  Not exactly a dominant tradition in the Old Testament.  The first of those occurs in Genesis 14.  I would invite you to turn to that and just scan over that chapter because when you look at that, and read all of those names in the days of various Kings, it's a story we don't know very well.  There are 5 Kings against 4, the 5 Kings are the good Kings, the 4 are the bad ones.  These 4 raid the land in the area of Sodom and Gomorrah, before that more famous incident that we know.  And they take with them a bunch of people and livestock, including Lot and his family.  He is the nephew of Abraham.  And when Abraham gets word of this he rounds up some elite troops, forms a commando team, and goes after to rescue his nephew (and rescues everyone else), brings them back home.  And on the way back home, he encounters Melchizedek, who is the King of Salem.  And he is the priest of the Most High God.  Keep in mind this is not a descendent of Abraham.  And he blesses Abraham in the name of the Most High God.  And in response, Abraham gives him 1/10th of the booty, which is the first tithe and the concept on which tithing is based -- that we give a tithe in response to the blessings we receive from God.  And that's all we know about Melchizedek.  That's it -- no record of him after this.

Now there's one other important clue that so often is the case in Old Testament stories, where the name is very revealing, reveals a deeper truth.  What does Salem mean?  Peace!  Yes, it means peace.  Salome, or shalom all come from the same word.  Melchizedek -- the last half of that means 'righteousness'.  In other words, he is the righteous King of Peace.  Now, hang on to that.

Then we have Psalm 110, that Frank read for us earlier, which scholars believe is a Psalm composed for a coronation of a new king.  In which this new king is proclaimed to be a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.  Now how then will this righteous king of peace maintain the peace of the land?  Well, what did we hear (what did we hear):  The Lord says to my Lord sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool, you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, the Lord is at your right hand, he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath he will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses, he will shatter heads over the wide earth.

What a pretty picture of peace J.  We wonder where we get this idea that we can just destroy nations in order to achieve peace?  It's right here in our own tradition.  We need to deal honestly with that.

Well, you might say this is the only way to peace, it's the only way the world has ever known.  It's the only way that will ever be.  Therefore it must be the way of God.

I want you to carefully note two things:

Number 1, Psalm 110, verse 1 -- The Lord says to my Lord sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool -- is the most often-quoted Psalm in the New Testament.  It appears six times, three of those on the lips of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Twice in this letter to the Hebrews, and a sixth time in the sermon Peter gives on the day of Pentecost.  It is the means by which the early church claimed messianic authority for Jesus as the Lord who sits at the right hand of God. 

Second, in this text we've just read from Hebrews, we see there that verse 4 from Psalm 110 -- 'you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek' -- is quoted not once but twice (verses 6 and 10).  Claiming that Jesus is such a priest, with one singular difference described in the three verses that occur in-between those two quotations:  instead of blessing Abraham for his military victory, this high priest offers prayers with loud cries and tears.  Instead of bringing slaughter to enemy nations, he suffers death on the cross.  Instead of nations of corpses, there is 1 corpse for the nations. 

The righteous king of peace.  There, says the gospel, is the one and only true way to peace.  This is our high priest, champion of our faith we are called to follow, clergy and laity alike.


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