IN THE STEPS OF A PRIEST
Hebrews 5: 1-10
Ok, in a sermon with this title, I have to begin with one of my favorite jokes that feature a priest:
A minister, a priest, and a rabbi are talking about their own deaths. One of them asks, “When you are in your casket, and friends, family, and congregants are walking by your casket, what would you like to hear them say?”
The minister said, “I’d like to hear them say that I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader, and a great family man.” The others nodded. The priest said, “ As they are gazing at my body, I would like to hear them say that I was a wonderful teacher and a servant of the Lord who made a big difference in people’s lives.” They nodded. It was the rabbi’s turn. He smiled and said, “When they are looking down at my body, I’d like to hear them say, ‘Look! He’s moving!’”
It was really just since 1517 and the reforms made famous by Martin Luther that Christian theologians who thought like Luther did were disparagingly called the “PROTESTants.” The Protestants started the strange idea that we still embrace called, “The Priesthood of All Believers.” Before that, Roman Catholics and Jews believed in the power—and the necessity—of priests. Yes, Jews had high priests in the first century, and early Christians found the idea of a priest most palatable. A priest, you see, offers sacrifices to God on behalf of others; and a priest also pleads one’s case before the Almighty. A priest literally stands between human beings in the need of forgiveness and the holy God. They are a necessary part of the relationship between Roman Catholics and God, and certainly between first century Jews and God. But do the Protestants—the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the non-denominational churches—need a priest too? Yes. They find their reason in the book of Hebrews; there they find the Risen Christ, sitting first on the right hand of power, is also the Great High Priest. How high? Why, he is a priest after the order of Melchizadek. Whenever people spoke the name of that legendary and mystical priest, they must have said it in an earnest whisper, as if a hush would fall over the room. In the 14th Chapter of Genesis verse 18, Melchizadek was not only the King of Salem, (What was Salem? Why, JeruSALEM of course,) but he was also called the Priest of the Most High God. He brought out bread and wine as a blessing to both Abram and God. He was a true priest: an intermediary between God and people; and between people and God. He attained legendary status over the years. I can imagine, when early Christians were reading this letter aloud to a small house church, that all the ears would perk up as the reader shared verses 5 and 6: “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 it says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’”
We need such a priest. Certainly the role of priests has been tarnished in recent years over sexual abuse scandals. But sometimes a person needs a priest; or we might call such a person a “confessor.” In the early 90s in this congregation I went to the home of a wonderful couple in our church. She was dying of cancer. As I arrived at the home, I knew death would not be far away for her. I intended to give her final prayers, something that her early Catholic upbringing called “Last Rites” or “Extreme Unction.” The husband said, “She wants to see you privately.” I went into her bedroom and there she was, lying on a hospital bed. She looked exhausted from the ravages of cancer. She motioned for me to come close to her, which I did. With a barely audible voice she said: “I need to confess something to you. I was unfaithful to my husband one time in our marriage.” Tears began to run down her cheeks. Crying, she continued, “I am so, so sorry, but I don’t want to hurt him now. So I needed to tell this to you; I need God to hear what I have said.” “God has heard what you said,” I replied in her ear. “When you are ready, go in peace.” She slipped away later that night. Sometimes we need a priest. For many Protestants, it can be a pastor as I mentioned. It can also be a counselor, or a chaplain: not just chaplains in hospitals or Hospices, but also in the Armed Forces. Oh the stories chaplains could tell without using names about the people who found peace through confession. This is one of the most powerful roles of a priest. But sometimes our priest is another trusted person, as occurred in the cloistered life of a monastery or a convent. Julie Kerr, in her book called Life in the Medieval Cloister, described the power of confession before turning in for the night. She writes, “If monks were going to sleep peacefully and enjoy the restorative night’s sleep [they needed,] it was important that they first confessed their sins and freed their minds of guilt. By doing so, the monks also armed themselves against the devil, who, it was believed, would seek to ensnare them at night when they were at their most vulnerable.” [Continuum, UK, 2009, p. 104.] Is sin a passé term, in our day, one that seems to out of place in our live and let live society? Hardly, as people around the world speculated this week about whether a man was restrained and horribly dismembered while hoping to get papers necessary to marry the woman he loved. Sin and evil are still alive a in our world.
Listen to what layperson Kathleen Norris shared in her book called The Cloister Walk:
My husband and I, raised in the pietistic churches of the 1950s, received an education in sin that was not only inadequate, but harmful. From the Protestants I got a list of rules that were not to be broken and [I] naively thought that as long as I wasn’t breaking the rules, sin was not much of a problem for me. As a young adult, I believed I had no conscience, a state I was fortunate to survive. From the Catholics my husband got less of a sense of sin than a terrific ability to feel guilty about everything under the sun …. [Riverhead Books, NY 1996, pp. 125-126]
Kathleen goes on to say how much she learned from the monks about forgiveness and grace as she participated in the cloistered life for a time.
Here is another role of priests: according to Hebrews 5:7, “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.” The part of that declaration that stands out to me is the last phrase: “He was heard because of his reverent submission.” The way we approach God matters. Prayers cannot effectively be offered in a “matter of fact” way, or in a glib way while we are checking our cell phone. “Reverent submission” apparently matters. Some of you ask me to pray for you, and of course I do. But some believe God hears my prayers better than theirs! Hmmm. When you pray, do you set a time aside from any distraction, go into a quiet place, even a place that feels holy, and then reverently pray? That’s what Jesus did. Some of my most ardent and pleading prayers in my life have happened when I’ve gone into our small chapel—away from foot traffic and phone calls, facing the cross and the table that says, “In remembrance of me;” the chapel that has earth-toned light refracting through stained glass—and then prayed. That’s where I pray best. I use Jesus as my guide for prayer.
We need Jesus; he has many roles in the lives of his followers: Savior; friend; teacher. But today we are remembering an often over-looked role: priest. Like my young grandson Shane would whisper to one of his parents when he broke something or spilled something in our house so they could break the news to Mary Ann or me and perhaps cushion our reaction to the deed, Jesus performs something of the same role for us when we want to approach God with something we have broken or someone we have hurt.
Finally, in the Jerusalem temple of Jesus’ day, a priest was selected to literally “go behind the curtain” of the holy of holies once a year on Yom Kippur, to burn incense and offer a sacrifice to God on behalf of the whole nation. They called the curtain “the veil” of the Temple. Listen how this imagery is transferred to a verse of our next hymn, written by William Chatterton Dix in 1866. “Alleluia! Born of Mary, earth your footstool, heaven your throne. As within the veil you entered, robed in flesh, our great high priest; here on earth both priest and victim, in the Eucharistic feast.” [Alleluia! Sing to Jesus] Those words bring us full circle, assuring us that just as the great priest Melchizadek brought bread and wine as a blessing between God and a faithful man, so Jesus offers the same between God and faithful people today. May Jesus, the great high priest, offer you blessing today, in your own faithfulness, with confessions named and sins forgiven.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 21, 2018