10.18.15 Sermon (October 18, 2015) “A Priestly Servant”

posted Jul 5, 2016, 3:40 PM by David Hawkins
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 5:1-10

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

Sermon: “A Priestly Servant”

For the months of August and September, you may remember we studied the book of James, which is a straightforward exhortation to lead a life that reflects our faith. James is not high-level theology, it’s not complicated. It’s just live what you believe. It mentions Jesus only in passing, I think maybe only twice. It is much more focused on the way we conduct ourselves, rather than on the why. 

Hebrews, on the other hand is all about Jesus. It’s all about the theology of Jesus. It’s all about the why, the how, the what, of Jesus. 

It’s interesting that these two books, which couldn’t be more different from each other, are placed side by side. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it’s almost as though they serve as counterweights to each other, each emphasizing a different, important aspect of how to think about being a Christian, how and why to live as a Christian.

And as we’ve seen, Hebrews is a much more intellectually oriented book than James. Where James was all about a straightforward connection between faith and practice, Hebrews is all about paradox, and opposing ideas and symbols, about the clash of contrasting truths that point to a deeper truth. 

The book of Hebrews begins by asserting that Jesus was no angel, that he is entirely human – but that he is also entirely God. These two concepts should be impossible to hold in our heads at one time, and they are, but Hebrews insists that when we forget one of these truths, or when we elevate one of them over the other, we lose track of who Jesus is. 

When we hold Jesus’ divinity up over his humanity, we lose track of who Jesus is. When we hold Jesus humanity up over his Divinity, we lose track of who Jesus is. Hebrews reminds us to hold the entire paradox of Jesus up, even when doing so is difficult. 

Last Sunday, I introduced the philosophical term of ‘dialectics’, which I’m sure has been used in several households throughout the week. Dialectics is a method of trying to understand difficult abstract thoughts and historical movements by trying to understand the antithesis of those thoughts and movements. To put this in a political context, we can only understand the fascism of Nazi Germany by trying to understand the communism of neighboring Russia. Neither one of these historical movement arose in a vacuum.  

Another example of dialectics might be thinking about truths that exist in tension with each other in our everyday lives. For instance, I love to be with my wife, but I also like to be by myself. And sometimes I like to be by myself, and with my family at the same time. This is explains how I can read a book or write a sermon while Karen and Wiley are watching a soccer game on TV. 

Or, here’s another dialectical tension: Karen, I think, likes it that I’m a musician, that I’m kind of artistic, with that sort of creative, unpredictable mentality. But she also needs me to be at least somewhat stable, dependable, boring, even. This is a dialectic tension in our relationship. 

And so last week, I talked about the way the author of Hebrews introduced the idea of dialectic tension two thousand years before his time, with the idea of Jesus being both the sword of the living Word of God, while at the same time being the throne of Grace. 

Hebrews offered to us the contrasting truths of Jesus as both judgment and forgiveness, as both weapon and sanctuary. And the point of the scripture was to remind us that we can’t choose one of these truths over the other, as easy as that might be. Jesus is both, and because he is both, he is more than both. The truth of Jesus is far greater than the smaller truths that the author of Hebrews forces together in tension. 

And today, the author again takes familiar concepts, and stretches them beyond their familiar boundaries. 

His audience is very well aware of the idea of a high priest.  And all of the things that the author of Hebrews says about Jesus fulfilling the role of a priest, they understand. The high priest is human, and so, he gets sin, he gets the way it messes up our lives. The high priest is from the people, and so he is part of them, he is not separate from them. He is chosen, he does not choose it for himself. It is not an honor, it is a responsibility. And so on. 

You can almost see the congregation nodding their heads as the author of Hebrews checks off the list of job descriptions for the head priest. 

But then it gets weird. 

There’s this stuff about submission. Suffering. Perfection. Eternal Salvation.

These are not the qualifications of the high priest. These are not the responsibilities of the high priest. The high priest offers the gifts and sacrifices of the people on behalf of the people. The high priest may even offer gifts and sacrifices on his own behalf, for his own sin. 

But this high priest, the one that the book of Hebrews is describing, is not offering the sacrifices of others. This high priest is offering himself. And here is where everything changes. Jesus is not offering a sacrifice. He’s becoming a sacrifice. Jesus is not promising salvation. He is becoming salvation. 

And when Jesus takes this step, when he becomes the sacrifice, when he becomes salvation, he changes the way we think about what it really means to be a priest. 

Because at that point, who can really follow in his footsteps? 

And that’s a good question. It’s a question we’re still trying to answer.

For the first 1500 years of the church, the priests of the church were set apart, as though they had a special, I don’t know, je ne sais quoi, let’s just say, anointing, to be priests. There was a special place reserved for them, and only them, and they had special, reserved responsibilities. Mostly, it had to do with the sacraments, with things like communion and baptism. For most of the church’s life, it was felt that the priests of the church were the only ones capable or worthy of handling the holy mysteries.

 One of the main tenets of the Protestant Reformation was a repudiation of this idea. Luther and Calvin and other reformers felt that the church had given too much spiritual authority to priests, and that scripture taught we all, as believers, are ministers of the Gospel –- that there is no such thing as a distinction between a clergy and a lay leadership in the church. 

Now, Presbyterians, like they do, are really trying to put this idea into practice. In the last couple of years, the Book of Order, which is our constitution for the church, has more or less done away with terms like ‘Pastor’ and ‘Clergy’, and ‘Lay Pastor’. 

Instead, we have terms like, “Teaching Elder,” which is me, and “Ruling Elder,” which is someone like Chris Lewellen over there, and “Commissioned Ruling Elder,” which is someone like Bill Coleman, or Dee Rice, who has gone through an extensive training course in order to become licensed to preach and preside over the sacraments in a church in Palo Duro Presbytery, under certain conditions. 

These terms describe the function of what we do, rather than separate us into groups of clergy, and non-clergy. In other words, I’m an elder in the church, just like Dean Thompson or Jill Craig. But, I’m a teaching elder, which describes my role. They are ruling elders, which describes theirs. My role is to teach, through word and sacrament. Theirs is to rule, through service and governance. 

To be sure, there are certain things that are normally reserved for the Teaching Elder to do. I normally will preside over communion. I normally will choose the hymns and the scriptures. I normally will preside over baptisms. These are the sorts of things that are generally reserved for teaching elders. But, anybody can, in certain circumstances do these things. These is nothing intrinsically special about me doing them. 

And there are things that are normally set aside for the Ruling Elders. The finances and properties of the church. The calendar for worship, including how often and the manner in which communion is celebrated. The overall programs and ministries of the church. These are the responsibilities of the Ruling Elders. 

There is no perfect system of church governance. As I wrote in my Doodles a couple of weeks ago, the Presbyterian Church system is one of many that seek to balance the many different models we find in scripture. Some systems tilt toward a more priestly model, some less so. 

But especially in the Presbyterian Church, we’ve tried to minimize the idea that the pastor is the priest. For us, Jesus is the High Priest, and through him, we all have immediate access to God. 

And because of that, we all have the right, and the responsibility to share that access with others. Our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is not a private one. It is a public relationship. Through Jesus, we are, all of us, priests. There is no ‘set aside’ special group of people with an inside track to God. I don’t have some sort of special relationship that I tap into on your behalf. I don’t know if I should tell you this or not, but, while I pray for you, the truth is, my prayers are not more effective than yours are. I know that might be hard for some of you to believe, but it’s true. 

And so, this scripture today is both Good News, and frightening news. 

It’s good news because we are not dependent on the holiness, of the effectiveness of our priests or our pastors for our salvation. We don’t need to worry about whether or not our priests are good enough for us to be saved. I know that underneath some of our recent ordination disagreements this has been a concern, whether we admit it or not. 

But the reality is, all of us pastors, um, sorry, all of us ‘Teaching Elders’ struggle with sin, recognized, unrecognized, named, un-named, confessed, un-confessed, just like all of our ruling elders do, just like all of us do. There is no-one among us, not one, who is able to claim the sort of perfection that makes us worthy of the work of the Gospel. 

But our scripture reminds us that we don’t need to be perfect. Because Christ was made perfect on our behalf. 

And this is the frightening part. 

Because we don’t have to be perfect. We just need to go out there and serve God. There is no excuse, nothing to hide behind, no reason for us not be ministers, to be priests of the gospel. We can’t say, ‘we’re not good enough’. We can’t say, ‘we’re not holy enough’. Because being good enough, being holy enough, is not part of our job description. 

In the end, it turns out that Hebrews and James are not so different after all. Our job is not to sit here and be perfect. Our job is go, as we are and do what we can, and in the process be perfected. 

Now to the Holy One
who is at work within us,
accomplishing far more than we could ever ask or imagine,
now and forever. Amen.