Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, at the Beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 18th January 2015
Hebrews 6:17-7:10

‘Jesus, made an high priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec’ (Hebrews 6:20). I don’t know whether you were letting things just flow over you during the New Testament lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews, or whether you followed in detail its rather technical description of what the ‘priesthood of Melchisedec’ was all about. It does seem rather complicated.

In the Old Testament, the order of priests were the sons of Levi, the Levites, and Melchisedec was a king who met and blessed Abraham in Genesis [Gen.14:18f], to whom Abraham gave a tenth of his wealth as a tithe. In Psalm 110 – ‘The Lord said to my lord – Dixit dominus, ‘The Lord said unto my lord: sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool …’ at line 4, ‘The Lord sware, and will not repent: thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedech’. [Book of Common Prayer 1662, The Psalms: also quoted in Hebrews 7:21]

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (probably not Paul the Apostle, but perhaps somebody writing in a similar style), addressing a Jewish audience, was introducing another dimension to the greatness of Jesus Christ: that He was a great ‘high priest’.

The High Priest, in Jewish tradition, was the only priest allowed to go into the inner part of the Temple, behind the curtain – and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement; but somehow Melchisedec was an even greater high priest. As it says, he had no father, no mother, no beginning and no end, so he was ‘made like unto the Son of God, an eternal priest’ (Hebrews 7:3). Perhaps effectively the idea was that Melchisedec and Jesus were in some sense the same.

But as I said, I slightly suspect – and I certainly wouldn’t take you to task if you have – I slightly suspect that you may have been letting some of this rather recondite technical Jewish religious stuff flow over your head, somewhat unexamined. It does seem a world away from our experience today. I don’t think, for example, that it’s really adequate to talk about ‘priesthood’ in this context as though being a priest – like a Levite, or of the Order of Melchisedech, or whatever, was no more than just a synonym for being a vicar today.

The ‘priestly work’ in those days – look a little further on in Hebrews, in Chapter 9 – you’ll see – was largely to make sacrifices, blood sacrifices, slaughtering oxen and sheep and goats, offering them to God on the altar. Another thing that a priest of the Order of Melchisedech could do was to make intercession. In Chapter 7 verse 25, ‘He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them’.

This is quite topical at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which today is. This week we are aiming to make friendly noises to our fellow Christians in the other denominations, and we will all share together in a joint service, to take place, instead of Evensong, next Sunday at St Andrew’s. If you remember, last year we welcomed everybody here at St Mary’s, and we had a nice Evensong, to show how we worship here.

Be that as it may, it does prompt me to suggest that we take a few minutes just to think about the whole topic of worship: how we approach God in prayer and praise, and in sacrament. As soon as we start talking about Jesus being a priest of the Order of Melchisedech, there are a number of issues which come up which, depending on the answers you come to, will tend to determine which denomination, which way of following Christ, you belong to.

I know that most of us go to the church denomination that we were brought up in; but I’m sure that there are moments when we look over our shoulders at other churches to see whether we are more in tune, with the way they worship and with what they believe, than we are with what’s familiar to us.

So, worship. What is going on?

‘Gracious God, to thee we raise
This our sacrifice of praise’. [F.S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917]

No burnt offerings. No dead sheep or goats, or oxen – thank goodness. If there is a sacrifice involved in our worship today, it’s a symbolic sacrifice, giving up, giving out our praise: singing hymns and making prayers and supplications.

Some of us rather like it to be done for us; for the office to be said, for the service to be done, in a decent and dignified manner by a professional. Get in an expert rather than trying to do it yourself.

So the traditional Roman Catholic way of doing things resulted, for example, in mass being said in Latin, although the majority of people present didn’t understand a word of it: but it didn’t matter to them, because they felt that the sacrifice of praise was being done appropriately and correctly. They were there simply to take part by witnessing the worship being made on their behalf by the priest.

You had people endowing chancels in which they would pay for masses to be said for their souls after they had died. It didn’t matter that they weren’t there any more, at least physically, but they felt that nevertheless it would help them to get through Purgatory to the pearly gates if there was somebody down here still praying for them.

Then along came Martin Luther and his various Reformation colleagues, Calvin and Zwingli and Co, and they brought in the Protestant idea of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, from 1 Peter 2:9, ‘… you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light ‘.

Martin Luther said that all Christians ‘truly belong to the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them apart from their office’ – in German, Das Ampt, their job. ‘… We all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians, in that it is baptism, gospel and faith which alone make us spiritual and a Christian people… We are all consecrated priests through baptism ‘. [Martin Luther, 1520, Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation, quoted in McGrath, A.E., 2007, The Christian Theology Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, pp 505-6]

Martin Luther considered bishops and priests simply to be office-holders in the church, doing a functional job. When they retired, priests would go back to being ordinary Christians like anybody else. There wasn’t anything essentially different, spiritually different, between office-holders like ministers or bishops and their congregations as laymen.

Today if you are a Baptist or are in the United Reformed Church, that idea of the priesthood of all believers is still very strongly held. They do have ministers who wear dog-collars, but there is no concept of those ministers having a tradition of ordination handed down from St Peter, down through the ages in a continuous chain, if you like, in the same way that the Roman Catholics, and to some extent the Anglicans, do.

The Methodists are similar to the Anglicans. If you are in America you will find Methodist bishops; but you won’t find bishops in the British Methodist church – yet. The Methodist ‘chairmen of the district’ here are exactly the same, functionally, as bishops in the Church of England. On that basis, Revd Ian Howarth, the previous Methodist minister in Cobham, is now the Methodist bishop of Birmingham, which is a rather neat swap, as the Anglican Diocese of Birmingham is sending its suffragan bishop, the Bishop of Aston, Andrew Watson, to be Bishop of Guildford. That is one division in the church, between Anglicans and Methodists, where I do think we will eventually come together again. I hope and pray that we will.

Among the ‘comfortable words’ that we hear in our Holy Communion service, there are these lovely words,

‘Hear also what St John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1). The idea is that, whereas the priests of Levi made sacrifices, slaughtered animals and made burnt offerings, so that God was given presents, valuable presents, in order to keep him sweet, now the priest of the Order of Melchisedech has been himself the sacrifice.

God has given His only Son Jesus, who in his death was in fact a sacrifice for us, for our sins. In the Prayer of Consecration we pray to God, ‘who didst give thy only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered (a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world)’.

The concept looks similar to the original burnt offerings. Jesus gave Himself. He was punished in our place. In some sense that substitutionary sacrifice was an atoning sacrifice; it made up for our badness, our sins.

I personally don’t think that squares with the idea of a loving God. I don’t think that God is actually a wrathful God who needs to be bought off with sacrifices. I think that we have moved on and our understanding has deepened: that Jesus in some sense was the last sacrifice.

But He rose again. He wasn’t burned up. God showed that He wasn’t a vengeful God, but that He cares for us. He raised Jesus from the dead.
Well, saying that puts me into certain categories as a Christian. Not all will agree with me. There are Christians who still believe passionately in the idea of an ‘atoning sacrifice’, but still they believe, as I do, that the important thing about Christianity is for us to try to follow Jesus more nearly every day, and in particular to follow his commandment of love: because we love Him, because we love God, we should also love our neighbours as ourselves.

There’s more we agree upon than disagree about, I’m sure. So as we meet our fellow Christians this week, let us be joyful and celebrate the different ways in which we all approach the throne of grace.

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