The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 53: 4-12
Psalm 91: 9-16
Hebrews 5: 1-10
If I were a betting man, and that’s a pretty big if, my hunch is that if I took a poll this morning asking people what their favourite bit of scripture was, not many of you would point to something out of the Letter to the Hebrews. My hunch is that Hebrews is not, for the most part, many people’s “go to” bit of scripture. We’re more likely to appeal to something from the Gospels, or maybe one of the psalms, perhaps a bit of Isaiah or Paul when asked to name our favourite piece of scripture. The Letter to the Hebrews, probably wouldn’t make it into the top ten list of favourite passages of scripture. But that is not to say that Hebrews isn’t full of really fabulous or important stuff. Indeed The Letter to the Hebrews is an important text because, among other things, it develops for us a theology of Christ as High Priest and it is in the middle of that argument that we land today.
Throughout The Letter to the Hebrews, the author (and I keep saying “the author” because scholars are uncertain by whom, when or where this Letter was written), the author develops a distinct and elevated Christology. As Son of God, the author claims that Jesus is superior to other beings, including angels; that Jesus is superior to other Biblical heroes, like Moses and Abraham; that Christ is superior to institutions, like the Levitical priesthood. In each case: angels, heroes or priesthood, they either worship, point to or are fulfilled by Jesus, the great High Priest.So what does this all mean? Or, to put it another way, why is this important.
It is important because the High Priest has the power, or should I say the authority to stand before God on behalf of the people and offer sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. In a sense he personified the people and interceded on their behalf. It was the High Priest who stood before God and offered sacrifice on behalf of God’s people and in turn offered the people the assurance of God’s pardon and forgiveness. This High Priest office was not one an individual could simply assume. You don’t simply declare “I am high priest”. Rather you were called, chosen and in a sense recognized as high priest. And, for a time at least, you needed to come from a particular family. To be high priest you needed to be descended from Aaron, the first High Priest.
Biblically, the high priest and the king were the two most important individuals in Israel, governing both the religious and secular affairs of the people of Israel. At their best, high priest and king were to remind the people of Israel who they were, and more importantly, whose they were. For the people are Israel were no run of the mill lot, they were children of the one and only living God.
Perhaps now you can begin to see why The Letter to the Hebrews might be important for us. For what it is claiming for Jesus doesn’t only tell us who Jesus is. It also tells us who we are, and more profoundly whose we are. If The Letter to the Hebrews is in a sense a sermon about the eternal identity of Jesus as High Priest, it is also a reminder to us that we are no ordinary lot. Rather we are the children of the one and only living God and that we belong eternally to God.
Just think of it: you belong to God! You belong to God! And not just for today, but for all time and eternity. And like Christ, by our baptism into Christ, we have been called, chosen and clothed with dignity, not of the priestly robes of Aaron, but with the baptismal robes of God’s daughters and sons.
Now the book Exodus goes to great length describing the priestly vestments of Aaron: the tunic, the ephod, the breastpiece and the turban. These are the outward signs of Aaron’s priesthood. But what of Christ? What are his priestly vestments? Today’s Gospel hints at what they might be:
So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
John’s Gospel tells us even more:
during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table,* took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
The priestly vestments of Jesus are apron, towel, jug and basin for the sacrifice which Jesus the Great High Priest offers is not of bulls and goats but of loving service humbly offered on his knees. This is a very different view of high priesthood that most of us would expect yet it is the one for which Jesus was chosen and the one to which we are called.
As children of God made one with Christ in our baptism, we like James and John are called not to greatness but to humble service signified by apron, towel, jug and basin. This is the true sacrifice of love made manifest by Christ the great high priest and which culminated with his final offering of himself on the cross.
The author of The Letter to the Hebrews wants to remind us that Christ’s priesthood is perfect and eternal because it is a priesthood of love marked by nails, spear and thorns and whose vestments are apron and towel. This is not what James and John were looking for that day when they approached Jesus asking: ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,’ but it is what Jesus has to offer us.
As followers of Jesus we know who we are and whose we are best, not when we are wearing tunics and ephods, breastpieces and turbans but when we are wearing apron and towel, carrying jug and basin. This is the priesthood to which Jesus was called. Can it be any less of us? Can it be any less for us?
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