Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 19 July 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Hebrews, from which we hear for the next few weeks in tandem with Ecclesiasticus, stands apart from most NT epistles. In particular, with an eye on Jewish history and religious culture as its name suggests, it gives us a theology of priesthood deriving from Christ as a radically new type of High Priest. This is a priesthood in which all baptized Christians share, as the reformers of our own church and those of Vatican II realised; it also underpins the priestly ministry into which some of us are ordained to serve the rest of the Church.
Hebrews approaches this by overturning the OT conception of holiness and blessing, rooted in the creation narrative itself. In Genesis 1 God separates things:
1.4 and God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
1.6 And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’
1.14 And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,
The separations of the cosmos underlie the social separations of Jew & Gentile, male & female, layperson & priest. So, in a prayer from the time of Jesus, we hear:
‘Blessed is he who distinguishes between holy and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and Gentiles, between the seventh day and the six working days, between water above and water below, between priest and levite and Israelite’.
You’ll notice how the Sabbath fits into that scheme.
But the author of Hebrews (consistently with the Jesus of the Gospels) turns this principle on its head. Hebrews bases the priesthood of Christ on his solidarity, his closeness, to others. The OT priest was a priest by virtue of his separation from others; Jesus is the great high priest by virtue of his solidarity with us. As we heard this evening,
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage …. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people (2: 14f, 17).
This new theology of solidarity expresses a more fundamental innovation, a transformation of God’s relationship to suffering and death. God had been perceived in the OT as the source of all life and holiness precisely by his separation from death. The purity regulations aim at creating the maximum distance between a corpse and the Holy of Holies. A corpse was the ultimate impure object, ‘the father of the fathers of impurity’.’ It radiates impurity as God radiates holiness. The High Priest was not allowed to mourn even his closest relatives, follow behind their coffins or touch their corpses, lest he be unable to enter into the Holy of Holies on the day of Atonement. He must be physically perfect, free from deformity.
But in Christ God grasped the ultimate impurity and transformed it so that ‘through death he might destroy him who has the power of death.’ The focal point of our worship is not, as in the Temple, that which is farthest from death, but that which is closest, the cross. For us the most holy object has become the ‘father of the fathers of impurity’, a corpse. This is made possible by a new theology of creation; God the creator is revealed as the one who raises from the dead.
For Hebrews that which consecrates Christ is his entry into the realm of death; he is ordained by immersion in the impure. This is the opposite of separatist puritanism, whether protestant or Catholic.
And this is what lies behind Hebrews 13: 11-13
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sins are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.
Many have been puzzled by how the death of Jesus could be compared with the dumping of these corpses outside the camp. His death was sacrificial, but in their case it was just a matter of disposing of impure objects. This is a revolutionary new understanding of ‘holiness’.
That which makes holy, our sacra-ficium, ‘sacrifice’, is precisely this corpse outside the city gates. Therefore we also sanctify the world by going out to it, not by hiding in a holy enclosure. The impure is to be grasped and transformed because all creation is God’s; nothing and no one is rejected (echoing Jesus ‘declaring all foods clean’ [Mk 7: 19] and Peter having to learn the same lesson in Acts 10 [:15]).
It is not a coincidence that the typical New Testament word for ‘community’ (and ‘communion’) is koinonia. In the Greek OT, words from this family are used in a negative sense, of the ‘community of sinners.’ Koinos means ‘common’; by the time of Jesus it was the word for ‘impure’, as when the Pharisees accuse Jesus of eating with ‘common’ hands, in Mark 7. The holy is that which is withdrawn from the common. But our koinonia is founded on the consecration of the common; heaven is ‘in ordinary’; commonality merges with ‘communion’.
The Old Testament priest or levite was such in virtue of the fact that some other people were not. But Christ’s priesthood, being derived from his solidarity with us, communicates itself (communion and koinonia again). It is no longer the case, as on the day of Atonement, that the high priest detaches himself from the Gentiles, from the women, from the male Israelites and finally from the priests when he enters the Holy of Holies alone. It is his solitude which defines his role. But Christ’s high-priesthood means that we all flock in:
‘Therefore, brethren, since we have the confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which has opened for us through the curtain, that is his flesh …’ (10: 19-20).
Hebrews teaches that Christ brings into full and immediate relationship with God those who feel themselves to be unclean, impure, weak and suffering. It disallows the puritan conception of holiness as separation; the distinctions between clean and unclean and between people and priestly caste are removed by Christ.
Reflecting on this led the reformers to draw back from using the language of priesthood of ordained ministry. They were mistaken, but that is another sermon!