Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 January 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Isaiah 60.9-22; Hebrews 6.17-7.10
On the back wall of the church, beneath the Jesse Tree window, are three panels – a memorial to the second Vicar Berdmore Compton. They depict three Old Testament scenes which are seen as ‘types,” or foreshadowings, of the Passion and the Eucharist.
On the left hand side is the scene referred to in this evening’s reading from Hebrews: the encounter between Abraham and the priest-king, Melchizedek, who offers him bread and wine and blesses him after his victory over the kings. In return, Abraham gives him a tenth of the spoils of victory.
One commentary I consulted said encouragingly that Hebrews is, with the exception of the Book of Revelation, the most difficult of the New Testament writings to preach on! In fact, it is not a letter, and it was not written by Paul, but a sermon, and no ordinary sermon. It is a highly literary and rhetorical one. Its sophisticated Greek indicates a writer highly educated in both that language and in the techniques of classical rhetoric. He also knew the Greek translation of the Old Testament in depth, and Jewish techniques of biblical interpretation. He interweaves exposition of biblical texts and exhortation to faith and good actions. Exposition leads into exhortation, and exhortation to further exposition.
But, for all its sophistication, his basic theological point is simple: Christ is both the perfect sacrifice for sins and the priest who offers himself as that sacrifice.
While the author was clearly Jewish, he was convinced that God had done something so dramatically new and significant in the life and death, the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus that the institutions of the Old Covenant were no longer effective. They, too, were only types and shadows of the realities fulfilled in Christ.
Hebrews is not an academic theological exercise existing in a vacuum. It is theology with a purpose. The preacher seeks to teach and guide his readers. These seem to have been Jewish Christians who, after embracing Christianity with enthusiasm, were now wavering and in danger of giving in to discouragement and falling away, in the face of hostility and suffering. His presentation of Christ’s sacrifice and priesthood is meant to give them the theological framework to put aside their doubts and spiritual sluggishness and to revitalize their Christian faith and practice.
Reflecting at length on the very early Christian confession of faith that Christ willingly died for us and for our sins, he makes his distinctive theological contribution by speaking of the high priesthood of Christ.
The basic theological claim of Hebrews is that Christ is both the perfect sacrifice for sins and the priest who offered himself as that sacrifice. Because Christ is both the high priest and the perfect sacrifice, his saving action – his death, resurrection and exaltation – has made possible the forgiveness of sins, confident access to God, and hope for eternal life with God. His perfect sacrifice renders unnecessary the sacrifices and priests of the old covenant. These institutions and persons were at best types or signs that have received their full definition in Christ.
Since the one who offers a sacrifice is a priest, the author sets out to show that Christ can be called a priest despite the fact that he was not born into the Jewish priestly tribe of Levi.
The first part of our passage concludes his treatment of what is for him a key text of assurance: God, in response of Abraham’s willingness of sacrifice his son Isaac, (another of the “types” on the back wall), promises him many descendants: “I will indeed bless you and multiply you.” God had made clear and guaranteed this promise, “the unchangeable character of his purpose”, by an oath. We swear by something greater than ourselves (‘I swear by Almighty God’). God swears by himself, for there is nothing and no one greater to swear by.
Then, as he brings us back to the high priesthood of Christ he introduces two striking images.
God’s promises fulfilled in Christ are “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6.19). Some of you will know the hymn, “Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,” which I used to sing when I was a Boys Brigade chaplain years ago. This is an anchor which will hold us firm, but it is also the hope that draws us forward because it is a “hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Jesus is the “forerunner” – the leader who has gone before us to eternal life with God. As the high priest entered the holy of holies, on the Day of Atonement, so Christ has gone before us to enter God’s heavenly court. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel: “I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be also.”
The author now returns to the theme of Jesus’ priesthood “according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the Old Testament, Melchizedek appears only in Genesis 14.17-20 (which we will hear read at Mass next Sunday) and Psalm 110.4.
“The Lord has sworn and will not retract:
‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.’”
These serve as the basis for the author’s argument about the superiority and eternal character of the priesthood of Christ. His handling of the texts reveals much about Jewish biblical interpretation at the time and the Christian conviction that Christ is the key to the interpretation of the Scriptures.
The author considers the person of Melchizedek. His name can be interpreted as “king of righteousness” or “righteous king.” Likewise, “Salem” (which is most likely Jerusalem) can be associated with Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. As king of righteousness and peace, Melchizedek was a type of Christ.
In Genesis, Melchizedek comes out of nowhere. He is given no genealogy (“without father mother or ancestry”) and nothing is said about his birth or death (“without beginning or end or days of life”). I used to know a dog called Melchizedek. He belonged to Fr. Columba Ryan, a Dominican priest who was the Roman Catholic chaplain of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Melchizedek the dog had been a stray, so like his Old Testament namesake, had no known father or mother, no pedigree; certainly not one the Kennel Club would recognize.
This reading between the scriptural lines, drawing meaning from what the text is silent about – as well as what it says – contributes to the writer’s case that Melchizedek prefigures Jesus the Son of God.
But the real focus of attention is the superior priesthood of Christ and Melchizedek. Members of the Levitical priesthood had to be able to prove their identity – they needed the right pedigree. They also had to be replaced by a new generation when they died, but Melchizedek, “resembling the Son of God,…remains a priest for ever.”
The rest of the argument hangs on the acts of blessing and tithing. By Jewish custom, superiors bless inferiors. By Jewish law, too, all the other tribes paid a tithe or tax to support the priestly tribe of Levi; a sort of legally-organized stewardship scheme. Something like that would solve our financial problems! Melchizedek blesses Abraham. Abraham gives a tenth of all his spoils to Melchizedek. Since the patriarch Levi – from whom the Jewish priests traced their lineage – was a descendant of Abraham – these two actions point to Melchizedek’s priesthood as more ancient and superior to that of Levi. It is as if Levi, before he was born, had already acknowledged the superiority of Melchizedek, and so of Christ as well.
All this might seem rather academic because our situation seems far removed from that of those to whom the sermon was originally addressed. But is it? We may not face overt persecution but we certainly find ourselves dis-spirited by a culture which has marginalized Christianity in favour of a consumerist and individualist neo-paganism. We live in an intellectual climate which casts doubt on the claims of the Gospel; on the uniqueness of Christ, on his divine status; on his role as mediator, one who bridges the gulf between God and humankind; on one who brings forgiveness of sins.
While we can see clearly the need for others to be forgiven their manifest failings, we are dab hands at coming up with psychological or sociological justifications for our own. To be described as sinners in need of a redemption we cannot manage on our own seems an affront to our dignity. We are tempted, if not to outright apostasy, then at least to a half-hearted conviction and commitment in faith and practice.
In Genesis, Melchizedek presents Abraham with bread and wine – originally just bodily refreshment – but to the Church a type of the Eucharist, the sacrament of the sacrifice of Christ offered once and for all on the cross.
The celebration of the Eucharist is not just a this-worldly human fellow-ship meal nor is it a mere memorial of something in the distant past. It is the proclamation, the pledge of that entrance into the presence of God which Jesus has made possible for us; the hope which is set before us. It is the anticipation of the heavenly banquet, and the invitation and the means of sharing it now.
So, when we are downcast, when the lamp of faith burns low, that is not a reason for staying away from Mass but quite the opposite. That is when we need to come to Christ our great high priest to find in him the pledge of eternal life and the invitation to share it.
We celebrate the eucharist day by day, not because there was something lacking in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but so that its blessings might be extended to us.
Christ takes bread and wine and transforms them into the means of his risen and eternal and divine life which he shares with us.
And just as Melchizedek blessed Abraham, in a few moments Christ, both priest and victim, the one who gave his life for us, who is present in the Blessed Sacrament, will bless us.