The New and Living Way
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service: Hebrews 10: 11-14, 19-25
When I was in year 4, school was really only about one thing. That one thing was the football game we played at break time. One day the ball got kicked onto the school roof by mistake. My friends and I faced the unthinkable prospect of 45 minutes’ break time with no ball to entertain us. Can you imagine? Something had to be done. Various forms of human ladder were devised to provide access to the roof. But who was to be the person who actually climbed up and got on the roof? Who d’you think? Me of course. Only one person was that stupid. I got up easily enough, made my way across the flat roof, and tossed the ball down with a nonchalant air. Only then did it dawn on me that getting down from the roof was a very different matter. It was too far to jump, and the human ladder didn’t look so appealing from the top down. I did the only sane and sensible thing there was to do. I burst into tears.
Only years later did I realise that this was my first experience of how it sometimes feels to be a priest. I’d emerged out of a crowd and done something on behalf of the people. That’s what priests do. A priest then returns to the people to communicate the consequences of what has been seen and done. I hadn’t quite mastered that second part. But I was only 8.
You can’t really grasp the urgency of the scriptural debate about priesthood unless you can appreciate how unimaginable it was for my 8-year-old friends and me to face break time without a football. Then you transfer that existential yearning to the time of Solomon’s temple. Long before, under Moses, Israel had received the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets, and those tablets were carried around in a trestle known as the Ark of the Covenant. Israel came to understand that this represented the presence of God. First in a tent, then in a shrine, and eventually behind a huge curtain in the temple itself, Israel came to believe that prayers offered and sacrifices made would cancel out the sins that distanced the people from God and thus jeopardised the covenant.
Imagine how catastrophic it was, then, that the temple was destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant irretrievably lost in 585 BC. At the time it was all part of the horror that drove the people into exile in Babylon. But its true significance emerged 50 years later, when Israel returned from exile, and began to build a new temple. What was the point of having a temple if it had no Ark of the Covenant at the heart of it? How effective could prayers and sacrifices be if the embodiment of the covenant was not there? The fact that behind the huge curtain there was no longer the two stone tablets but now nothing symbolised the confusion of the 500 years that preceded the coming of Christ. If there was no Ark, was Israel still more or less in exile, cut off from God?
For the letter to the Hebrews, this is the situation Jesus walks into. The crucial detail is that at the moment Jesus dies on the cross, the curtain of the Temple is torn in two – in other words the sense that God is behind a veil and unreachable is over. Jesus is the high priest who has not only torn apart the curtain but in his sacrifice has brought to an end the history of sacrifices by finally restoring our covenant with God. ‘By a single offering,’ says the letter, Jesus ‘has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.’
At this point you can see why many people resist calling Christianity a religion, but instead regard Christianity as the end of religion. Because the repeated offering of sacrifices, apparently to appease but at least to propitiate a distant God, seems to epitomise most assumptions about what constitutes a religion – rites, rituals, sacred songs, holy men, special clothes, guilt, blood, built-in-incompleteness and a lot of smoke. Jesus brings an end to all of that, with a single offering that does away with the hokey cokey. So there’s no need for the usual trappings of religion.
So why, we might then ask, are we gathered here this morning with rituals and robes and religious paraphernalia and priests? I thought we didn’t need priests anymore, because Jesus has taken away all that stands between us and God.
You could say I’m the wrong person to answer this question, because as a priest I have a vested interest. (Boom-boom.) But what Hebrews goes on to say in the last four verses of today’s reading is that once Jesus’ sacrifice has opened the way into the sanctuary for all of us, it’s for all of us to do the three things that are still needed once our sins are washed away. The first is to ‘approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith,’ that’s to say to worship, to pray, to share in the sacraments, to pierce through the ordinary to find the joy, to recognise the alive and beyond in the here and now, to overflow with gratitude and wonder and to look to the fount of every blessing for transformation of all that falls short of truth and glory. The second is to ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope,’ that’s to say to grow in faith, to form one another in the habits of holiness, to study, question, explore and discover the riches of our tradition, the depth of scripture, the mind and heart of God and the ways of discipleship. The third is to ‘provoke one another to love and good deeds,’ that’s to say to compete in showing honour, to ‘encourage one another,’ gently to hold one another to account, to be a reconciling presence in one another’s lives and to be a community of character that offers an example of what God’s grace can do.
Hebrews thus uses the same language as Paul in summing up the three responses to Christ’s salvation: faith, hope and love. But Hebrews’ description of these three qualities is so comprehensive that they together sum up ministry in the church, discipleship in the heart, and mission in the world. In other words the result of Christ giving up his body is the appearance of a new body, also called the body of Christ, more commonly called the church, characterised by faith, hope, and love, and issuing in discipleship, ministry and mission.
All of which is saying that the church collectively is now a priest, mediating between God and the world. The church collectively now does what the Old Testament priesthood used to do. Hence Peter calls the church a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
But I haven’t yet explained why we still have people we call priests. The reason, I believe, is partly pragmatic, and partly aspirational. The pragmatic reason is that the three activities Hebrews outlines in today’s reading – sharing worship, building faith and expressing love, are so foundational that some people are set aside to ensure the church continues to practise them in healthy and wholehearted ways. Just as a park ranger is set aside to look after a national park, ensuring its precious flora and fauna flourish and are sustained, so a priest is set aside to look after the church, to ensure it inhabits its identity as Christ’s body faithfully and fruitfully.
But the aspirational reason is that there’s more to the notion of priest than simply offering sacrifices, and there always was. Just as Jesus turned water into wine, taking the ordinary stuff of the everyday and bringing out the glorious wonder of the eternal, so a priest is called to see the priceless potential in every person, situation or community, and perceive how to elevate that potential so it attains its full splendour. Thomas Aquinas famously said, ‘Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.’ If you’re a priest, you’re expecting that sentence to come true in every single conversation you have. Here’s an argumentative teenager: maybe she’s really longing to be given some responsibility to try out her big ideas. Here’s a bunch of people eating a lunch together: maybe if we all find something to be grateful for and identify how this sharing of food can empower us to take courageous steps this afternoon, we can make this meal a Eucharist. Here’s a person chopping wood: I wonder if his finished product will become a manger, a nest for grace, or a cross, that carries the troubles of many. Here’s a hall table, where the household dumps its keys and notepads and groceries and wallets and mobile phones. Maybe if twice a day we offer a prayer for what lies on that table we can make it altar, that lifts to heaven the ordinary and incorporates it in the way God is redeeming the world.
A month before my selection conference I sat down with a close friend to think seriously about what being a priest really meant. I’ve never forgotten what she said. ‘If you’re not a priest now, theological college and ordination won’t make you one.’ Ouch. What she meant was, being a priest isn’t being taken up into a cloudy netherworld of vestments, prayer books and angels. It’s being practised in the presence of God, raising people in the faith, and being a reconciling presence in the life of others. In that sense, of course, all of us can be priests. Because all of us can grow in the practice of the presence of God – all of us can develop the awe and tenderness and humility and wonder and gentleness that come from knowing God is at work in us and in others and in the world. All of us can encourage one another in faith and holiness. And all of us can be a reconciling presence in the life of those around us.
Most of all, all of us can become people who see through what is to what is possible, who see through the ordinary to the glorious, who see beyond clumsy failure to true fulfilment. Jesus is the great high priest who did that for the whole world – who saw that sinners could become saints and earth could become heaven. He took away the curtain that separates now from forever. People of God, this is our call: to be a priestly kingdom that, in the midst of our now, lives God’s forever.