+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
In mid-September of my first year at Gettysburg Seminary – almost eight years ago! – I was assigned to a congregation in York, Pennsylvania for a field education experience known as “teaching parish”. The goal of the teaching parish program was to place students within a congregation to begin the process of forming a pastoral identity. One of the facets of that formation was the opportunity to wear the familiar clerical shirt and collar, a widely recognized marker of people who occupy the office of pastor. When I got ready on the first Sunday morning of teaching parish, I remember seeing myself in the mirror for the first time and hoping- before anything else – that no one would mistake me for a Roman Catholic priest. I don’t know why I feared that so much. It would be an innocent enough mistake for someone to make. It certainly wouldn’t have been meant in a disparaging way – at least not from most people. In truth, when I look back I don’t think my apprehension had anything to do with being identified as Roman Catholic, but with the language of priesthood.
As a general rule, American Lutherans don’t use this term to describe their clergy. We prefer minister or pastor to priest, and though there may be some subtle anti-Catholic bias in that preference, I think it comes more from this uneasiness with the perceived theological import of the word. In our imaginations, I think we see priests as others, as overly concerned with holiness in all the wrong ways, as figures who wield power over us. It’s telling to me that other Lutheran churches don’t seem to have this problem.
How we define the concept of the priest is important, of course, not simply to avoid confusion, but to help us make sense of what the writer of Hebrews is trying to say about Jesus when he refers to him as our “great high priest”. For our purposes, it would be good to unpack the duties of a priest so that we can appreciate the argument that Hebrews is advancing for us. Most broadly defined, priests are religious figures who intercede for others, who make prescribed offerings to the Divine, and who, in turn, pronounce reconciliation with the Divine. In simpler terms, priests pray, make sacrifices, and announce forgiveness. If that’s all it takes to be a priest, then our apprehension seems to be misplaced. As your pastor, I also fulfill the role of priest in offering prayers on behalf of our congregation, in leading us to make offerings of our time, talent, and treasure – or, in language often used by Martin Luther, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – and in announcing words of grace and new life in the name of Jesus. Curiously enough, Luther also extended the concept of priesthood to all the baptized. That is, he believed that all of us act as priests for one another as we bring one another’s concerns before God, offer our lives in service to God and neighbor, and in announcing grace and renewal in word and deed.
So what does it mean to call Jesus our great high priest? It means that he carries out each of these responsibilities, but does so from a place of surpassing authority and power. Jesus the great high priest is the one who became one of us and suffered everything that we have suffered but did not succumb to our tendency to become curved in on ourselves. He was tested by experiencing what it means to be human, but – unlike Adam, the prototypical human from Genesis who failed the test – embodied true humanity and remained faithful to God’s will. Because he took on our nature and lot, he is able to intercede for us before God, and to bear our groaning and sighing and longing into God’s presence.
Jesus the great high priest is the one who offered a more perfect sacrifice – not the blood of lambs or goats, but his own – so that we might be cleansed from Sin and united with the Almighty. In giving his own life for our sake, he made a way for us to reconciled with God and with one another.
Jesus the great high priest is the one who not only declares God’s forgiveness and grace, but makes it possible by his obedient suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. Unlike other priests – myself included – he does not offer forgiveness by the authority of another, but by his own!
Because Jesus is our great high priest, we are invited to live boldly in relationship with God. Christ calls as and claims us as his own, and encourages us to bring all of our cares and concerns to God with confidence that God will regard our prayers as not as presumptions, but as motivated by God’s promises. That’s why, for example, we are able to recite the radical words of the Lord’s Prayer – not because we’re holy enough in ourselves or worthy enough on our own to imagine that God is impressed with us, but because our high priest invites us to pray this way:
9Our Father in the heavens, may your name be held in holy awe.
10Let your royal reign come.
Let your will be established – as it is in heaven, so may it be on earth.
11Give us the food we need for today, 12and release us from our debts, just as we release others from their debts.
13Do not bring us to a time of testing, but rescue us from the evil one.
For to you belongs power and might and glory throughout the ages.
Let it be so!
(Matthew 6:9-13, my translation)
Because Jesus is our great high priest, we are assured that even when our life’s offering is inadequate, the perfect offering of Christ will make a way for us to be freed from sin, death, and the devil, and to be presented before God as holy and righteous.
Because Jesus is our great high priest, we know that when we approach the throne of grace we will hear a word of comfort and peace and renewal so that we can go out into the world with courage and hope.
Brothers and sisters, we may not like the language of priesthood, but we can all be grateful this day that God sent Jesus Christ to be our great high priest, so that our prayers, our offerings, and our very lives might be acceptable to God through him. As we live in him, may we also find the strength to be priests for others, so that God’s grace and mercy might be made known to a world in need. Thanks be to God. Amen.