Sunday, October 25, 2015

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 7
23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely[a] those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

Colourful stacks of signs are back in basements and garages. Campaign “literature” has been recycled, ballots are packed away to be sent to Ottawa, where they are securely stored for 10 years (which must resemble the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark).

And we live with the results. Some are elated, some disappointed, some already planning for next time. In every case, we live happily in the knowledge that transitions happen peacefully in Canada, governments come and go, and in the end we remain ‘glorious and free.’

Elections are tricky business in the church. As a charity, we are limited by CRA rules and cannot been seen as partisan or overly political in our work. On one level this is absurd, since politics is concerned with the well-being of citizens, clearly something we care about. Even Aristotle described the practical science of politics as dedicated to noble action and the happiness of the people—again, something we share.

And since the earliest days of the United Church, we have had a foot in the political realm. Think of Stanley Knowles, David MacDonald, and until recently Bill Blaikie—ministers who served in parliament with the blessing of the church. This time around, my friend and colleague Rob Oliphant was elected, and I know there are others who failed in the attempt.

Even the Manual, the document that governs the church, has a section dedicated to what happens when your minister becomes a Member of Parliament. But don’t worry, I’m far too shy for politics, and besides, I’ve voted for a variety of parties through the years, which is poison to most partisans.

So we preach values instead. Almost all of our outreach at Central is focused on an anti-poverty agenda: two drop-ins, an apartment building, and support for the food bank. Some is charitable and some is more transformational, and all consistent with the compassionate way of Jesus Christ. Are we political? Yes and no. We colour inside the lines, but we are engaged in noble action for the happiness of others.

So what about politics in the Bible? Funny you should ask. The author of Hebrews spends the seventh chapter looking at the contrast between the High Priest of Israel and Jesus Christ, appointed as our high priest. It is a simple enough argument: the office has been transformed from one realm to another, and we (as Christians) can take heart that the key task of the High Priest (reconciliation with God) has now happened once and for all.

But this requires a deeper look, both because it is perilously close to an anti-Judaic argument, and because it assumes we understand the practice of atonement. But before we look at these things, we should take a look at the office of High Priest of Israel.

If we focus on the Second Temple period, the time between the return from exile to the destruction of the Temple (70CE), the office of High Priest looks vaguely familiar to moderns. Of course the role evolves over time, and the relationship between the High Priest and the Sanhedrin remains unclear, but the parallel to a Prime Minister would be close.

In the absence of a king, various foreign powers allowed Jews in Israel to largely govern themselves, with overlordship remaining in Babylon or Rome, and the day to day business of civil administration falling to locals. There were governors, of course, but they had concerns outside legal matters, local politics and the civic religion that ensured well-being. These fell to the Sanhedrin and the High Priest.

There is even some evidence that the High Priest was occasionally elected, with required attributes that seem strangely contemporary. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “the high priest was expected to be superior to all other priests in physique, in wisdom, in dignity, and in material wealth.” Justin, is that you?

And all of this served the ultimate task of the High Priest, which was representing the people in the act of atonement, making the sacrifice that would symbolically reconcile to people to God. This happened on an ongoing basis, of course, but primarily on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and atone for the sins of the people. And being that only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, a rope was tied around his waist, so he could be pulled out if he fainted or died in the inner sanctum.

So it had an administrative role (along with the Sanhedrin) and a public role on important days such as the Day of Atonement. Again, this seems oddly familiar, with our leaders performing a similar public role. Think of the Prime Minister making the occasional (and rare) apology on behalf of Canadians, or President Obama flying to the scene of the latest mass shooting and expressing regret in behalf of his fellow Americans.

But the clearest parallel for today, thanks to the author of Hebrews, is Jesus the new high priest. Now, care must be taken when we preach about Jesus assuming the role and function of a post that continued to exist through the New Testament period, and continues down to today in a highly modified form. Israel continues to have a Chief Rabbi (two, in fact, one Sephardi and one Ashkenasi) as does every country with a large Jewish community.

So when we speak of Jesus replacing the High Priest of Israel, we speak in metaphor, not a literal replacement, but a substitution that is truthful for us as Christians. And today, being Reformation Sunday, the image of Jesus as high priest is more important that ever.

The author Hebrews begins in a pastoral mode: High Priests come and go, but we have a high priest who is eternal, and eternally interceding on our behalf: “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”

“He is able to save completely those who come to God through him...” Already Martin Luther is smiling. The great reformer, only a week away from the 498th anniversary of nailing his ideas to the door of the church in Wittenberg, would be the first to remind us that only Jesus can save. This, of course, seems obvious—only God through Jesus can save us—until we look at the glaring alternative: our unending desire to save ourselves.

We continue, in spite of all the available evidence, to believe that we can control our destiny, and in particular our ultimate destiny, by living the right way. But Luther and the author of Hebrews say “No!” We are saved through faith alone, and all the good works, all the Sundays sitting on our conveniently padded pews, all the strict adherence to the law of God will not save you. Your salvation is freely given, you can’t earn it. You can make a grateful response to God’s mercy, but you can’t earn it.

Let’s listen again to the author of Hebrews:

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.

The cross is the intersection between our sin and God’s desire to save. Hebrews reminds us that Jesus’ death was more than simply state-sanctioned terror, more than brutal execution at the hands on an occupying force, it was the moment at which the sacrifice of one was transformed into the sacrifice for all. Somehow, in the mystery of that moment, we were reconciled to God for all time.

Over the next days and months, listen to the language of political transition. There will be potential messiahs, names floated as potential saviors of this or that party. There will be recrimination and there will be blame. And there will be scapegoats, those who are sacrificed for their sins and for the good of the whole. Through it all, be reminded that the most primitive impulses remain among us, even if they too remain in the realm of metaphor.

But we in the church—in the world but not of the world—can call to mind our high priest, he “who sacrificed for their sins once and for all when he offered himself.” He didn’t seek high office, but took the cross instead, that we were saved and saved from ourselves—free to love and serve others in the name of the Most High. Amen.


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