Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2021
Hebrews 5:5-10; Jeremiah 31:31-34
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Before I left my job at the bank last August, when someone asked me what I did for a living, I said, “I’m a banker.” Obviously, depending on the conversation, I might have also mentioned that I’m a priest. But now, that’s the only answer I have. And I’ve been surprised how many times I’ve been asked, “Why do Episcopalians call their ministers priests and not pastors?” Surprisingly, they don’t teach you how to respond to this question in seminary. Over time, my somewhat overly simplistic response to this question has become, “Because priests make sacrifices and pastors don’t.”
In today’s lesson from the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is referred to as a high priest. In the early history of the Hebrew people, Moses ordains Aaron as the first high priest, the one charged with entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for his sins and the sins of the Israelites by offering sacrifices to God on an altar. There were bloodless sacrifices of grain and wine, and more importantly, animal sacrifices.
At first in Israel’s history, the high priest’s status was secondary to that of the king, and his authority was limited to the religious sphere and specifically to the liturgical and sacrificial work in the Temple. Later, the authority of the high priest extended to the political arena. The office of the high priest and that of the monarch effectively became one and the same.
The author of Hebrews does something remarkable, not only in this chapter, but throughout his letter. He links Jesus not to Aaron, the first high priest of the hereditary Levitical priesthood, but to Melchizedek, a mysterious figure from the book of Genesis who pre-dates Aaron by six generations. Melchizedek is only mentioned twice in the Old Testament, but in short, he is described as having been anointed by God as both a priest and a king, offering bread and wine to God.
In the late 1940’s, when scholars discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in the desert caves of the West Bank, they came across a manuscript from the 1st century BC that shows that the figure of Melchizedek had developed considerably in Jewish thought by this point. He was depicted as a heavenly redeemer figure, a leader of the forces of light, who brings release to the captives and reigns during the Messianic age. The author of Hebrews knows that his audience is familiar with both the Old Testament and intertestamental traditions of Melchizedek when he declares that God appoints Jesus as high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
The priests of Aaron became priests by their lineage, but for Melchizedek, there is no record of his lineage. He was appointed a priest by God to an order that had no beginning. Jesus is a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek; thus the order has no end. The word order doesn’t mean Franciscan or Benedictine, it means after the manner of Melchizedek's priesthood. Later in this letter, the author goes on to make a sharp distinction between the Levitical priests who continue to offer these animals in sacrifice. They had to offer. They had to kill. They had to sacrifice millions of sheep, millions of goats and millions of cattle with millions of gallons of blood running down through the temple. Why? It was because of the Golden Calf – before that event in the life of the Hebrews, there was a clean priesthood that Melchizedek represents, and as we hear in the book of Genesis, Melchizedek’s priesthood included offering bread and wine.
Since very early in the Church, a connection has been made with the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek as foreshadowing the bread and wine offered by Christian priests at the Eucharist. When Jesus was sacrificed on the cross, the priest and the offering were the same. But at the Eucharist, the priest and the offering are different, as it was with Melchizedek. The once-and-for-all sacrifice of the eternal great high priest on the cross is continued through Christian priesthood, a priesthood prefigured by Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine on the altar to God, and perpetuated by hundreds of thousands of priests throughout history who have offered the same gifts on the altar in the name of Christ. This point was driven home to me personally when I was ordained priest and opened so many cards of congratulations that said, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”
What sort of sacrifice do priests make today?
St. Paul encourages the Christians at Rome to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Likewise, the author of Hebrews uses sacrificial language to call on Christians to offer God both praise and a life of love for others (Heb 13:15-16). The early church saw all prayer all prayer as a sacrifice of praise offered to God, with the Eucharist as the fullest expression of Christian sacrifice; a sacrifice that requires repentance of sins leading to praise and thanksgiving.
As I said earlier, we call our ministers priests because priests make sacrifices. The Church doesn’t teach that priests re-sacrifice Jesus on the cross at the Mass. The crucifixion happened one time in history and can never be repeated, but we know that Jesus was appointed high priest forever. At the Eucharist, the priest offers to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving on behalf of the people, a bloodless sacrifice of bread and wine as foreshadowed by Melchizedek. This sacrifice makes the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross present for us in our day and time. In the Eucharistic sacrifice, time stands still as earth and heaven are joined, we are united to Christ’s once offering of himself on the cross. And when we receive our Lord into our bodies, our sins are forgiven, our union with Christ and the Church is strengthened, and we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.
As you receive communion today, I invite you to offer yourself – your soul and your body – as a living sacrifice to the one who offered himself in sacrifice on that cross so long ago. As you receive this pledge of your salvation, I invite you to hear anew the beautiful and tender words of hope we heard God speak to his people in the first lesson from Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
 Jewish Annotated Bible, p. 470.
 Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 38.
 BCP 860.
 Jeremiah 31:33-34.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!