Ordination of the Rev’d Isaac Petty to the Priesthood
May 29, 2021
Isaiah 6:1-6, Psalm 43, Hebrews 4:16-5:7, John 6:35-38
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral
Good morning! What a joy it is to celebrate today with Isaac, our diocese, and indeed the whole Church. Today, Isaac will be ordained a priest. Later in the service, Bishop Field will address the good deacon and remind him that he is being called to work as a pastor, priest, and teacher. A teacher teaches things, and a pastor serves as the shepherd of his or her flock. I want to focus on why Isaac is being ordained a priest, and not simply a pastor or teacher. We Episcopalians are mostly unique amongst those whose heritage is in the Protestant Reformation in that we call the leaders of the local congregation priests and not pastors or ministers. This may seem to be a matter of semantics to cradle Episcopalians, but there is an important reason we do so: priests offer 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 ordained 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 people by offering sacrifices to God on an altar.
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.
In today’s lesson and throughout his letter to the Hebrews, the author 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 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the desert caves of the West Bank, a manuscript from the 1st century BC was uncovered that indicated 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 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 family tree. He was appointed a priest by God to an order that had no beginning. Jesus is a priest forever according the order of Melchizedek, and thus the order has no end. The word order doesn’t mean Trappist or Dominican, it means after the manner of Melchizedek's priesthood. Later in this letter, the author goes on to make a sharp distinction between this order and the Levitical priests who continue to offer animals in sacrifice. 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? Because of the Golden Calf. Before that event in the life of the Hebrews, there was a clean, unbloody priesthood that Melchizedek represents, and as is recorded 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 a foreshadowing of 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, and perpetuated by thousands upon 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 according to the order of Melchizedek.”
St. Mary’s, the parish I serve and the parish that raised up Isaac for ordination, has a long history of offering the Eucharistic sacrifice every day throughout the year. When the pandemic hit last some 14 months ago, I felt it important to model the “stay at home” order, and so my bar at home became an altar and I learned the fine points of livestreaming. The Church has always taught that having at least one member of the Church Militant (meaning a living, breathing person) present at the Eucharist in addition to the priest is strongly preferred, so I had to think quickly who might be able to come over each day for Mass. It turns out that Isaac lived only a few blocks away from me at the time, and every day for nearly two months, he made the trek – sometimes by foot, sometimes by car – and was present for the Eucharist. I didn’t have to explain to Isaac why I needed to offer the Eucharist for the flock God entrusted to my spiritual care. He knew. And during those two months, I could see both his and my devotion to Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar deepen in those surreal-yet-life-giving moments at my bar-turned-altar.
Like me, Isaac was formed how to be a pastor and a teacher in a different denomination. And like me, he owes a debt of gratitude to his former denomination for forming him as a disciple and follower of Christ. I know he feels this gratitude toward the Nazarenes, not because he’s said it explicitly, but because each year without fail, he sends me a joyful and almost gleeful text message to remind me of John Wesley’s commemoration in our church calendar.
That said, I’m sure his feelings towards his former denomination vary wildly depending on the context. Yes, he owes them a debt of gratitude, but he also bears the wounds inflicted by some of their wounded individuals and power structures – wounds that are bound to heal over time but are ever fresh and painful. Isaac sacrificed much by making the decision to be honest about who God made him to be, the consequences of which rallied so many of his friends and colleagues both within the denomination and in ours to support him as a Christian and as someone called to serve the church as an ordained leader. He came to The Episcopal Church with both the academic training and quite a bit of experience as both a pastor and a teacher. But today, Isaac is being ordained into a priesthood that offers sacrifices, again and again. The Church doesn’t teach that priests re-sacrifice Jesus at the Mass. The crucifixion happened one time in history and can never be repeated. 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, and we are transported to that green hill called Calvary, and Calvary is brought here. 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.
Isaac, this is the priesthood into which you have been called. In a moment, when the bishop and the priests lay their hands on you and ask the Holy Spirit to make you a priest, you will be united with your Lord into an order that has no beginning and no end. The Holy Spirit will transform your diaconal character into that of a priest, giving you awesome power and responsibility to confect the sacraments which are the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. Your personality and your outward appearance will, of course, remain the same, but the Holy Spirit will transform your inner character to that of the Great High Priest. You will become an image – an icon – a visible manifestation of Jesus Christ in the world.
Your hands will be anointed to signify this change, for by your hands, the bread of life and the cup of salvation will be consecrated, and by your hands, the people will be fed with the holy food and drink of new and unending life. A Bible will be given to you as a sign of your authority to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. It’s not in our ordination liturgy, but a little birdie has informed me that you’ll be given a chalice and paten, the holy vessels of the sacrifice of bread and wine, signifying the continual sacrifice that you will offer for the sake of the people and indeed the whole world.
As any of the priests in this room can testify, there will be times you will want to take off your priesthood. To undo what is being done today, just for a moment, whether it’s from fatigue, or because the collar around your neck limits your ability to say or do something as if it is choaking you, or perhaps because a parishioner has hurt your feelings and you can’t even imagine how you can continue to love them. In those moments, remember the weightiness of the hands placed upon you. And remember the grace given to you in that moment, grace that you will need as you offer yourself in sacrifice for the people until the day you die.
Dear friends, let us give thanks to God for the gift of the priesthood, and for Isaac’s willingness to answer God’s call to sacrifice himself as a priest for the salvation of souls and the redemption of the world. Let us give thanks that by the Holy Spirit, the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is made present for us on this altar today. And when we receive our Lord into our bodies in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, let us give thanks to God for filling us with hope in this foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life. Amen.
 Levine, Amy-Jill, and Zvi Marc Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017, 470.
 Keener, Craig, ed. Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019. 38.
 BCP 860.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!