Monthly Archives: October 2021

Absolute Ruler

Every child knows that Jesus is the first name (we used to say Christian name) of the story character whose surname is Christ. Except that it isn’t. Christ translates Messiah, or King – and the oddity is that such an absolute monarch should be a name so commonly referred to.

For those fortunate enough to live in western democracies, equality and the answerability of political leaders are assumed. If we have affection for royal families, it is as constitutional monarchs, performing representative roles in charitable and community-affirming events. The thought of absolute monarchs exercising unquestionable and unchallenged authority is alien and repugnant.

So we need Hebrews (and this week Hebrews 9:11-14) to explain how and why Christians should even contemplate such a culturally inappropriate idea. The passage begins “when Christ came. .”. The use of the title is significant. The King came. This Sunday some of us begin to mark “Kingdom Season” – partly beginning the run up to Christmas with a pre-advent look at the reign of God. That doesn’t explain our giving this title, but Hebrews does.

This King rules, not because he has taken power by force, (although there is a story about his victory), nor even because he has replaced a worse administration, (interestingly, equally true).

This King is recognised and celebrated because, as High Priest, he made a unique and perfect offering of himself. This is no bribe to secure support. He gives what we cannot access in any other way. He rules because his subjects willingly offer their allegiance and obedience, not to a leader among equals, but as King by right. He rules because of what he gives, not what he can take, demand or threaten.

It is a strange thing, and a reminder just how counter-cultural Christian faith is. Yet it is a source of freedom, celebration and peace. No difficult negotiations here, no pressure groups, campaigning and lobbying. Christ is King, reliable, celebrated, our Lord, not our equal.

Perfect Friend

I don’t know if children long for a perfect friend. It should be the theme of a story – an understanding and sympathetic friend, who was never absent at the wrong moment, and always loyal and able to be really helpful whatever the situation. Perhaps it is not only something for children. We are told of increasing loneliness among adults, as fewer live with others by choice rather than necessity, and much work has become less social (even before Covid working at home).

So when we read Hebrews 7:23-28, there should be points of contact. The writer begins with the way the temple priesthood of the Old Testament was interrupted by the death of successive generations of High Priest. That’s one of the problems with friends; some move away, and some die before we do.

Then there is the point about being perfect. Our friends aren’t, however much we like them and deal with their oddities and failures. The perfect sinlessness of Jesus is awesome, but not alien, because we know he lived and faced all the temptations and difficulties we share (and others besides!).

Of course Jesus is much more than a “friend”, as his once for all sacrifice which meets our need for ever demonstrates. But if this puts him in another category, it does not mean that a longing for a perfect friend is unfulfilled, or impossible. Jesus has met our need, been available – and will always continue to do and be just that. Friend isn’t a big enough word, but it is a start.

Mediator

The letter to Hebrews may be in the form of a sermon, circulated to Jewish Christians familiar with the temple, and the role of High Priest. He had a particular role in the yearly sacrifice rituals of the Day of Atonement, standing between God and his people.

The writer recognises Jesus as the ultimate High Priest (see this in Hebrews 5:1-10) . In place of the repeated Day of Atonement sacrifices, Jesus offers himself, the “one perfect and sufficient sacrifice”. Since the sacrifice is perfect, it is not repeated, though always remembered. So we understand that Jesus brings God to us, as he lives a human life and faces temptation and suffering. He also takes us to God, opening a way we could not, and offering Intercession for us.

The role of Jesus is vital, and a separate order of priesthood is created for a descendant of Judah – this is the point of Melchizedek, the early priest and king of Jerusalem who met and blessed Abraham, for Jesus was not in the priestly line of succession from Aaron.

With such a High Priest, some Christian leaders prefer the titles of minister, elder (or presbyter, from the Greek) or pastor, rather than priest. All know that, while delighted to help people meet God, they are not essential (as Jesus was) to that meeting. Indeed, some of us prefer to stand during worship to one side, or behind a table, so as not even to appear to “get in the way”.

Cutting

The picture of a surgeon with a scalpel poised brings mixed feelings. The scalpel is no toy, not to be left lying around. There is a fear of pain, and perhaps of needing to undergo pain as a result of necessary surgery. At the same time it may be a relief that someone is prepared, and trained, to do something which needs to be done.

When the letter to Hebrews ( Hebrews 4:12-16 ) speaks of something sharper that a double edged sword, we might not have been expecting the image as describing the Word of God. The point is the failure of those who, though invited, do not enter the rest that God has promised. There is no escape, no way of hiding or arguing the outcome.

We are indeed laid open, even dissected, in the presence of God. God’s knowledge and understanding are far more profound than our own. We easily fool ourselves, tell stories in excuse, fail to notice what does not fit with what we want to think and do. It is one of the reasons why having children can be good for parents – their straightforward honesty can spoil many poses and tear down illusions.

Our short reading continues past a natural break, to speak of a sympathetic High Priest. It may not be for us a natural comparison, but we can understand it. Here is someone on our side, with a sympathetic understanding of all our problems and temptations. More than sympathy, here is one with the responsibility and ability to bring us to God, as he also brings God to us and to our limited understanding.

It is an important balance. Jesus has clear identification with human life and trouble, as well as with God and the authority that only God can wield. At the same time, Jesus – the word of God in human form – is no softie. He is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, even when we cannot do so accurately. This is a Saviour in whom we can have confidence, but of whom we should remain in awe.

Where to fit?

Where do humans fit in? What is our place in the universe? Some would like to see us as just one species among many, inclined to throw its weight around. Others tell us we know little of the universe, and need spiritually superior beings to guide us – or perhaps enslave us. Today we begin reading from the letter to Hebrews (we read Hebrews 1:1-4 and 2:5-12), and chapter 2 quotes from Psalm 8. That Psalm celebrates God’s creation, and mankind given “dominion” – a word not meaning “in charge to do as you like” but given a leadership position to exercise as a responsible manager. It’s a picture which recognises the pre-eminence of humanity – clearer now than it was 2000 years ago, without allowing abuse.

Hebrews 2 uses this quote to remind us that heaven is not controlled by angels. On the other hand, neither the next world nor this seem to be under our control, so what is happening? The answer is Jesus – in one sense he is the “true man” taking his proper place. But also he is the one who is now honoured because of his death which brings us freedom

Why is it fitting that Jesus should suffer? (verse 10). Not because God enjoys that sort of thing, but because this makes his identification with us complete. Jesus is indeed our brother, though also much more. As our brother, he has experienced life as we experience it, with its ups and downs, its joy and pain. He understands temptation, weariness, loneliness, as well as the details of creation and all that involves.

So where do humans fit in? Yes, in a wonderful place with responsibility for creation. Yes, with Jesus, who leads us out of confusion to true human life and status, helping us to find our real place.