In the Name...
I was recently thinking that in Lent we should only eat turtle soup and escargots. No 'fast' food. I knew I should have given up jokes for Lent.
Every week, our Lectionary gives us a Scripture lesson from the Old Testament, but, truth be told, Old Testament texts are infrequently studied by, and frequently incomprehensible to, most people who hear them. There's no denying it, the average person's acquaintance with the Old Testament is limited to a few verses appropriate for Christmas and Easter as quoted in Handel's "Messiah".
One reason is the problem of language and style. The New Testament was written in Greek, a European language like English, in just fifty years and in mostly an informal style. The Old Testament on the other hand, is a collection of works composed over a thousand years in a Middle Eastern language and much of it in a highly polished, formal style, using imagery which we find archaic and inscrutable.
The barrier seems insurmountable and since even the best efforts of translators often can't bridge the gap, we either leave it to one side as too much bother or, worse, reject it as irrelevant compared to the easier to read words of Jesus. After all, we are Christians, so why should anything else interest us?
So, it comes as no surprise to me, then, when I hear people say they have trouble understanding the Letter to the Hebrews, because it draws heavily upon the Old Testament for much of its imagery and message. That was a nice little example of it we heard this morning. "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek." What, on earth, does that mean? Mel who? Gibson?
But, eight times in this letter the author refers to someone named Melchizedek so it must have meant something to him and the Early Church evidently thought that it was important enough for us to include this letter in the New Testament. And what is this important meaning? That understanding who Melchizedek was, and what he represents, is important to understanding not only Jesus, but, us Christians. In other words, Jesus is not a stand-alone character. He, and we, only make sense in a certain context, a context we call the "covenant."
"Covenant" is a word which means "agreement." We talk about a covenant on a property deed which can put some restrictions on the use of the property. In our time, it's a secular and legal word. But, in the Bible, the word "ber-ith" which we translate as "covenant" has a sacred meaning. It is the guiding principle of the relationship between God and Man.
We know of the covenants made with Noah and Abraham. And the Hebrews knew that God had chosen them to be a special people above all others on Earth. This meant that the past, what had gone before; the present, what they were experiencing; and the future, whatever that might be; were all part of a coherent plan. It gave them a sense of purpose which other peoples lacked.
And, as we heard this morning, by the time of Jeremiah, God announced that he was planning a "chadesh ber-ith" a new covenant. God and Man were still the parties involved, but, now, instead of being between God as a being and Israel as a nation, it would be between God as an individual and humans as individuals.
That's quite a major step. It's one thing to belong to a chosen people. It's another to be a chosen person. Under the new arrangements, "ber-ith" is no longer something generic, the responsibility of priests and kings; it's become something intensely personal for which I am completely responsible because, and here's the key point that ties this all together, because I am a priest and a king.
That is, not I, meaning me standing up here in the pulpit, but, you, you are priests and kings not because you've been ordained by a bishop, but, because you have been baptized, anointed by God.
The Jews really didn't know what to make of Melchizedek. Scripture goes out of its way to describe how he had no father or mother and, of course, that is not possible in real terms, but, what it means from our perspective is that he was not part of an established family or hereditary hierarchy, like the priests descended from Aaron the Levite. To be a priest in Israel you had to be a Levite. Nobody from the tribe of Judah or Issachar or Reuben or whatever need apply. Melchizedek, on the other hand, not only pre-dates Aaron, he is someone to whom Abraham, the ancestor of all the tribes, paid homage and, therefore, according to the Jewish rules of heredity, is superior to them.
It's hard for us to really grasp this mind-set, but, the Jews took heredity and genealogy very seriously. Consider how both St. Matthew and St. Luke use a lot of space in their Gospels to show how Jesus is a descendant of King David on both sides. That establishes his royal claim. But, he's not a Levite, so he can't be a priest unless he's like someone else who was a priest outside the Levite line. And that gives us Melchizedek, a priest in Genesis who offered, not bulls and goats, but, and this is really telling - bread and wine.
God can do a lot with quite a little and the Bible is one of the ways he does this best. All we have in it about Melchizedek is three references in Genesis and one in Psalms, but, these are enough to establish Jesus as the Great High Priest of the New Covenant, the "chadesh ber-ith", and who gives his non-hereditary priestly kingship to all who are anointed, or to use the Greek word, chrismed, in his name - all, in other words, who are called "Christians."
There is a phrase you may have heard from time to time. It's "the priesthood of all believers" and it means many things but, one thing is that, as Christians, we fulfil a priestly function in building bridges between Man and God.
Some of us, like me, are specially called to administer sacraments, but all of us are called to administer grace. All of us are called to break down barriers between people and bring peace and healing to the world in Jesus' name. All of us are called to preach the Gospel in how we live and what we do. All of us are called to consecrate, not bread and wine, but, ourselves, our souls and bodies and conform to the life of God in Christ.
Melchizedek was a figure of mystery to the Jews. For us, he is the archetype of Christ and of what Christ has made us. The Old Testament, then, is not someone else’s' ancient history to be filed away and forgotten. It is our past and our present and the key to our future. May we take, therefore, every opportunity to learn about the Old, that we might live the New even better, as the kings and priests we are.
In the Name...