Sermons

The Priesthood

Themes: Peter Hebrews

Chris Topping

Introduction

What do you want to be when you grow up?

No one has asked me that for a very long time but we will all either have asked that question or been asked it at some time – depending on how old you are!

Sometimes the preacher asks a question to which they don’t expect an answer but perhaps this morning you would like to answer? Any offers?

I may have mentioned before that I still want to be a professional cricketer and when I heard that there some of the England team weren’t too keen on going to Australia this winter then I thought I might have a chance… well not really! The stumbling blocks are a) age and b) ability!

No one said in response that they wanted to be a vicar or a priest?

Weird.

Who grows up knowing that they want to be a priest? I guess there must be someone but I am not sure I have ever met them.

When I was thinking about our readings this morning it occurred to me that we never really hear much about being a priest or a vicar and what the Bible says about it – so here we go!

Context

We have had two readings from the New Testament letters and no Gospel… now according to the rules we probably shouldn’t do this but I reckon that God won’t be too bothered about it. We haven’t been struck down by lightning yet so let’s crack on!

I thought it would be interesting to look at two passages where the writers, possibly Paul writing to the Hebrews and Peter writing to his readers are talking about the priesthood.

If you know your New Testament you will know that Peter and Paul didn’t always see eye to eye about the way the church was headed in those first years.

Here we have two contrasting passages about the priesthood – you might wonder why we would think about these things here and now. I hope to suggest

to you that these are relevant things to be thinking about and that there are things here that we can learn together.

I am aware that preaching a sermon about priests in the absence of any clergy in the congregation might be provocative – that is not my intention.

I want us to begin to explore what it means to be a priest and what that might look like for us in 2021.

What is A Priest?

Perhaps first of all we have to consider what is a priest?

The dictionary tells us that a priest is a person (thankfully now female or male) who is authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God specifically. [1]

When we talk of priests I suppose the word is more associated with the Catholic church than the Protestant.

There are lots of images that run through my head when we talk about priests aren’t there?

Perhaps we think of Dad’s Army and the vicar there who is always portrayed as being a weak person; perhaps it is Father Ted or Father Dougal with their crazy anarchic schemes; or perhaps it is the Vicar of Dibley.

Now of course what all of these have in common is that they are comedy characters… so what does that say?

Or maybe it is Rev Richard Coles or Rev Kate Botley who only ever appear on our TV screens in their clerical collars.

Or maybe it is someone like the sad character Father McKenzie in the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby.

Or maybe you saw this week that the Bishop of Rochester Michael Nasir Ali has decided to stop being an Anglican Bishop and will become a Catholic priest.

Alternatively, and tragically there seems to be a constant theme of priests abusing their positions for their own gratification and bringing shame on the church, and God, as they do so.

Or maybe we have known vicars and priests that we would say truly embody the role of being a priest. Some of you will know Bishop Tom Williams who is an auxilliary bishop at the Metropolitan Cathedral and who for many years was

the parish priest at St Anthony’s on Scotland Rd. Having been born just round the corner from that church he is someone who have brought about massive change and been wholly faithful to the people he was called to care for.

There are a variety of images that we have in our minds.

The Priest in the Bible

What we learn of the priest in the Old Testament and into the New Testament is that it is the role of an intermediary between the people and God. It is the High Priest who could go into the holiest part of the Temple and who could offer sacrifices to seek God’s forgiveness of sins. That was the role of the Priest

However being a priest was not a job you could apply for. The job of being a priest was handed down in the family. So for example in the book of Samuel we read about Eli’s sons who were expected to inherit the role from their Dad. That didn’t happen for reasons which we won’t go into here but you can read all about it in 1 Samuel.

It is however important for our understanding of our reading from Hebrews to understand that Jesus did not come from a family of priests and yet here we are reading about Jesus the priest.

Jesus and Melchizedek

The reading from Hebrews tells us that Jesus was appointed High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Anyone know who Melchizedek was?

I didn’t! He appears in Genesis right at the start of the account of how God deals with His people. Melchizedek is the King of Salem and also a priest – he gives Abram – the father of the Israelites – bread and wine and then blesses him.

He is seen as the first High Priest and of course being the first he is seen as being appointed by God – it seems he did not get the job because of his family.

Appointed by God

So we are getting the idea that Jesus steps into that ancient role, appointed by God the Father to be a Priest but when Jesus becomes a priest everything changed.

With Jesus as High Priest this brought an end to the need to offer repeated sacrifices to God to seek forgiveness of sins –

The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear

“he became the source of salvation for all who obey Him”

What is different here is that what Jesus does to open up a way of knowing of God to everyone. The need for the High Priest of the Old Testament goes completely. Just as had been prophesied in the Old Testament and as the writer of the Hebrews reminds us later in this letter [2].

And they shall not teach one another
or say to each other, “Know the Lord”,
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful towards their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.’

So Jesus changes everything. We no longer have to go through the High Priest to meet with God nor to know what God is like.

A Warning

Now at this stage of our thinking a warning!

I am not saying that there is no role for vicars and priests and ordained leaders in the Church.

The current regime means that those who are called to be ordained are those who are permitted to celebrate communion, to celebrate at weddings and who should rightly be afforded respect.

However, I want to suggest that is not the end of the story – as Peter in his letter that we heard earlier writes we are all now called to be part of “a royal priesthood”.

And this is important for us here in Liverpool in 2021.

We are Called to be Priests

It is important because one of the massive challenges that the Church Of England faces right now is that there are not enough vicars to go round.

As you may know there is a plan afoot to have lay leadership of churches going forward and thus move away from the idea that every church has to have an

ordained leader. This week the Diocese of Leicester has announced that they seem to be scrapping the Parish system partly because there are not enough vicars to go round.

It seems to me that this is not a new idea but rather it was something that Peter was talking about in his letter – we are all called to be priests!

What else could this verse mean . .

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”[3]

That doesn’t mean we are all going to be off to theological college or indeed allowed to administer communion or carry out wedding ceremonies.

What it does mean I think is that each one of us has a part to play in making the church a place where God’s Kingdom is coming on earth.

We all have a priestly role to pray for each other; a priestly role to encourage each other; a priestly role to carry out the work of God alongside each other here and in the places where we live and work and play.

Just as the High Priests of the Bible were God’s representatives on earth so too are we.

We are not seeing the end of the Priesthood as the church consider the future but we might be seeing the start of biblical model of the church where we are all part of the royal priesthood that Jesus started and God intended.

Conclusion

To conclude our thinking about these passages and hopefully to allow us to focus our thoughts we are going to sing together the song “Before the Throne of God I stand”.

This song reflects the privileged position that we are in that it is Jesus Himself who is our High Priest who stands and intercedes for us and who in His life, death and resurrection opens up our relationship to God.

You may not have grown up wanting to become a priest but now you are part of that royal priesthood – privileged to be welcomed into the presence of God and tasked with sharing the work of bringing about God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Let’s sing together “Before the Throne of God I stand”


[1] Merriam Webster

[2] Hebrews 8 v 11,12

[3] Peter 2 v 9