A reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest but was appointed by the one who said to him,
“You are my Son;
today I have begotten you”;
as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
This year for Holy Week I’ve mostly been preaching from the readings set from the Epistle to the Hebrews, and for this Preaching of the Passion I’m going to be talking about some of the most important ways of thinking that we find in Hebrews about Jesus’ Passion and Death.
There’s always been a certain mystery surrounding this New Testament letter. It’s written in arguably the best Greek in the whole of the New Testament, and the writer draws on a range of Greek rhetorical devices to develop a complex argument over thirteen chapters. But as the name suggests, it is also very Jewish, drawing on the riches of the Old Testament to understand the nature of Jesus and the significance of His Passion and Death.
No-one knows who wrote it. For most of the church’s history it was attributed to St Paul, but it doesn’t really sound like him, and although there are some points of connection with St Paul’s theology, the interests of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews are different and distinctive. There were doubts about St Paul’s authorship of this letter going back to the earliest Christian centuries, and you would struggle to find a scholar today who would argue that it was written by St Paul. Most likely it was written by someone close to him, who was familiar with his theology, but who had a distinctive perspective of their own.
And it doesn’t even really seem to be a letter. It doesn’t say who it’s to, nor does it say who it’s from. Unlike most New Testament letters, it doesn’t seem to be addressed to a specific difficulty in a particular church, beyond the threat of persecution. Its content is theological and scriptural; it is more like an extended sermon than a letter.
One of the principal ideas is that of Jesus Christ as High Priest. This is a distinctive emphasis. The gospels connect Jesus with the sacrificial rites of the Old Testament chiefly through the Passover. All four gospels link the timing of Jesus’ death with the Passover; and we find Jesus described as “the Lamb of God” or simply as “the Lamb” in both John’s gospel and the book of Revelation. But the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews connects Jesus not so much with the Passover Lamb as with the High Priest, and specifically the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.
The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur as it is known by Jews today, is a Jewish solemnity; in fact it is the holiest day in the Jewish religious year. It is a day of fasting and reflection, of prayer and confession. Not unlike the Christian season of Lent, the focus is very much on repentance. In many Jewish synagogues today the keeping of Yom Kippur includes the recitation of the details of the sacrifices which were once made by the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple, and lamenting the ending of these sacrifices by the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Yom Kippur was the one day in the year when the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple, and to utter the Holy Name of God. Sacrifices were made to atone for the sins of the High Priest and the sins of the people, blood was sprinkled, incense burned, and the scapegoat was driven out into the desert, symbolically bearing the people’s sins.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews uses these sacrificial rites of the Day of Atonement to open up the meaning of the passion and death of Jesus.
What is a priest? We find priestly functions in many different societies and religions, and it is a role that seems to combine several overlapping ideas. There is of course the leading of worship; but not only priests do that. There is the leading of intercessions, but again anyone can pray for someone else. There is the offering of sacrifices, which is often a distinctly priestly role. And there is that broader sense, which encompasses all those other meanings, of being set aside to stand on the God-ward side of humanity.
The book of Exodus describes the Lord’s instructions for making the breastplate to be worn by Aaron, the High Priest. It is to have twelve precious stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, embroidered into its design; Aaron was commanded to appear before the Lord bearing the names of the sons of Israel over his heart, as a memorial before the Lord continually. That sense of standing before God with the people on one’s heart is surely the core of what it is to be a priest.
Jesus as fully human and fully divine is uniquely placed to exercise this role, standing not only on the God-ward side of humanity, but also on the humanity-ward side of God, if you will forgive the clumsy phrase.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews places a great emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, and consequently His ability to understand our human weakness and frailty. And more than that, He describes Jesus’ struggle with His destiny, and in doing so reminds us both of the Gethsemane stories in the three synoptic gospels, and also of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel:
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
The Epistle to the Hebrews describes how Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death”.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need…. He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”
Let us pray:
O God, who for the glory of your majesty
and the salvation of the human race,
made your Only Begotten Son the Eternal High Priest,
grant that, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit,
those whom he has chosen as ministers and stewards of his mysteries
may be found faithful in carrying out the ministry they have received.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever
A reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews
Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
The ritual of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, had three major elements. The High Priest entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of bulls, to make atonement for his own sins and the sins of his people. The blood was sprinkled within the sanctuary. He also burned incense before the Lord. And he symbolically placed the sins of the people on the scapegoat, which was then driven out into the desert as a tangible sign of the removal of sin and its consequences from the community of the people of God.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews explores the parallels between Jesus offering of Himself on the Cross, and the High Priest’s offering of the blood of bulls. He writes:
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the holy place, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
But he also hints at that other dimension of the ritual of the Day of Atonement, that of the scapegoat: Jesus is the One who suffers “outside the camp”. John’s gospel suggests something similar, emphasizing the fact that Jesus goes out, carrying His Cross, and that His place of crucifixion is outside the boundaries of the walled city of Jerusalem.
It’s easy to see the power in the symbolism of the scapegoat ritual. Every human society is marred and disfigured by the consequences of human wrongdoing; every human heart is troubled by feelings of guilt, shame, anger, resentment, and blame. Whilst the shedding of the blood of animals suggested appeasement of the Divine judgement, the driving out of the scapegoat symbolised the removal of the disfigurements of sin from the community. In our own day we know how damaging greed and selfishness can be for our own society, and we know too how the consequences of sin ripple out through communities and down generations. Jesus physically carries His Cross outside the city walls, but emotionally and spiritually He carries away the whole sorry cocktail of sin, guilt, blame and anger that afflicts human societies. We are called to leave those negative feelings at the foot of His Cross, so that we are free to build relationships of generosity and love.
But the scapegoat image can be turned around another way, and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes exactly this move when he or she exhorts us to “go to Him outside the camp”. There is a need for sin and its consequences to be removed from human societies. But we also know the tendency of human societies to make scapegoats of other people, and to pin on particular groups or individuals the negative consequences that flow from the sin that is common to all humanity. On Good Friday we particularly remember the history of Christian antisemitism, and the ways in which Jews were so often used as scapegoats. But it’s not only the Jewish people who have suffered in this way. In every society there are those who are literally or metaphorically cast out. Jesus in His earthly ministry was frequently found among such people; His Church should be there too.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you carried your Cross outside the city walls,
lead us outside the camp, we pray,
that we may bring your love and kindness
to the outcast and the despised,
and leave our fears and anxieties,
our hatreds and our angers,
at the foot of the Cross;
for you died for us and yet live forever,
with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
A reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews
Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd was one of the most important images in the early church. We find it painted on the walls of catacombs outside Rome. We find it repeatedly in the New Testament. There is the Parable of the Lost Sheep in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. In John’s gospel, Jesus announces Himself explicitly as “the Good Shepherd [who] lays down His life for the sheep”. The first Epistle of St Peter refers to Jesus as the “Shepherd and Bishop of your souls”. Curiously, the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is not found in St Paul’s letters. But it was plainly important in the thinking of many of the first Christians.
The shepherd is also an important image in the Old Testament. The patriarchs were keepers of flocks; Moses is working as a shepherd when the Lord calls him from the Burning Bush; and perhaps most significantly, King David is called from tending his father’s flocks to shepherding the people of Israel as their king. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel rage against the shepherds of Israel who use their office to exploit the sheep, and they promise a day when God will Himself come to shepherd His people.
By identifying Himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is laying claim to the title of Messiah, placing Himself in the tradition of Davidic kingship. And describing Himself as the Good Shepherd who “lays down His life for the sheep”, He is revealing Himself as the answer to the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel: the prophets rage at self-interested shepherds, namely political and religious leaders who use their office to further their own self-interest at the expense of those they are supposed to protect and serve; Jesus promises a complete reversal of this tendency, promising not only to care for His flock, but even to give up His life for their sake.
Jesus challenges, subverts and turns upside-down our ideas about power and authority; His claim to kingship is revealed not in His power to command and His power to take, but rather in His power to obey and His power to give.
Let us pray
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again:
keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and for ever.
A reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews
Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honour,
subjecting all things under their feet.”
Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.
It is in the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel, at the end of the long narrative of the Last Supper, that Jesus begins the prayer that is sometimes called His “High Priestly Prayer”. The prayer begins:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
Jesus, on the eve of His Crucifixion, speaks of the coming events as His glorification.
Similarly, on several occasions in John’s gospel, Jesus refers to His coming death on the Cross as His being “lifted up”, words which have a double-meaning: Jesus is lifted up in a literal sense, being lifted up on the Cross by the soldiers. But He is also lifted up in the sense of being exalted. The Cross is His glory.
It’s worth just taking a moment to reflect on the beautiful craziness of this idea. Crucifixion was pretty much the worst thing that the ancients could think of doing to someone: a long, slow, painful public death, that was supposed not only to be physically excruciating – and we can note in passing that the very word excruciating is derived from the Latin verb cruciare, to crucify – but also morally humiliating. It was a punishment largely reserved for slaves and lower-class bandits and rebels. And yet Jesus speaks of this worst of all possible horrible punishments as being His glorification.
We find the same idea in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Quoting from Psalm 8, the writer speaks of Jesus as being “crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death”. Although the idea is less developed here than in John’s gospel, the connection with Psalm 8 is an interesting one.
Psalm 8 is very much a psalm of creation, a psalm which describes God’s majesty as being present throughout creation from the heavens to the songs of praise of young children. The psalmist writes: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, the Son of Man that you care for him?”
By connecting the glorification of Jesus through the Cross with Psalm 8, which proclaims God’s glory in creation, the Epistle to the Hebrews is pointing to the unity of God’s loving purposes. That same love of God that pours forth in limitless creativity in fashioning the universe, from the planets and the stars in their orbits down to the symmetry of the snowflake and the mysterious world of the sub-atomic particle, that same love of God revealed in Creation is also revealed through the glory of the Cross. Because just as Creation is the outpouring of God’s love, so is the Cross the outpouring of God’s love. God loved the whole universe into existence; God loves the whole universe into redemption and renewal through the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us pray
who in the passion of your blessed Son
made an instrument of painful death
to be for us the means of life and peace:
grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ
that we may gladly suffer for his sake;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.