Who is Jesus, and why was he different?
I want to draw our attention to the passage from Hebrews this morning. You may remember that last week I said that this “letter” is a piece of theology, probably written by a woman, definitely not by St Paul. It was written to help people understand “about” Jesus, who and what he was, and why he was different.
So look at the formal language in the middle. I am sure that if we looked this up in the contemporary texts, we would find that this is part of a standard adoption ceremony. The laws back then allowed for adopting adults as heirs. That is, supposing you had married a woman and had at least one son, but that son had the bad manners to get killed, or there were no sons. It was then common practice to look around and decide which of your kinsmen you wanted to adopt as your heir. It was also common practice, if you were the lord of even a small manor, to take in strays, orphans left at the gate, who were hoping for the kindness of strangers. These children might eventually be adopted, probably not to be the “first-born” heir, but if they had been adopted, they would receive something. Adoption was very important, it legitimized you, and gave you a name.
What’s in a name
This business of having a name is critical. There is a great story about a guy who is traveling through town in the South and stops to get some lunch at a local diner. There is someone who is talking to one person and another who then comes over and asks how he’s doing and then sits down and tells him a story. The story is about a young boy who was born out of wedlock, who was teased mercilessly by the other kids with the question: “who’s your daddy?” In the South, it is a very important question, because it explains what your relationships are. A new preacher came through town, and after the service was shaking hands with everyone as was the custom. When the boy came through the line, the preacher asked him, “so who’s your daddy?” and there was a sudden hush. The preacher got it immediately, and said, I know who your daddy is, and boy are you lucky! He told the boy to come see him later, and went on shaking hands. The boy did, and found that his spiritual father did indeed love him, and had adopted him, just as we all have been adopted.
The people hearing this letter to the Hebrews would have known this language: You are now my son, today I have begotten you. They would have understood that when that was said, the position of the new son was irrevocably changed. Before, he was not a son, he was a nobody. Now, he is a son, an heir. The writer of Hebrews claims that God has formally adopted Jesus in this manner. Before, he was a prophet. Now he is a son, the Son. It is an ontological change, i.e., a change of substance.
The High Priests
The writer of Hebrews also talks about what it meant to be the high priest, and then, changing that definition slightly, what it meant to call Jesus a high priest. Everyone knew that the high priest was a mortal, a normal person, chosen by the people to be the person who took their gifts and sacrifices to God, and asked God to release the sins of the people. Jesus was chosen by God, to be the high priest who would bring the sacrifices to God. And then it says, Jesus is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. What does that mean? Well, this gets a little tangled, and it’s rather political, if you ask me. Melchizedek is named as a priest who meets Abraham, and gives him bread and wine. Does this sound familiar? It’s in Genesis 14
One of the things that the traditional liturgical churches talk about is apostolic succession. The Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions have all been very anxious about the business of descendants of the faith, and they talk about it in terms of bishops. The bishops are the ones officially entrusted with the “right teaching” of the faith. However, that evolved to looking at who laid hands on whom, rather than whether the teaching going on actually was congruent with what Jesus taught. This whole focus on lineage comes right out of Judaism, where there were two lines of priests. One lineage was from Aaron, and the other was from Melchizedek. The Aaronic priesthood was ancestral, passing from father to son. The Melchizedek priesthood was not ancestral, and the author of Hebrews uses that to say that even though Jesus did not come out of the Aaronic ancestry, he could still be named high priest because there was another lineage, not based on ancestry.
[pullquoteright]God adopts us, calls us by name, and tells each of us that we are God’s beloved child. It is up to us to respond to that call.[/pullquoteright]So what kind of relevance does this have for us today? Well, you may have heard someone talking about Romney being a high priest of the order of Melchizedek, and if you had only read the book of Hebrews, you might think that was really something. But in the Mormon church, every 18 year old boy becomes a high priest – it’s part of becoming an adult in the faith. But beyond that, what can we get from this passage?
There are a couple of things that jump out at me. One is the adoption line, which lines up with Jesus getting baptized and receiving God’s call, which we echo for ourselves. That is, God adopts us, calls us by name, and tells each of us that we are God’s beloved child. It is up to us to respond to that call.
The other is the small line about not presuming to take the order of priesthood, but rather being called. This pops us into the gospel reading, where James and John ask Jesus for a favor. If you look at what they say, it’s really a setup. “Jesus, we want you do do for us whatever we ask of you.” Really???
A Place of Preference
In another gospel, it is their mother that asks Jesus for this favor, to sit at the places of honor. They were not waiting to be called. Now in their defense, this would have been a normal thing to ask for, in their society. They had done their duty, paid their dues, and wanted to let it be known that this would be appropriate payback when Jesus assumed his rightful place as king.
The other disciples are really upset, one can guess that’s because they didn’t think of asking first. But Jesus, again, tries to explain that they have it all wrong. If you are going to follow the way of Jesus, you will serve, because that is what he did. Last week we heard that many who are first will be last and many who are accounted for nothing will be given the seat of honor. Here he says it in a different way. Whoever wants to become great must be the servant.
This story about James and John asking for places of preference is in all four gospels. This tells us a couple of things. One is that it probably happened. The other is that it continued to be a major issue – and it still is. We still want to sit up front. We still want to be recognized. We don’t want to play the role of servant, we want to have servants who wait on us! There’s just one problem. That’s not what Jesus taught us. He’s pretty explicit about this. And just in case we think that the serving is just in house, he tells the story of the good Samaritan, and says no, it crosses all boundaries. We are to serve our neighbors, and the definition of neighbor is the one who needs something.
It is not surprising that there were times when the folks following Jesus said, now he’s gone too far. This would be one of them. We don’t like this kind of talk. But he’s right. If we want peace, for ourselves and for our world, the way to get it is by serving, by letting go, by not having things.
When I was traveling alone through Sweden when I was a teenager and had a terrible fever and didn’t know what I was going to do, a nice man took me home, gave me some aspirin and let me sleep there. The next morning I felt better, and I asked him why he felt ok about letting me stay in his house. His answer has stayed with me all these years. He said, I have nothing to steal. He was a foreign worker in Sweden. Like foreign workers everywhere, he had very little in the way of things. Because of that, he was able to give me an amazing gift of hospitality, he probably saved my life. My friend Kaaren has very little that is worth stealing, and several times she has invited someone in to share her tiny space rather than let them sleep on the street. She says she always is so blessed by them. I think about the extra room in my house, and think about what Jesus would say. And there are other ways to share. We are coming up to the time of Christmas, when we will be urged to spend our money on things for people who do not need more things. Or we can choose to give gifts of honor. When you have housing and enough to eat and enough things, I can honor you by giving a gift in honor of you to someone who really needs it. I like the gift of animals, through Heifer Project or Episcopal Relief and Development, and ERD also does microloans, which are fabulous, a proven way to help people help themselves.
So just to recap, we are called to do things differently, to not worry so much about the way things have always been done, but to look at how we can serve our neighbors now. It may be in small or large ways, and it may be in how we do things, how we spend our money, all of that. And, even the small things we spend our time and money on are important, because they too show forth our values, those values Jesus calls us to examine, again and again.
Our Readings Today
- [thkBC height=”600″ width=”900″ anchortext=”Galatians 1:1″ title=”Galatians 1:1″ url=”https://www.bible.com/bible/392/gal.1.1.cev” type=”iframe”]
- [thkBC height=”600″ width=”900″ anchortext=”Luke 14:7-12″ title=”Luke 14:7-12″ url=”https://www.bible.com/bible/303/luk.14.cev” type=”iframe”]