Have you ever had a conversation with someone in which they thought you knew what they were talking about, but, in fact, you had no idea? You just kept nodding and saying, “uh-huh,” and “I see,” but didn’t really follow them at all?
Our experience of hearing the scriptures read on Sunday mornings can be like this. Sometimes we hear terms or references that mean nothing to us, and so we simply wait them out and hope we can follow the next reading better. But as it turns out, when we do stop to investigate, we often find something incredibly valuable in the text.
That’s why I was thankful when, during the Good Friday planning meeting, someone stopped us from breezing past a phrase none of us fully understood. The phrase is in today’s epistle reading, too: Jesus is “a high priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” I want to unpack this a bit:
Melchizedek is only mentioned a few times in the Hebrew scriptures. Most importantly, he shows up in Genesis 14, where he blesses bread and gives it to Abram. We’re told he is both a king and a priest. He is the king of Salem, which means “peace.” So he is the “King of Peace.”
We don’t know much more about him, but we do know that priests in ancient Israel played a central role in rites of atonement. They were the only ones authorized to enter the Holy of Holies, which was understood to be the place where the creator dwelt beyond creation, beyond time, matter, space.
At the entrance of the Holy of Holies was a veil, marking the boundary between creation and non-creation, between that which is completely pure and the impure, messy world people inhabit.
Before entering this space, the priest would sacrifice a bull or calf, to cleanse himself. He would then put on a white robe, a symbol of purity and of God; sometimes in this moment he was referred to as “son of God.”
The priest would go into holy of holies, and there he would sacrifice a goat. He would then come out of this pure place wearing a robe matching the veil, as a sign of bringing newness and re-creation with him. He would go forth bearing forgiveness, sprinkling the rest of the Temple with blood from the goat, as the sign of God’s forgiveness.
Note that, in this rite, it is God who does the work, God who wants to restore creation, out of love for his people. This is not about humans wanting to satisfy an angry God but about God taking the initiative of breaking through towards us. (This portrait of First Temple priesthood is based on the work of James Allison, in “Undergoing God.”)
Flash forward to Jesus’ last day:
On the cross, Jesus utters words of forgiveness – for the thief at his side and for those who have hung him there. At the moment of his death “the curtain of the temple is torn in two,” rending the division between holy and profane.
The first scene after Jesus’ death is in a garden – a reminder of creation, and the women come into a tomb where they encounter white-robed figures (dressed like priests in the holy of holies.) But unlike ancient Israel, here they (women, no less!) come and go freely. The division between pure and unpure, creator and creation, holy and profane, has been rent asunder, as God is “drawing all people to himself.”
And the Son of God has gone before them to utter peace, peace, peace, peace to all.
In today’s gospel, Jesus, the King of Peace, for the “order of Melchizidek,” explains that he is like those ancient priests, but he is he is also the sacrifice itself: he is the lamb who give himself away for us.
OK – That’s a lot of history! So why does this matter?
It matters because we live in a world where, in the name of God, many try to imagine there is a Holy of holies, and they are in it, and they try to turn it into a bunker and hunker down to protect themselves from “those people” out there.
It matters because we live in a world where people proclaiming “true faith” missed the memo that there is no longer a veil between the pure and the unpure. From Isis to extreme zionism to the Westboro Baptist Church, we see the children of God failing to forgive, failing to love, drumming up scapegoats to slaughter.
It matters, too, because most of us have imbibed a warped message about Jesus’ death. Why did Jesus die? Many of us were told: “To satisfy God’s anger at our sins.”
No, in Jesus, God is forgiving us. He is glorified in his self-offering.
It is hard for me to preach on this gospel today, because I am so humbled by the sermon on it I heard on Wednesday. An 8th grader at the Epiphany School in Dorchester, who has endured a really tough life, shared with us that, at time, things were so bad that she thought about ending it all. What kept her going was the Christ-like love of people at her school. She found in her teachers and classmates a glimpse of her value, an environment where it was OK to be imperfect. She talked about how much others had done for her — that they’d been like the grain of wheat that gave up a lot so that she could grow.
Just to get to this point, she has to practice forgiveness every day — toward God, toward relatives, towards a world in which being an African-American girl in a rough neighborhood creates very high hurdles. But here she was, preaching the Gospel, thanking Jesus, and inspiring me to be, as Bishop Barbara Harris says, an “Easter person in a Good Friday world.”
“Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. We all need to know that God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing humans can do will ever decrease or increase God’s eternal eagerness to love.” — Richard Rohr
Save your life by losing it. Cast off prejudice, fear, and shame.
Know that you are loved and forgiven and offer that forgiveness to others. The veil of the temple has been torn in two, and God is looking for you so that you might be embraced. Thanks be to God.