Who is Jesus? And who are we?
Over the next four weeks, I’d like to invite you to take a fresh look at who Jesus is. It’s very appropriate in this Year of Faith to seek to get to know Jesus better. And the better we know Jesus, the better we know ourselves – because Jesus teaches us what it is to be truly human. When we’ve made a mistake, we might excuse ourselves by saying, “well, I’m only human” – but that would be the incorrect answer! When we get something wrong, we are being less than human, because we’re made in God’s image, and God is perfection.
On the front of this pulpit are four images – four plaques representing different aspects of Our Lord Jesus Christ: as a man, as a King, as a sacrifice, and as the one who is connected to heaven. Each of these images also teaches us something about what it is to be human. Today, I’d like to focus on Christ who is the bridge between heaven and earth – Christ the Great High Priest.
From the beginning of recorded history, human communities have identified certain members as priests and priestesses, men or women understood to be in touch with the spiritual world. We have a deep-seated human instinct that we need to make some kind of connection with our Creator, and we naturally seek help from someone who might help to make that connection. In part, those priests and priestesses were responding to a genuine sense of God’s presence; but in part, they also brought their own limited understanding of God and their own human weaknesses to the role.
In the fullness of time, God began to speak to human beings, to teach them the kind of priesthood that would truly worship God. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there are few priests – significant figures like Cain and Abel, and Abraham, offer their own sacrifices to God. Abraham does, however, recognise one priest – the mysterious figure of King Melchizedek, whose name you will hear alongside Abel’s in the Eucharistic Prayer which I’ll use today.
When Moses led God’s chosen people out of Egypt, he received instructions from God for a new kind of priesthood, the Jewish priesthood. The family of Aaron would become the new high priests of Israel; one of the twelve tribes of Israelites, the tribe of Levi, was not to have a share of land to cultivate, but instead would become priests offering prayers for the people. They were to keep and eat a portion of the meat and crops offered in sacrifice to God, as their wages. For a thousand years and more, barring invasions, priests offered sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. Once a year, on the day of atonement, the High Priest would first sacrifice a bull as an offering for his own sins, and then sacrifice a goat as an offering for the sins of the whole people. And each Christmas, when we read the Nativity story, we remember how Mary and Joseph had to offer two pigeons for the priest to sacrifice, as a thanksgiving for the safe birth of Jesus.
When the first Christians tried to make sense of who Jesus was, they realised that although he wasn’t from the tribe of Levi, or a descendent of Aaron, he’d become the perfect priest of the Jewish religion. The priests who served in the temple had to make sacrifices for their own sins, and eventually grew old and were replaced by the next generation of priests. But Jesus, the sinless one, was worthy to pray for the whole world; and now that he had risen from the dead, his priesthood could never end.
If Jesus was the true high priest, what about those Christian leaders who took bread and wine and celebrated the Eucharist in memory of Jesus? The early Christians called their leaders “presbyters”, which is Greek for “elders” and the word from which we get Presbytery (Priest’s House). But later, after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and Jewish priests no longer offered sacrifices, Christians became more comfortable calling their leaders “priests”. Every Catholic Priest stands in the place of Jesus, connecting the community to God through the power to make Christ present in the form of bread and wine, and to declare forgiveness for sins. But there are two kinds of priesthood, and today I will speak not of the priesthood which a few men receive through ordination, but of the other kind of priesthood, which the Church calls “the common priesthood of all believers”.
When Jesus died on the Cross, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that the curtain covering the holiest part of the Jewish Temple was torn in half. In a part of the Letter to the Hebrews which we don’t hear in our Sunday readings, God’s Word explains this: we now have a direct connection to God which wasn’t available to us before Jesus died. ALL of God’s people, baptised and connected to Jesus, now have the right to come into God’s presence and pray. That’s worth remembering!
We can pray to God in the familiar words “Our Father”, but let’s not take God for granted. If we become blasé and pray the Our Father casually, we’re forgetting what an awesome privilege it is to be able to address the God of the Universe at all. It’s as if Queen Elizabeth or President Obama gave you their mobile phone number and said: “Any time, you can call me!” – that’s the privilege we’ve got as children of God. It also means that if another religious believer – a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Sikh – wanted to join in our prayers, we can’t simply say “go ahead”. Only those who have been baptised have the right to address God as “Father”. We are bold to do so!
So when we come to the Lord’s Prayer at this Mass, listen carefully to the priest’s words of invitation. Our Missal first says “At the Saviour’s Command” – that’s a good reason for being bold – and then “formed by divine teaching” – because God has taught us that we have become his children. Then the launchpad words are “we dare to say…” – yes, it’s a bold thing indeed to call God, “Father”, but that’s our privilege as a royal priesthood, as baptised members of the Church of Jesus Christ.
One of the ancient Christian writers once said: “Fish swim. Birds fly. People pray.” Praying is the one thing we can do, which no other creature on God’s earth can – it’s our unique privilege. Because Christ is now seated at the right hand of God in heaven, we can reach up to heaven by our prayers at any time. And when Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, he is asking us not only to commit ourselves to service of our neighbour – within whom God dwells, hidden – but also to approach God directly through our personal prayer and acts of worship. To spend time deliberately and directly addressing God and listening for God’s Word expresses love for God in the most direct way we possibly can.
So take a good look at yourself. You have a status in God’s eyes which is not shared by three-quarters of the billions of inhabitants of planet Earth – you are baptised, with the right to stand before God in prayer and call Him Father. You have the right to thank God for all that is good in the world, to plead for those in distress, and beseech God to have mercy on all sinners. You are a priestly people, a holy nation, a people set apart for God. So I leave you with a question: how are you going to live out your priesthood during the week to come?
Bonus material for those reading the homily online:
The Great Commandment: Matthew 22:35b-40
… Jesus said, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself…
The Great Commission: Matthew 28:16-20
Jesus said, ‘Go, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. ‘
The Response of the Disciples: Acts 2:37b-47
These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. The faithful … went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.
Flowing from the readings above, there are certain things which every Christian Community must do in order to be the kind of community which God is calling it to be.
LOVE OF NEIGHBOUR requires us to invest some of our time, our talents and our money in serving others. Our “neighbour” encompasses both our local community, and the poorer nations of a global economy in which the UK, despite the current recession, is still relatively rich.
LOVE OF GOD is expressed not only through service of our neighbour – within whom God dwells, hidden – but also through our personal prayer and acts of worship. To spend time deliberately and directly addressing God and listening for God’s Word expresses love for God in the most direct way possible.
There are two traps we can easily fall into.
PIOUSNESS is the trap of paying so much attention to the fine details of how and when to pray that we neglect our neighbour’s needs, or treat members of our community who don’t share our piety, with disdain. Scripture warns us that if we have no love for our neighbour, there is something inadequate about our love for God. (The whole of the First Letter of St John is a meditation on this theme, and see also James 3:18.)
HUMANITARIANISM is an exclusive concern with the well-being of our neighbour. The world is full of humanitarians, and we applaud the work they do. Some are motivated by religious beliefs, others by a simple care for their fellow human beings. But for us as followers of Jesus Christ, the trap is to say that if we have exercised humanitarian care, we have done everything which God asks of us. No! Jesus gave us two great commandments which are inseparable yet distinct. For us as believers, Humanitarianism may be motivated by love of God but is, by its nature, an expression of love of Neighbour. We must remember that we are also called to the First Commandment, which is to remember, love, worship and obey God for God’s own sake.