Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchiz’edek.” Thus, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ priesthood, but what on earth does it mean?

We don’t get much help from the 110th Psalm which the author references, one of only two places in the Old Testament where Melchiz’edek is mentioned. Here’s an exerpt:

The Lord has sworn and he will not recant:*
“You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord who is at your right hand will smite kings in the day of his wrath;*
he will rule over the nations.
He will heap high the corpses;*
he will smash heads over the wide earth.

I don’t know about you, but this seems a rather strange, disturbing way of understanding Jesus’ place in salvation history. Certainly, the kingship of the Father overturning temporal rulers and the Kingdom of God taking precedence over earthly nations is central to Christian eschatology, but the bit about heaping up corpses and smashing heads seems unhelpful at first blush.

I think a better way of understanding what the author of Hebrews means is to look back to the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. After a losing battle with Chederlao’mer, the King of Elam, Abram’s nephew Lot had been captured. Abram led a force of Hebrews to rout the king and take back his kinsman. After succeeding in battle, this strange figure comes to Abram and his victorious army:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, “Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.” And he gave him tithes of all.

After this, Melchiz’edek disappears from the Old Testament, the only exception being in the psalm already mentioned.

Even with so little information, we can glean a few things from this brief passage. Firstly, Melchiz’edek was not a Jew, but seemed nonetheless committed to the God of Israel. Secondly, he received tithes from Abraham, suggesting his superiority to even the father of God’s chosen people. Thirdly, he is the first figure in scripture to be called a priest (the Hebrew word kohen) a title normally reserved to priests in the temple in Jerusalem. And finally, he brings forth elements which would become sacerdotal for both Jews and Christians- namely bread and wine.

We can employ here what is called the typological meaning of scripture. The idea (employed from very early on in Christian biblical interpretation and even within the New Testament) is that certain things in the Old Testament, particularly obscure things, can be understood as foreshadowing things in the New Testament. So, last week we heard in the Old Testament this strange story about Moses holding up a bronze snake in the wilderness that the ill could gaze upon and be healed, and then in the Gospel Jesus explained that this was a type–a foreshadowing–of his own death on the cross.

Likewise, while at first obscure, the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus makes sense of the meaning of Melchiz’edek. Just as Melchiz’edek was not a Hebrew, Jesus (while a Jew himself) instituted a Covenant open to Gentiles. Just as Melchiz’edek was of higher stature than Abraham, so is Jesus the final consummation of the Law and the Prophets. Just as Melchiz’edek was the first priest, Jesus would become the first and Great High Priest of the New Covenant. Just as Melchiz’edek offered bread and wine, so did Jesus offer his Body and Blood for our sins and give it to us in the appearance of bread and wine.

In some ways, Melchiz’edek was the priest par excellence of the Old Covenant (despite arriving generations before the establishment of that Covenant) and Jesus is the priest par excellence of the New Covenant. While the priests in the temple obediently offered their sacrifices, they were in some sense a shadow of the perfect and more universal sacrifice of Melchiz’edek. While the priests of the New Covenant obediently offer the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood at the Altar week-in and week-out, these sacrifices are entirely dependent on the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus.

As we draw closer to those great days when we recreate the tremendous sacrifice and glorious triumph of our God, let us remember what a Great High Priest we have: how the perfect sacrifice for our sins and the great freedom we’ve been given, is ultimately dependent not on our piety, not on how we struggle to attend to the sacred mysteries at the altar and the font, but how it is all an objective gift of our only mediator and advocate–the one priest through which priesthood is given to His Body and Spouse, the Church.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.