Thomas J Parlette
“Standing in the Footsteps of Melchizedek”
Hebrews 5: 1-10, Mark 10: 35-45
In a recent issue of the Christian Century, Episcopal priest Heidi Havercamp writes about an old-fashioned image of Christ that can still be found in many Episcopal churches. It is the image of Christ on the cross – not nailed, naked and suffering – but rather tranquil, triumphant and vested in stole, chausable, and even a maniple, a High Church vestment resembling a fancy dish towel. “This image,” she writes, “the resurrected Jesus as Episcopal priest always strikes me as both presumptuous and odd. But I can’t help think that this Sunday’s reading from Hebrews might provide the perfect caption: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”(1)
It’s quite possible that you may be unfamiliar with this priest named Melchizedek. He was King of Salem, possibly an early forerunner of the place that would become Jeru-Salem, and a priest – which is peculiar because no one else in scripture was ever both. You were either a King or a Priest – but never both at the same time. And Melchizedek’s story occurred many years before the Levitical priesthood was even established. Very odd indeed.
Melchizedek’s story is entirely contained within a few verses near the end of Genesis 14, where he meets Abram, before he became Abraham, after a battle and offers him bread and wine, blesses him, and vanishes – although not before Abram gifts him one tenth of his family’s possessions.
We remember Melchizedek because his name means “King of Righteousness.” And the place he rules, Salem, has the same spelling in Hebrew as “shalom” – meaning peace. So many people make comparisons between Melchizedek and Jesus. You can see why. Here is a priest, the King of Righteousness and Peace, who appears in the wilderness, offers bread and wine and blessings and is deserving of tithes and offerings. You can see the parallels, the foreshadowing of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.
Melchizedek appears in Hebrews, in Genesis 14 and in Psalm 110, where we find the first use of the “priest forever” line. This image of the Great High Priest, who sacrifices himself is very important to the writer of Hebrews, as it is referred to 7 times in the book.
A priest is one who is authorized to perform the sacred rituals and teach the traditions and beliefs of an organization – whether it is religious or secular. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a priest was one chosen by God to be a mediatory agent between God and humanity. Before Christ, the thought was that individuals did not have direct access to God – you needed a go between, a middleman between God and humanity. This was done by a priest. And as time went by and communities grew and Temples came into existence – especially the Temple at Jerusalem – there was an office called the High Priest. This was the priest designated to enter the Holy of Holies and make offerings, prayers and supplications directly to God.
The writer of Hebrews makes the theological case that Jesus in the Great High Priest. Jesus is the one chosen by God, with direct access to God, to make the sacrifice of himself to bring reconciliation between God and humanity. This text makes clear that being a priest is not a status symbol with rewards and perks, but rather a priest is set aside as a matter of function. It is a position of service, not privilege.
This is where James and John go off track in our Gospel lesson from Mark. The brothers approach Jesus with their request to sit on either side of him basking in Jesus’ glory, because they think they deserve it. But they don’t understand yet what that means. To drink from the same cup as Jesus is live with humility, in obedience to God, as a servant to others. They will learn this lesson as Jesus completes his work on the cross and defeats the power of death by rising from death – but for now, they don’t quite get it. Their hearts are in the right place, their intentions are good, but they don’t quite know what they’re getting into yet.
There is a wonderful story about the British author Graham Greene. Greene once waited two and half years for a 15 minute appointment with the Roman Catholic mystic Padre Pio, who lived in an Italian monastery. Padre Pio was reputed to be a “living saint” and bore on his body the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ.
On the day Greene was due to meet with this revered mystic, Greene first attended a mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the mass. However, when the mass was over, instead of keeping this much awaited appointment, Greene left the church, headed for the airport and flew right back to London.
When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited on for two and a half years, Greene said, “I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life.”(2)
James and John didn’t know it yet – but they weren’t ready to be changed as Jesus would change them.
The writer of Hebrews places Jesus squarely in the footsteps of the ancient, mysterious priest Melchizedek – and Jesus redefines what it means to be a priest. For Jesus, a priest is one who lives with humility, in obedience to God, to serve others. As the Great High Priest, Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity.
But Jesus is not the only one who stands in the footsteps of Melchizedek. We do too. During the Reformation, Protestant theologians described all of us as priests, referring to the church as “the priesthood of all believers.” As disciples of Christ, we are called to live in humble obedience to God in order to make known in our service. That’s a tall order – the footsteps of Melchizedek are big footprints to fill. But that is our call.
God calls us to be priests that bridge the gap between God’s dreams for the world and humanity’s needs in this world. As Jesus, the Great High Priest, is called to be the reconciliation of God – so too are those who bear Christ’s name are called to show this reconciliation to the world. As Susan Andrews has written: “As baptized “priests” we are given all the power, vision, and grace to be who we are called to be – not because we are perfect, but because God’s grace is made perfect in us. We can be “bridge people”: standing in the middle of red state/blue state politics, standing in the middle of violent conflicts, standing in the middle of broken relationships, standing in the middle of theological skirmishes, standing in the middle of the enormous gaps between rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and citizen - standing in the middle, between God’s vision of shalom and the disharmony of contemporary life. Yet, as “priest,” each of us is called to stretch out our arms to embrace all that is dissident, becoming a dwelling place of reconciliation where all of creation finds a harmonious home in God’s heart.”(3)
Sounds a little crazy, I know – but it’s true.
Michael B. Curry, Presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, tells about an old Apple computer commercial from the 1990’s that went viral on Youtube on the day in 2011 when Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, died. The tag line of the commercial was “Think different.”
In the commercial, they showed a collage of photographs and film footage of people who have invented and inspired, created and sacrificed to improve the world, to make a difference. They showed Bob Dylan, Amelia Earhart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Maria Callas, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Henson, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Mahatma Gandhi and on and on and on. As the images rolled by, a voice reads this poem:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”(4)
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once made the well-known statement that we should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.(5)
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we stand in the footsteps of Melchizedek – to live as priests, as bridge people, to be an example of God’s vision of peace and reconciliation for this broken and dysfunctional world. It’s a bit of a crazy thing to do. But here’s to the crazy ones.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Heidi Havercamp, Christian Century, September 26th, 2018, p21.
2. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No.4, p17.
3. Susan Andrews, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p184, 186.
4. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, p16.
5. Ibid… p17.