Readings Isaiah 60.9–end, Hebrews 6.17—7.10
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
‘Epiphany’, we noted last week, means ‘showing’, making manifest, but the three stories at the heart of the Epiphany season do not make God as manifest as all that: only the wise men spot and follow the star that leads them to Bethlehem; thousands are being baptised when Jesus comes to the river Jordan, and voice from heaven that declares him God’s son is unheard by most; and then when Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding at Cana, only catering staff know.
Revelation can come in unlikely ways, as it did for me last week. Tonight’s New Testament reading is from the letter to the Hebrews and features Melchizedek, a strange figure who meets Abraham on his travels, as we read first in the book of Genesis. He is a Gandalf-like figure, ‘without father, without mother…having neither beginning of days nor end of life’ (Hebrews 7.3); king ofSalem, he is also a priest. Fascinating – but what has he got to do with us? I resolved to preach about something else, but then I went for a beer at the White Cross. My companion was Martin Houghton-Brown, who worships here, and we talked about a range of stuff (we are both governors at Christ’s School) including the making of connections between faith and life; and then he said ‘Melchizedek’. When was that name last uttered in a pub in Richmond?
In some fairly involved argument, the writer to the Hebrews offers Melchizedek as a model, a type, for Jesus; and Martin did the same. Melchizedek, he said, is both a priest and a king, whereas in the rest of the Old Testament the offices are kept separate: the priests look after the correct worship of God and the king gets things done (often pretty badly) in the task of governing the tribes ofIsrael. This separation of powers, said Martin, we can see as a symbol of how we struggle to hold together religion and politics, work and worship, faith and life; in Jesus, however, the two offices are unified once more. The New Testament sees Jesus as both our high priest – that’s the big image in the letter to the Hebrews – and as king: ‘Where is he that is born king of the Jews?’ ask the wise men, for instance (Matthew 2.2). So if God is seeking to perfect the image of Christ in each of us, to make us more like Jesus, then it’s his kingliness as well as his priestliness that needs to be shaped in us. But what does that mean?
We are familiar with the priesthood of all believers, the idea that because of Jesus no-one needs a priest to communicate with God for them – clergy are (mostly) useful to have, but each of us has the authority to speak to God and for God. But what about the kingship of all believers? Or, as kings are always men, let’s call it the sovereignhood of all believers?
Kings and queens historically have been people who wield power, make decisions, affect the lives of others by what they do. So if we can be like Jesus in approaching God, so we are to be like Jesus in the rest of life, in the tasks we undertake and the decisions we make, for God cares about those aspects of our lives as well as what we do in church – obvious when you say it, but we need to keep hearing it because the Church is not always good at this. Someone once said to my theological drinking buddy that, before he thought about what we might call the Melchizedek doctrine, he’d always felt apologetic about his work, as though that part of him didn’t really belong in church; ‘But now,’ he said, ‘I don’t need to be.’
We know all this, but we don’t always show it. Intercessions can spend a lot of time praying for the internal life of the church – which is right – but rather less time praying for the world which the church seeks to serve. When we talk of vocation, it’s usually about ministry within the church, and perhaps the so-called caring professions – teaching and healthcare, for instance – as if one is more acceptable to God than the other, one holy and the other profane. Underlying it, I suspect, is an assumption that one sphere is about self-sacrifice, while the other is about greed and ambition, but if you talk to people who actually work in the caring professions (or even in the church) they will tell you that their world has its greed and ambition too. And why shouldn’t some feel a vocation to go into manufacturing, as another might to be a midwife?
Be more like Jesus who is both priest and king.Here in Richmond Team Ministry, we try: we gather to pray here not just on Sundays but at 8.30 on working weekday mornings (and there is room for more); we have a contemplative prayer group and a Christianity at Work group; tomorrow night there is first the prayer group and then an information evening about becoming a Street Pastor, befriending the people who throng our late-night streets in Richmond. You might say that this last one is quite a ‘priestly’ activity, except that it’s not done in sacred space but in the middle of the boisterous night economy of our town. Last Sunday we hosted a meeting about the plight of modern Bethlehem, and there was a voice of protest at the meeting because we allowed as church – a church – to be used for a political meeting on a controversial subject; this I took to be a kind of compliment. Finally, we are launching a stewardship initiative. Part of the aim is to increase giving to the church, but the only proper way to tackle that is within the bigger question of money in life and in the world: it’s all God’s, whatever you spend it on, for ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’ (Psalm 24.1).
Jesus, said the great Roman Catholic theologian Alfred Loisy, proclaimed the Kingdomof God– the kingdom in which all things comes together: justice, forgiveness, healing, being at one with God. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, said Loisy, but what came was the church. If the church becomes an end in itself, or an alternative to the world, it unchurches itself. When, if only for a moment, it is a sign of what the world might become, then it is indeed holy, catholic and apostolic (as the Apostles’ Creed says). The effect of splitting the two is serious. It means that we contribute to a state things in which – to take an extreme case – Richard Desmond at the Leveson Enquiry claims not to know what the word ethics means. More commonly, it creates the doublethink that sees religious activity as in some way sealed off from rest of life. In my last job, in which I interviewed candidates for ordination, I would be wary if anyone seemed to be seeking priesthood as a way of escape from the world. Take refuge from the world in church, and eventually the world will break in (as happened literally at our sister church St Matthias); and, after all, it was for the sake of world that Christ came.
I don’t believe in New Year resolutions, but here are two: first, to get into the habit of praying to God about every aspect of life – shopping, earning, caring for children or parents, all those places where you and I do have some power to get things done and affect the live of others; and secondly, to make a bit of a fuss – courteously – if what is on offer here is not helping you make connections between faith and the rest of life. Here we worship Jesus ‘the image of the invisible God,
for by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. And in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1.17)