Collect for Trinity XVIII
ALMIGHTY God, in our baptism you adopted us for your own. Quicken, we pray, your Spirit within us,
that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Job 23, Vv 1 - 9 & 16 - 17
Hebrews 4, Vv 12 - 16
St Mark 10, Vv 17 - 31
I take for my text some words from this morning’s Epistle, part of the 16th verse of the fourth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews: ‘Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace.’ The origins of this Epistle are something of a mystery. For many years scholars thought that this was the work of Saint Paul and if you look at its title in the Authorised Version of the Bible of 1611 you will see that it says, ‘The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews’. The earliest autographs are anonymous and the letter has no traditional opening and closing passages such as we find in many of Paul’s epistles and which was the normal practice among writers in the early centuries. Today it is generally accepted that it contains neither Paul’s style nor his thoughts. Indeed, it may never have been written as a letter; it is possible that it was a sermon or an address, perhaps presented on some formal occasion. The writer claims to have known Timothy and he concludes by suggesting that the letter was written in Italy, thus possibly in Rome. Unlike some other New Testament books, Hebrews is written in polished Greek, by someone who knew their Jewish scriptures very well. The version of these scriptures that the writer seems to use is the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew texts into Greek, written in Alexandria and dating from about the third century BC. The writer is thus probably a Hellenistic Jew of the Dispersion, the Diaspora, but one who had thoroughly thought through his Christian faith in relation to Judaism. The author spends much time examining Temple worship, priests and sacrifices. Since, in this regard, he makes no mention of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, at the end of the Judeo-Roman war of AD66-70, the epistle may possibly have been written in the early 60s, just before the start of the Neronian persecution of Christians.
The big question posed within this letter is – how can human beings approach God? It can be argued that few questions are more important or more universal in application. One commentator writes that it is this concern that gives this undeniably difficult epistle its lasting significance. It was written for a group of Christians who seem to be in half a mind about reverting to Judaism. The writer compares and contrasts the personhood and achievements of Jesus Christ with the priesthood of the Old Testament with its attendant sacrificial system. Jesus is not only incomparably better and greater than all of these but he is the ultimate realisation of all they stood for. He is the perfect priest offering the perfect sacrifice. Through his death on the cross he has finally and absolutely removed the barrier of sin and given people access to God in a way that the ancient Jewish sacrificial system never could. To the writer the thought that any convert to Christianity could possibly wish to revert to the old Jewish ways, to an inferior, substitute system, back to a proven failure, was to be avoided at all costs.
Having explained the reasoning behind the acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God, the author of the epistle moves on, in chapters four and five, to explain that Jesus is also our great high priest. This is a title that is given him nowhere else in the New Testament. We know from our reading of the Book called Exodus that Moses’ brother Aaron was appointed by God as the first high priest of Israel. He was thus the intermediary between sinful man and a holy God, a sort of go-between, who represented each to the other. At the time of writing, assuming, of course, that the Jerusalem Temple hadn’t fallen, the Jews would still have had a high priest: we read the names of Annas and Caiaphas in this role in the passion narratives. This, then, was the ancient system to which some Jewish Christians seemed to wish to return. But, the writer of Hebrews says, ‘Beware!’ In Christ we have an high priest who not only fulfils all the statutory requirements of the Law, in that he too is an advocate between God and man, but he is far more than that. He is perfect and has no need to atone for his own sin before the Father. He is the perfect high priest appointed by God as mediator for all time.
How then, does this mediation for all time, work? The closing words of Saint Matthew’s Gospel tell us, ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ These words were probably not written by Matthew but the sentiment that they express is unambiguous. The Gospels are unclear as to just how long Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted. The Synoptics suggest about one year while Saint John clearly opts for at least three. In that time Jesus taught his followers, especially those referred to as disciples, many things. However, one thing was certain; he told them that he came from God and to God he would return. One day he would depart from this earth and his miraculous, incarnate presence would no longer be with them. This would have seemed to have been the normal course of events, as understood by the disciples; all humans eventually die. Jesus knew differently. He wanted to be with and available to his followers and his disciples for all ages; and not just those whose time on earth coincided with his. Jesus came to establish a new Kingdom of God on earth and, as I have mentioned before and using some words from Michael Grant’s book called simply ‘Jesus’, ‘everything he said and did was entirely subordinated to this dominant theme.’ This Kingdom of God was not to be some transitory, passing phenomenon, existing only while Christ was here on earth. Although he doesn’t use the word church – in fact the word only appears twice in the Gospels, and both of those in Matthew – Jesus did expect his disciples, who later became his apostles, to spread the Good News. The word Gospel means ‘Good News’. Thus a church once founded would attract a following, a membership. By the end of the first century there would be almost no members who personally knew Jesus. Yet to these new generations he had to be exactly what he had been to those with whom he walked and talked. The secret was, of course, revealed in what we refer to as the Last Supper.
We must be careful how we treat this event. It was not, as one scholar has defined it, Jesus the priest celebrating the First Mass of the Last Supper. Yes, he was the great high priest, and yes, it is the duty and responsibility of God’s priests to celebrate the Mass, or the Holy Eucharist, or the Holy Communion, or whatever name you wish to give this sacrament. But that was not what Jesus did in the upper room on the eve of his crucifixion. He clearly gave his chosen disciples detailed instructions of the practical procedures that they were to follow when he was no longer with them. It is important to record that these were the same men, with the obvious exception of Judas Iscariot, who would become his apostles and leaders of the nascent church after they had received their commission from the risen Lord on the evening of the Day of Resurrection, and had been authorised and empowered by the indwelling of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit of God, at Pentecost. In the words of Institution, words that have been said and heard down the centuries, and words that are fundamental to every celebration of the Holy Mysteries, Jesus said, ‘do this in remembrance of me.’ It is that part of the Prayer of Consecration that we call the anamnesis. An anamnesis is, ‘a recalling for the worshiping community of past events in the tradition of their faith’. Thus we are brought into direct contact with the actual events that Christ, God’s High Priest, initiated on the night before he died. A remembrance, an anamnesis, is not the same as a remembering. One theologian has described it thus: ‘It is not sufficient to say that this mystery is a way of remembering the past, as if one were recalling the Coronation of the Queen. By this liturgical mystery we are actualising the past event, making it present, so that the saving power of Christ is made available to the worshipper in the here and now.’ We are not in this Holy Sacrament merely remembering the events of that Thursday night of so long ago: we are taken back in faith to Christ’s very words and actions – they apply to us today just as they did to that frightened handful of disciples. It is as if that upper room has been transported through space and time to Gruline, this morning, and Jesus says to each one of us, ‘This is my body – this is my blood.’ Can we imagine that? Two thousand years are stripped away and Christ is present with us this morning just as he was present in that heavily overcrowded, Passover Jerusalem. Just as he said to his disciples, he says directly to each one of us, ‘This is my body – this is my blood – do this in remembrance of me.’
It is impossible to overstress the importance and significance of this sacrament in the life of the church and its members. As I have said, Mother Church gives us occasion on Maundy Thursday to celebrate the Institution of the Holy Eucharist. She also gives us opportunity to give thanks to God for the Holy Sacrament itself, and this we do on the Feast of Corpus Christi, which is always held on the Thursday immediately following Trinity Sunday. We must learn, in the words of the Collect for that Feast of Corpus Christi, ‘to venerate the sacred mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood so that we may perceive within ourselves the fruits of his most glorious redemption.’ But this is not something that we do with timidity or diffidence or nervousness. On the contrary, it is an action that we do with enthusiasm, eagerness and devotion. Christ, our great High Priest, says, ‘this is my Body, this is my Blood – do this in remembrance of me.’ Let us then heartily, earnestly and enthusiastically follow the injunction given to us by the author of the wonderful Epistle to the Hebrews and, approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may, within the consecrated elements here offered, receive mercy and grace.
Click here to listen to Sermon
Click here for Home page