St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Passion Sunday, April 3, 2022
“Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
AN UGLY CROWD had gathered around the man dressed simply and speaking clearly, standing in the middle of them, answering them calmly, but with a growing edge to His answers and questions. “Can any of you cite some sin I have committed? And if I’m speaking only truth to you, why is it you don’t believe me? If you’re such holy people, you should understand God’s message to you, but you don’t understand at all. Don’t claim to be God’s people.”
Things had already gotten this far, with people who religiously believed themselves sinless. He had called Himself the light of the world, and offered Himself as the answer to their darkness. Someone had heard rumors that Jesus’ father may not have been his real father. They asked about him. “If you knew me, you would know my father.” He declared to them, “If you live according to what I tell you, you will be my disciples, and you’ll know the truth that can set you free.”
His offer of freedom hit a sore spot, and they began claiming their heritage, and talking about Abraham as their father. He told them their actions and their unbelief made them children of the devil, not children of Abraham, and certainly not of God. It went from bad to worse.
Jesus could manage such a scene. He always knew the right thing to say. That doesn’t mean they would believe Him or come His way. Some would always believe Him, however. While the rabble shouted, a few would measure His words and actions, and conclude this was a man of God. And maybe He was just the One He claimed to be.
We might look at the conflicts our Lord got into and wonder why He didn’t conduct His campaign of saving people some other way. His words got people angry, and especially when He taught directly, and not by parables. But He didn’t come to convince the world by teaching moral principles and lessons from their history. He came for one purpose. His role had been laid before Him since before the world ever was. Jesus was to be a priest. He was an offering, and a priest, and the seal on a new and perfect covenant with God and humankind.
The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks at length about His priesthood and the old and new sacrificial systems. Its pages speak the likeness of Christ’s priesthood and that of old Melchizadek, the king and priest of Salem, who Abraham tithed to. Priests aren’t always Christian. The word is generic. It means one who offers the sacrifice. And sacrifice always means that something is given to God, and when given, some of it never comes back.
Abraham made sacrifices to the God who spoke to him and led him south, away from family and countrymen. This God promised Abraham land, and by his barren wife descendants, and by one descendant God would bless the entire world. Abraham offered lambs and goats. And his descendants continued to offer yearlings from the flocks they kept.
Until one day. While the lambs were being blessed, received and slaughtered for the Passover meal that Friday night, high on a hill overlooking the spectacle three crosses stood at noonday. On the center cross, hung the man who had said such wonderful things, and had raised a great many followers, and a great many more enemies. The enemies seemed to be getting their way, but this wasn’t their day. It was His.
Hebrews tells that the blood of bulls and goats in sacrifice to God did confer a kind of ritual purity on those who would worship that way. But how much more did the Blood of Christ, a perfect man, make us clean when offered willingly on the altar of His cross? And when we receive it in faith, he cleans our consciences of all we’ve done that does not glorify Him. Now He has cleared the way by a perfect sacrifice, as our true High Priest, and we see the One promised to Abraham, a descendant who blesses the whole world, and is offered up to win us the inheritance of eternal life.
The priesthood always sounds like something done by specially trained professionals and ministers of the religion of which we are members, but up there, up on the dais, at the altar, while we sit in pews and pray our prayer requests to God. A priest buys starched white collars and black suits, robes and tassels and stoles and big crosses. They make signs over us and say the special words. They are called “father” and made much of. But the priesthood is not exclusively the profession of seminarians, the 1% of men who feel a special call on their lives. If perfection is the grid, only Christ may be our priest. Yet if the scripture is to be believed, well…
St. Peter writes to us, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” 1 Peter 2:9 And St. John, in Revelation, says that He has made us kings and priests to reign on earth. With other similar passages, we find that none of us will continue as we were. There is a call on all our lives. We are to offer a sacrifice, and that’s not the job of the clergy.
A priest is made a priest when he, or she, is called by God to join Him in sacrifice. A decision is made to answer in affirmative, and give one’s life for Him. The Virgin Mary’s answer to the angel made the way to save us all, and set her life apart, holy, entirely misunderstood by her people, and all people. But she only sang, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord!” Can women be priests? It is exactly in this kind of priesthood that women, and men, and all people are to enter: a new priesthood.
We are called. We enter training, and we find out what this all means. When we are ready, we come to the ceremony of consecration, which in this faith is holy Baptism. The waters over our head cleanse us from our former sin, and the oil of chrism seals us in the way of the cross. All Christians are made holy through this rite of passage. And now it’s time for us to make the sacrifice.
In old times, it was a perfect lamb, or a bull, or turtledoves, or some other food item that is partially lost, and partially set aside as holy food. A fellowship offering, or waive offering, is something given up to God, then cooked, and then given back to the people at worship so they might sit down with God and share a holy meal, meat offered to Yahweh, blessed by Him. The shewbread was eaten by the priests alone.
In this new covenant, like the professional priest offers up bread and wine at the altar of our church, to be blessed and made holy by ceremony and prayers, rendering these elements, by His promise, holy food, Christ’s body and blood for us to eat and drink: just so, the Christian priest-king that you are is to offer a sacrifice already specified, one He asks you for. Are you ready to give Him that precious gift? What is it? Every Sunday School child knows already. Ask them. “I give Him my heart.”
We give Him our heart, our life, our souls, ourselves. In this exchange, we become the holy people, a kingdom of priests, who have offered the sacrifice we owe to Him. And so we do. He takes the sacrifice, our heart, our soul, our life, and He transforms it by entering us with His Holy Spirit, sanctifying us, enlightening us, filling us with merciful graces, making us new creatures. Is that all?
No. Just as the priest takes the consecrated Eucharistic elements down from the altar, to pass bread and offer the chalice to waiting lips and hands at the rail, we take our new selves out into our world to offer others what He gives us, a new life, new thoughts, new and better ways to do what we do. That’s the completed sacrifice, the whole priesthood: to be called, prepared, consecrated, offer sacrifice, then share our transformation with all those God sets in our path. It is priesthood with a small ‘p’ if you will. But it’s the rock bed of Christianity. Without that transaction by all our members, a priest or a bishop can waive his arms up here alone and signify nothing.
Jesus stood among so many who had been given all of God’s best training for the moment, and nearly all of them failed to see their chance. “We’re right to call you a Samaritan, and a demonized nut, aren’t we?” He took it in stride. “I’m not after glory, but if you only listened and followed me, you would never see death.”
You can’t talk to an angry crowd with expectation to reason with them. Jesus had no vain expectations, but His followers took note of the argument He was having and wrote it down for us to read and understand.
“We’re convinced now that you’re crazy and possessed. Abraham is dead, and the prophets, and you say you have power over death? Who do you think you are?”
Jesus said, “I know my Father, and am known by Him. Your father is not Abraham, it’s clear, because you renounce me. Abraham saw my day and was happy to know me.”
They snatched this chance to criticize this mysterious claim, telling Him he wasn’t even fifty, but He knew Abraham? He answered, as a priest, as the great sacrifice and the one who offers Himself for the truth: “I tell you this as absolutely true: Before Abraham was ever born, I AM.”
The ever-living Son of the Living God has spoken truly. We exist because He has always existed. And all we can do, the greatest thing we can do is to make our lives His. This is our priesthood, and the beginning of a new life.