Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Different Kind of Priest

This ‘King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him’; and to him Abraham apportioned ‘one-tenth of everything’. His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is also king of Salem, that is, ‘king of peace’. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever.
See how great he is! Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils. And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood—for the people received the law under this priesthood—what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of him,
‘You are a priest for ever,
   according to the order of Melchizedek.’
  -- Hebrews 7:1-17
Melchizedek is an unusual character who appears without fanfare. He was not an Israelite yet he worshipped God rather than the many gods of the people of the area.  This "king of righteousness" was outside the normal priestly line which was passed from father to son among the Israelites but he still acted as a priest in blessing Abraham and accepting Abraham's tithe of the booty acquired from those who had been overcome in battle. Then Melchizedek just fades from the scene as quietly as he arrived, yet leaving a lasting impact on not just Abraham but on the priesthood and the very concept of priesthood itself.
Today we usually we think of a priest as someone set apart, a person who has been ordained in a particular "line" going back to the apostles which we call the apostolic succession. We think of a  priest as a person who conducts worship, accepts gifts offered to God and blesses the people through not just the act of blessing itself but through the sacramental rites which priests perform like baptism and Eucharist. They also have duties such as running a church, teaching, preaching, visiting the sick and a whole list of other duties we consider to be the province of the clergy even though some of that can legitimately be done by the laity. Somehow priests are different, not like ordinary people, even though they do put their pants (and trousers) on one leg at a time, just like everybody else. When priests get in trouble it’s often more upsetting than if the person had been a banker, a doctor, or even a teacher. It’s that chrism of ordination that makes them special, sets them apart and calls them to a higher standard. When that chrism fails, it isn’t just our faith in priests that is shaken; sometimes it is our faith in the church or even in a God who would allow a person dedicated to God’s service to behave in such an unthinkable way.
We sometimes refer to Jesus as our great high priest yet he was not an official priest. He was not  ordained, a member of the tribe of Levi, the tribe chosen at the time of Moses to be the religious leaders, or a kohanin, a Levite and a direct descendant of Aaron. Jesus was outside that hereditary priesthood yet he had a priesthood of his own, a ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and blessing. But even though Jesus was the Son of God, he was still very human and, as such, he opened something for us that Luther and other reformers would later call the “Priesthood of All Believers,” the specialness of all of us baptized into the faith and given a charge to follow Jesus.
I’ve been re-reading a book by L. William Countryman called Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All*. I’d read it several years ago and it knocked my socks off. Reading it again tells me it still has the same impact. His thesis is that all baptized Christians are priests according to the order of Melchizedek, not just those who have undergone the training and the ceremony of ordination. We, like Melchizedek, don't have to be part of a priestly clan, don't even have to be ordained in order to act on our priesthood in the world. Each of us has some knowledge that we can pass on to others who don't already have that knowledge, and each of us can be of service to others and allow others to be of service to us. It's not an option, it's actually a fulfillment of our baptismal covenant and it's also part of what a priest does, something we ourselves can do, collar or no collar.
I've never felt a call to the sacramental (ordained) priesthood but neither have I ever really felt that I was, in Countryman's terminology, a “foundational” priest, a believer who has a priesthood bestowed at baptism. . Still, now that I’ve had a chance to take it all in, it's now a job I have to take seriously. I never thought of my job as a mentor in EfM as a form of priesthood, but, as Countryman assures me, the way I share my experience with the intersection of the sacred and the profane, encouraging those I mentor to look for the borders of the holy in their lives and to live into whatever ministry God calls them is not just a ministry but my job as a priest. It's an awesome responsibility, and a joyous one. I wonder if Melchizedek had a similar feeling when he blessed Abraham?  What is going to be harder is seeing myself in the role of foundational priest in the world outside EfM, in the world where I do my daily living and interaction with people outside the church.
As a result of the book, I'm more conscious of trying to live where the holy touches everyday life and also my responsibility to those with whom I come in contact. Like Melchizedek, I may stand outside the ordained priesthood, but I stand in a circle of priests that surrounds and supports the ordained. I have a ministry (or perhaps several ministries) and a duty given me at my baptism. Perhaps if I gave more thought to my own priesthood, I might find a deeper sense of personal value and also a sense of purpose as well as an understanding of how I can bless and serve others while offering the best I have to God.
Hmmm.  "A priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." I guess not just clergy can lay claim to those words, can they?  It definitely has a ring to it, but it also has a challenge. Now to figure out how to live it out. Living on the border of the holy can be a tricky, but with God's help, I can do it. It will just take some practice. Melchizedek found it, and now it's my turn.
*Countryman, L. William, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. (1999) Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, May 15, 2013. 

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