In 2017, I want to be known for identifying with people who are both like and unlike me.
It strikes me that 2016 was a year where many people became very keen to sort themselves into groups, groups that are founded on difference. Groups that allow hostility and fear to increase. Groups that allow people to not identify with others.
The thing is, as a Christian, I feel called to do the opposite.
Yesterday (that is, 1 Jan 2017) one of the readings in the revised common lectionary was Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 10 to 18. The passage talks about how Jesus became our great high priest, and that it was “fitting” that he was made perfect through suffering. As the author of Hebrews puts it in verse 10:
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. (NIVUK)
That might sound a bit abstract and counter-intuitive, but when you unpack it, the message is profound.
You see, the author of Hebrews would have understood the role of a priest to be one of mediation: they were to represent people before God and God before people. Tom Wright describes a priest as being like an angled mirror: when God looks, he sees us; when we look, we see God. Priests are reconcilers, peacemakers, between two estranged parties.
In the Old Testament, the priests were people who offered animal sacrifices as a way of removing people’s guilt and sin. Now, it’s certainly true that some people find this image of animal sacrifice quite uncomfortable. But perhaps that is the point. Like Jesus being crucified on the cross, the image is not admired or considered good for its own sake, but rather for the reconciliation that was achieved through it.
In broad terms, the role of a priest was to bring people who were outside covenant relationship with God, into covenant relationship. Sin and guilt put people outside; removing that sin made them clean again, even holy. And that’s the ministry that the sons of Aaron had. However, this task of bringing people into covenant relationship with God was, actually, one that had been given to the whole of Israel.
The Jews were meant to be a holy people, not a people with a holy priesthood.
The problem was, they rejected this calling. By the first century AD, the Jews had distinguished themselves by becoming what you might call a “holy huddle”. Everything was about how they were different: how they dressed differently, how they ate differently, how they celebrated different festivals and holy days. This built up a hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles, one which Paul writes about in Ephesians chapter 2. And, perhaps more to the point, this behaviour made it impossible for them to act as priests in a broad sense.
We sometimes think of the Jews in Jesus’ time as being hung up on the letter of the law of Moses because we know they undermined the spirit of the law and perpetrated injustices. But we need to be clear about the context of this behaviour. It was not that the law itself was bad (Romans 7:12), though the law was undeniably limited (Hebrews 7:18). Rather, the problem was that the Jews used the law in a way that stopped them from being intermediaries to the Gentiles.
You see, I don’t think it’s enough just to identify with the holiness of God. A priest brings reconciliation by also identifying with the identity of the person or people seeking covenant relationship with God. When the Jews focussed on how they could not, would not, identify with the Gentiles, they became unable to ‘dual identify’ and act as priests.
And Jesus had a big problem with that.
He knew that covenant relationship with God was not meant to be exclusive or elitist; it was meant to be inclusive of all people and the whole of creation.
And so, as prophesied, Jesus came to act as a high priest, not just for Israel, but for all people (Isaiah 49:6).
And the remarkable thing is that even though Jesus was a first century, Jewish man, he can serve as a legitimate representative and intermediary for each and every person on the earth. Not just because he was human, but also because he identified with our suffering. That’s what makes him the perfect high priest.
For sacrifice is where holiness and suffering meet.
So as I go into 2017, I want to meet and identify with people who are both like and unlike me.
This isn’t about me becoming someone I’m not, or trying to make other people someone they’re not. It’s about meeting people on their terms, where both similarities and differences help us relate. It’s about coming to understand the nature of their suffering, even if it’s not something I will ever experience in the same way. It’s about listening to the Holy Spirit and praying with the Spirit, so that my actions bear the fruit of gentleness and self-control.
This is a priestly work.
I won’t do it because I’m entitled to do it or because I’m forced to do it. I’ll do it because God does it, because God loves to do it. I’ll do it because he has made – is making, will make – me able and worthy of doing it.
And I’ll do it knowing I am one within a wider family. Knowing I am one within a royal priesthood.
Will you join me?
Hebrews 2:11: Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. (NIVUK)
On a similar topic, I’ve also blogged about the great invitation at the end of Revelation 22, as well as (on another site) what it is to “share” – rather than “tell” – the gospel in a post called “A call to Hope”.