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Priests, Protestants and Me

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take Aaron and his sons with him, the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the whole congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
Leviticus 8:1-3 (NRSV)

Aaron was Moses’ right-hand man, and it was Aaron and his sons who were chosen to be the priests in the sacrificial system of the ancient Hebrews. In today’s chapter, God through Moses takes Aaron and his sons through a ritual of ordination to become priests. It is a long ritual filled with metaphor from their priestly vestments to a little dab ‘ill do ya of blood on the ear lobe.

A priest is a mediator between God and man. A priest stands in the spiritual gap. The priest represents God to humanity and represents humanity before God. A priest is spiritually elevated and ordained to handle and serve the sacrifice, to carry our prayers into the presence of the Almighty, and to bestow forgiveness and absolution to the common sinner.

Among Christian institutions, the priesthood is one of the major differences between Roman Catholicism (and Greek Orthodox and Anglican) and the Protestant denominations. Protestants believe that since Jesus death and resurrection there is only one priest and mediator, and it is Jesus:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. Hebrews 4:14

“For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all….” 1 Timothy 2:5

Three of the four gospel writers report that when Jesus died the curtain in the Hebrew temple was torn in two. That curtain separated people from the area of the temple where God resided. Only the priest could enter. When the curtain was torn, the way was made for anyone to enter into God’s presence. Jesus was the sacrifice, the mediator, and the priest who stands in the gap.

In my Protestant circles, we think very little of the role of a priest anymore. I have, however, observed along my journey that Protestants often like to unwittingly bestow priestly powers on our pastors and spiritual leaders. It seems there is something innately human about doing so despite what we say we believe.

This morning I’m mulling over my own understanding of the role of priests, the work of Jesus and what that means. The ultimate sacrifice has been made. The curtain is torn. The way is open for me to enter into God’s presence. I need no other emissary, or representative, or priest. I need only approach.

Will I?

 

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“Haves” and “Have Nots”

temple curtain tornSo he measured the area on all four sides. It had a wall around it, five hundred cubits long and five hundred cubits wide, to separate the holy from the common.
Ezekiel 42:20 (NIV)

We talk a lot in our culture about the “haves” and “have nots.” With a presidential election gearing up, we’re going to have plenty more inundation of pundits and politicos barking and bantering about social equality, racial equality, financial equality, and gender equality.  I believe the never ending struggle within to place ourselves above others, to suppress others, and to criticize and belittle those who look, think, act, and believe differently is evidence of what took place in the Garden of Eden. It is first and foremost a spiritual problem.

Religion also has its share of “haves” and “have nots.” The reality is that organized religion has proven over history to illustrate the very thing it says it’s trying to resolve. The sin problem manifests itself acutely in the very people and institutions who try to address it. We see a hint of the issue in today’s chapter.

The temple was arranged, by design, with areas for the “holy” and the “common” or “unholy.” Over time this separation of the “holy” from the “unholy” created social strata which resulted in all sorts of social issues. The Jews of Jesus’ day were notorious for taking on a mantel of holiness which publicly covered the darkness in their souls, and placing themselves above others. Jesus reserved his hottest, most righteous anger for the most religious people:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” Matthew 23:23-28 (MSG)

It was this problem that Jesus’ came to address. The parable of the Good Samaritan is core to what Jesus was about, which is to actually, tangibly love those who think, speak, look, act, and believe differently. To love even those who hate you and consider you their enemy. To place others ahead of ourselves.

In the Hebrew temple was a giant curtain that hid the “holy of holies” from the “holy place.” It was a place where only the high priest was allowed and only on certain occasions. Three of four of Jesus’ biographers (Matthew the tax collector, John Mark, and Dr. Luke) record that when Jesus died on the cross that curtain in the temple split right down the middle. No more separation. No more religious “haves” and “have nots.” Jesus came to be the sacrificial lamb, to pay the penalty for our sin, so that holiness would be available to anyone who wants it – not based on what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, think or don’t think, but based on Jesus simply making it available as an undeserved gift.

It is what we do with that gift, or rather what it does in us, that makes the difference.

Chapter-a-Day Mark 15

This is a diagram of the Biblical tabernacle o...
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And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Mark 15:38 (NLT)

For those unfamiliar with the larger story of God’s Message, this obscure reference in the middle of today’s chapter makes little sense. When God gave Moses the blueprints for the Temple back in the book of Exodus, it included an inner room that was blocked off by a huge curtain. It was behind that curtain that God’s presence resided and it was considered so holy that only the high priest could go behind the curtain, and he could only do it once a year to make atonement for the sins of the people. The word picture was obvious and powerful. There was a separation between God and man and no man could stand before God in His holiness.

When Jesus died, that curtain was mysteriously and miraculously torn in two. Once again, the word picture is both obvious and powerful. With the death of Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God, the penalty for sin was paid once for all. There was no longer any separation between man and God – not because of anything man did to earn God’s favor, but because of what God did to pay the penalty of humanity’s flaws.

Today, as I look forward to Christmas, I’m thankful for God who sent his Son. A baby, born in the most humble of circumstances, who would eventually give Himself up to a cruel death to make a way for me to enter through the curtain of eternity.