John 18:33–37 (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
As we head into the holiday season, we begin by remembering the things of which we give thanks. This is one of the greatest traditions in all of America, and is a tradition that is really unique to our culture. When I was in Ukraine and the students I worked with were curious about our culture, the most common question after how much money I had was, “What is Thanksgiving?” How would you answer that question? We say that it is a religious holiday, but has never been a day universally recognized by the greater church body. That being said it does have a spiritual dimensions to it. If we practice it properly we slow down our lives and reflect on things that have true meaning in our lives. Oddly enough the secular and religious communities seem to consider the same things as important on that day, because it is the busiest period of time for travel. And people travel to meet with family and friends. I want us to consider Thanksgiving, as we reflect on this passage today. The activities that we participate in and why it is that we do those things.
I said that the universal church does not necessarily consider this holiday to be one of their liturgical holy days, but that does not mean that the roots do not have spiritual meaning. The first thanksgiving, the one we learned about in grade school, is a day that the pilgrims celebrated the harvest with the indigenous people of America. The reason they celebrated the harvest was because they were puritans, and the puritans were a group of people that attempted to conform all of life around scripture. They were deeply devoted people, and they only celebrated holidays that were listed in scripture. And the holiday that they were celebrating was a form of the Feast of Booths. This particular holiday in ancient days was a feast that lasted seven days, seven because when God commands a celebration He intends that we really celebrate. But this holiday was to remind the people of their exodus and wanderings, how they lived in tents and shared all that they had because all they had was a direct gift from God. As they moved away from the exodus this festival became one of great importance, they were commanded to leave their house for a week, set up camps, and to share the fruits of their harvest. It was a festival that celebrated the end of the growing cycle, and the abundance that was given to them. During this festival all people were considered equal all were wanderers in the world and if someone wandered to your tent they were treated as a guest and were asked to join in your feast. The first thanksgiving was an attempt at recreating this festive atmosphere where we are mindful that all that we have is a blessing from God and it is not to be hoarded but shared.
Today we read a passage that does not seem too festive. Most of us would not choose to read a passage about a trial that would eventually lead to an execution as something to highlight a time to be thankful, but this is actually a beautiful passage. I will be honest, it has been hard for me to focus on one central theme because as I have studied the passage left me sitting in awe. I have found myself reading and then caught up in the words, unable to move forward because the Spirit of God urged me to just consider what is being said more fully. It has been a week filled with reflection.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks to opens the conversation. This is a loaded question, because no matter how Jesus would answer it consequences would follow. Is he the king? Pilate is not asking if he is a rebel wishing to start a revolution, but he is honestly asking if Jesus is the hereditary king or ordained ruler of the Jewish people. The answer that Jesus gives is actually quite intriguing, “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” This is intriguing because it causes Pilate and everyone else that reads this passage to reconsider what was being said. Did Pilate consider Jesus the King of the Jews? Did he come to his own conclusion about the personality before him? Did the political power structure truly believe that Jesus was a threat to their status, or was this simply a case of jealousy by people attempting to maintain some semblance of power? By answering Pilate in this manner Jesus causes his questioner to contemplate not only his politics but also the actions of the man before him. He had to actually look at Jesus’ life and lifestyle, the way He lived and consider why Jesus did what he was doing. For the questioner there is no easy answer. Is He the king?
Pilate does not want to actually consider this, it challenges everything he knows in the world. Jesus did not act like anyone else he knew, he did not seek power yet He stood there accused. So Pilate says, “How should I know I’m not a Jew. But why have your own leaders sent you here?”
This is where this passage gets me. Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” This single verse is what caused me to stop and think for the past week. Words like fight, from, world, kingdom, and followers all seemed to lunge toward me leapt from the page and implant themselves into my mind. I realized I never really understood what was being spoken.
Imagine yourself in the conversation. Jesus is telling you these words. “My kingdom, what I find most important is not what you think. If it was I would have armed agents keeping me from being arrested. This is not about a debate or a championship bout, the things you spend your day investing in. What I find most important is not territory, power, or fame. I am interested in life.”
This is why this passage struck me as beautiful. It is a testimony of peace and freedom, but not because it has been liberated but because it is released. So often we think of our faith in Christ as a battle between good and evil, a war between what is right and wrong, but in our fights we can become distracted. Jesus says if my kingdom was the same as yours my followers would fight. The word fight used here is to describe a contest between athletes in an arena or a debate within a forum. These are the things that are important to the world. Connected to a “fight” in this sense of the word is fame, fortune, entertainment, and power. The idea of convincing people that you or your ideas are the most important or that you are the champion. It speaks of numbers, votes, status, and wealth everything that the world deems as being symbols of status and worth in a society. Jesus is saying if that is what I wanted you could not have touched me, but that is not at all what is important. What is important is much deeper.
What then is his kingdom? If he is not interested in the fight, or the debate what is important? This is the heart of the feast of Thanksgiving. The feast of Booths and the day of thanksgiving revolves around everything Jesus came to bring us. A life of abundance, a life filled with joys of companionship. We gather in the dining rooms on a holiday for no other reason than to enjoy the company of other. We visit with the people that we do not have to fight with to be seen as acceptable.
In my family Thanksgiving was probably the most important holiday of the year. As I am speaking here today my family is making their way from Texas, Colorado, and all across Kansas to meet together in a small town in the middle of nowhere. My family has a wide range of political views, they have various careers, and differing ideas on religious practice (though predominately Quaker). But when it comes to family all those differences fall away. My salary is of no concern, my job only matters if it brings joy, and politics might make interesting conversation but they do not really care. The important thing is that we are there together. If we cannot be together someone will pick up a phone and everyone will yell their greetings. We eat, we laugh, we enjoy a game, and we sing. Everyone gives something and no one leaves without a deep sense of belonging.
His kingdom is not from the world. His kingdom is from something deeper, a place that connects us together in ways that go beyond the superficial. His kingdom is life. His kingdom revolves around our relationships with each other and with God. It removes all the things our society deems important. Everyone sits together equal, sharing what we have to encourage and bless those around us.
Pilate listens to Jesus as He basically told him that everything he stands for is pointless, and Pilate ask, “So you are a king?” Pilate missed the point. He acknowledge that Jesus had something great, that there was something that gave Jesus power over the people but he did not quite understand what the use of that power was for. He did not get it because he is a man from the world instead of a man dedicated to life. Jesus responds again saying that he came for one reason, to testify to the truth, and that everyone that belongs to truth hears his voice.
As I sat this week contemplating this passage, it occurred to me that often I am just like Pilate. I miss the point and I enter into the fights of the world. I engage in debates trying to convince those around me that my way of thinking is the right way and if they disagree they are wrong. I spend my time chasing after the things that hold value in society, a job title and the influence that that can bring as well as the income. That is why it struck me so hard. I toil and struggle wondering if I am a success or a failure, and all I really need is right here around me. It is in the screams of joy I hear when I walk through the door. It is in the songs of praise I lift up on a Sunday morning. It is in the shared meals that I have with friends and family every day of the week. The most important things are not the achievements or the gains but it is the things shared. It is the shared life and the holy rhythm that Jesus taught us a life of worship, prayer, and service. The life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is why Jesus came, he came to save us from the emptiness of the world so that we could know the truth of life. Life with Him and each other.
As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, let us reflect of the truth that Jesus brought us. Let us consider the life he wishes to give us, and let us be released to live the truth of Thanksgiving.
23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
There are very few things in life that are more stressful to people involved in any large organization than the change of leadership. In a corporation when there is a change of the CEO, most employees do not really notice, but if you are higher up within the company these changes are more stressful. I have been a part of two companies while there was a change in the Chief Executive. By in large it did not affect the day to day operations but there were subtle changes that emerged from the change of leadership. These subtle changes, the changes that occurred do to different leadership styles and vision of the future of the company greatly affected the overall perception of the company. When leadership changes there is a period of time where the future is unknown. This is the stressful part of change, this unknown aspect. Will they cut jobs? Will they institute changes that will affect my position? Will they improve the company or run it into the ground? It does not matter if the change in leadership is for a business, a nation, a school, or a church when there are changes at the top of the organization those vested in that organization wonder.
Most of us have worked under some sort of leader or manager at some point in our lives. When these changes have occurred the job we are required to do has not changed but there are subtleties that we recognize. They focus on different aspect of the job and at times it is an aspect that we were never concerned with before. When the focus changes, we either adjust or seek other options. But what happens when the change in leadership affects something beyond our personal income? What do we do when the change of leadership is at the top of the organization whose purpose and priority is connecting individuals to the divine? The writer of Hebrews is directing our attention to this very serious aspect of life.
Last week we began the discussion of Priests and how there really are not any contemporary officers that reflect this office. But there are offices within various religious organizations that do come close. The reason behind this is because the religious structure of the contemporary era does not reflect the various aspects of religion in the ancient days. The various priest of Israel served as conduits between God and mankind. The people would come to the priest bringing the various offerings and the priest would take those offerings, perform the various rites, and then the priest would offer the person the assurance that God would consider their petitions. But there was only one priest among the many priest that could go directly before the mercy seat of God. This one priest would carry the offering of the entire nation, would answer for the entire nation, and would carry the response of God to the people.
The lower priests would be in service for around twenty-five years, beginning their service at the age of twenty-five and then retiring at the age of fifty. But the high priest would serve beyond the age of fifty till he died. The office of the high priest was a hereditary office, but there were some restrictions. The heir to this office had to be pious, intelligent, kosher, wealthy, and for lack of better words good looking. They were to be the representatives of the people to God and God to the people so they had to be perfect. The problem is they were human and perfection is hard to come by, and at times the heir to this office did not quite fit the bill. It was the job of the Sanhedrin or the seventy-one most respected priest, to determine if the heir was acceptable and if they were not choose the next in line. And after Israel demanded a king the office of the High priest became a political office where the king as well as the Sanhedrin would have to approve the next successor.
The political aspect of the high priesthood became even more charged as time went on to the point that after the people of Israel returned from exile the political leaders would often choose the priest and the Sanhedrin would place them in office. The only thing that remained was that they had to be kosher, or follow the laws of God ceremonially.
This office, regardless of who filled the position, remained the only representative the people had before God, and was the representative of God to the people. As you can imagine this single person held great power, if they were corrupt the entire nation was corrupt and if they were pious the entire nation followed as well, because they alone stood before God. Yet this office was constantly vacated because people die. Every generation the person sitting in the office would change at least once, and as politics gained greater control over the religious aspects of life these changes could happen even more often.
This change in leadership is what the writer of Hebrews wants to direct our attention to. With each change the people could draw closer to God or fall further away. At times the office would be so corrupt that God would call a prophet from the midst of the people to rise up and speak out against the religious establishment to redirect the attention to what was really important. Which would change things for a while but the cycle would continue.
But Jesus the priest in the order of Melchizedek was different. He holds the office permanently, forever, even to the end of ages. Let that sink in for a moment. Just sit for a moment and consider why it is important for the writer of Hebrews to write the words, “but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
Our priest does not change. What does that actually mean to our spiritual lives?
Recently our yearly meeting had a significant leadership change, the highest position in our organization was vacated by one and we filled it with another. This could have great significance in the direction of the organization, but ultimately nothing has changed. There is only one priest and that priest has not changed. There is only one that stands between God the Father and us, Jesus.
This priest is holy, blameless, undefiled, separated and exulted. He is perfect in every way. He is the greatest representative of God to mankind because he came down from the throne of heaven to live among us. He is also the greatest representative of man to God because he was born and lived a full human life. He is God and Man able to speak for both at the same time.
But what does that mean to our spiritual lives?
Our priest does not change, even though our leaders do. This means that we should focus our attention on Jesus, study him and his ways. We should consider his teachings and listen to his words. If he is our priest we should appeal to him, and if he is our teacher we should follow his ways.
So often times we are distracted from this. We begin to look at the leaders of a church, the leaders of a denomination, or leaders of a nation even, and we want to rely on them to be the conduit for us. But we as leaders are not the priests. I cannot as a pastor take on the responsibility of your soul because I am not given that authority. I cannot through the mysteries of worship guarantee your salvation, because I do not have that authority. I am not the priest. The Superintendent of the Yearly Meeting is not the priest. The bishop of Canterbury, Rome, the metropolitan of Moscow, or the chairman of the Baptist convention are not the priest. If we are putting our faith in these people, expecting these men and women to provide for us the means of salvation we have misplaced our faith.
All I can do is encourage you to look to Christ. All I can do is walk with you as you discover more of Christ. All I can do is pray with you as you petition Christ. All I can do is pray that you will know Christ more fully and that you will allow the Spirit of God to flow through you. Here is the kicker though, that is all you can do as well.
We can strive to make our worship services more entertaining, but if we do not point people to the true priest we have done nothing. We can make doctrinal changes, appoint people to positions and educate people in the ways of our church, but if we do not point them to the true priest, Jesus, we are just an empty organization. We could sing songs of praise, have the greatest musicians in the world, but if they do not point us to Christ we are nothing.
All we do should be focused on Jesus because He is our salvation, He is our representative, He is our priest, and our God. Now how does that affect our spiritual lives?
Paul encourages us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. James encourages us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger because we are members of one another. John tells us that we know love by this that He laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. All of these teaching have one thing in common, they are reflections of the life and ministry of Jesus.
But how does that affect your spiritual life? Who are we putting our faith in? What are we putting out faith in? Who are we following? And who is following?
Jesus was born of Mary, live in the community, worked with Joseph, and became a man. He made it his custom to worship, He withdrew often to isolated places to pray, and he loved the people around him. He taught, fed, healed, and encouraged people to embrace a better life. He became human. And through his sacrifice we can become who we were meant to be.
We have one priest. Only one priest. Our priest is man and God perfectly and completely joined together for eternity, and our priest is calling each of us to follow him. And as we follow him we are to take on his life and lifestyle so that others might see him though us. Worship, Prayer and service; lives fully focused on him and his ways. We have only one priest.
As we enter this time of holy expectancy and communion with God as Friends consider more fully what Jesus our priest means.
Hebrews 1:1–4 (NRSV)
God Has Spoken by His Son
(Cp Jn 1:1–4)
1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Hebrews 2:5–12 (NRSV)
Exaltation through Abasement
(Cp Ps 8:1–9)
5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. 6 But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
8 subjecting all things under their feet.”
Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, 9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,
“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
There are many things that peak my interest. When new technologies come out I am interested in what has improved and what has stayed the same. I will spend time reading about the newest things just because what humans are capable of creating fascinates me. But the emerging technologies can eventually get a bit dry for me. I many get excited about these things when I am upgrading my phone, or when someone I know begins to consider a change. My brother and James could probably quote you the technical specifications of pretty much every device that is currently on the market and about to be released.
The other thing that really excites me is the latest news in genetic studies. I get a weekly newsletter that speaks about the various studies that are being published. Exciting things like the newest emerging vaccines and how they were able to zero in on the one aspect of a virus that would encourage immune response without causing illnesses. To let you know just how interesting this really is medical science is on the verge of finding a vaccine for HIV. The other aspect of genetics that excites me is in the form of agricultural sciences. Many get worried about the presence of genetically modified organisms in our food supply, but without many of these modifications many of the foods we consider staples for our diets would have become so expensive that we would not be able to eat them. Because like a vaccine for humans many of the genetic modifications in crops are modifications that prevent disease, diseases that could potentially cause worldwide famine.
There is one things that I find very fascinating, something that is not the associated with the latest emerging technologies, but instead is related to the ancient past. Ancient cultures, the religions and customs of people from ancient times. I can find myself reading article after article speaking on archeological discoveries. I am fascinated by the various theories people promote about various customs and how they emerged. But one thing that has always had me puzzled is how vastly different the majority of the ancient religions were from the religion promoted by the children of Abraham. I have several possible theories that I like to toy with late at night when I am unable to sleep, but as I consider the letter to the Hebrews something jumped out at me that excites me more than even a potential cure to HIV.
The letter to the Hebrews is one of those letters that we cannot confidently say was written by anyone in particular. Tradition would say that this letter was written by Paul, which many widely accept. But some believe that it could have been written by one of the lesser known apostles. There is something about the author that every scholar recognizes, whoever wrote this letter had a very good grasp of the interworking of the temple. Almost as if they had a firsthand knowledge of the sacrificial systems within the Jewish temple. By first hand I mean that it was likely written by someone that had a priestly background, someone that preformed the rites not just participated in them. Because of this many scholars have looked into the backgrounds of some of the known apostles of Jesus looking for someone that had both a strong grasp of the Greek language as well as a linage that would have placed them in the service of the temple. Of late the likely candidates other than Paul is Barnabas because it is widely believed that Barnabas was a Levite which would have placed him within the hereditary line of priests. This excites me because I have always thought that the most likely alternative to Paul as the author of this letter would have been James.
Why does this matter to us? It may not mean anything to us right at this moment, but Hebrews touches on some very deep aspects of Jewish theology and ancient understandings of how God spoke to the people. The letter begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” This is what began the excitement in my spirit. How did God speak in the ancient times? In most theological traditions of Christianity God did not indwell humanity during the periods of history before Jesus. God would send messengers or he would grant dreams or visions that would inspire people to speak, sometimes He would speak directly to them. I want us to focus on the messengers for a moment, because these are the spiritual beings that we see visiting the heroes of faith throughout the pages of the Old Testament. There are a couple of messengers we even know by name, Gabriel and Michael. Both of these spiritual beings are considered Archangels, or angels of the highest degree ones that report directly to God. Michael is considered the commander of the heavenly armies that protect the nation of Israel. Where Gabriel is the one that is the herald that speaks to humanity the proclamations of God. Michael met with Joshua and is the one that protected the body of Moses, Gabriel visited Mary to announce the birth of Jesus through her.
Why does this excite me? Because angels were and are considered powerful beings. They have wisdom and strength beyond that of humanity, they were the ones that in the ancient days before Christ were the direct liaisons between God and humanity. Because these being were wise and powerful beyond that of human understanding it would be tempting to consider these messengers to be gods. Which causes me to wonder could angels have visited other cultures, yet man in their fallen state misinterpreted as deities?
The writer of Hebrews begins by telling those that read this letter, in ancient days God spoke to the prophets in various ways but now He speaks to us through a Son through whom all worlds were created. This is important to consider because prior to Christ the oracles of God were brought by the messengers, they spoke to humanity thought direct visits, or through dreams, they spoke words of wisdom and warning, they protected individuals and the nation. These spiritual beings of wisdom and power were the conduit from which the understanding of God flowed. But now the author says we are connected to something even greater, we are connected to the very being through which all things were created. We are entering into a new age, an age humanity has not yet experienced, an age of Emmanuel.
Let us now move to the second section of scripture, “Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.” The age of Emmanuel, God with us, is not subject to the angels. These wise and powerful beings have a different role, they are no longer the conduit, and instead Christ the very Son of God has provided the way, the knowledge, and the wisdom of God to mankind. This implies that prior to Christ the angels governed the world and the nations.
Do you see what I see? The prophets speak of a spiritual battle that was waged between the angelic hosts, where one third fell and followed Lucifer, Satan, and the devil. Within this spiritual humanity was caught in the middle which the prophets of old say caused the fall of humankind. If these beings were appointed to govern and guide humanity prior to Christ, they then became the gods of all the fallen and depraved nations. They set themselves up as the objects of worship and lead humanity away from the one true God. But for a while God made himself a little lower than these angelic beings, He made himself human for a specific reason to restore humanity back to where they were to be.
Our created purpose was to be the stewards of creation, to manipulate what God has provided to bring praise to Him. But when those spiritual beings appointed to guide our paths rejected God they brought confusion into all of creation. Sin entered the world. Instead of using creation to bring praise to God we began to exploit creation to obtain our own agendas. The results bring death, pain, and sorrow. But Christ came to restore and redeem humanity and all of creation. He came to show us true life, and how to participate in that life. He came becoming the perfect human to provide us with the means and strength to overcome all the whiles of the fallen angels. Because He himself over came the only power the angelic beings lorded over us. They took life and brought in death, and Jesus removes the sting of death and transforms it into glory!
Where is this new age of which I speak? Why then do we not live in a world completely redeemed and restored? Why do we still struggle? That ancient battle still wages on between the spiritual forces, but they are being defeated. The gods of ancient Rome and Greece are no longer worshiped in temples but remain only in art and literature. The deities of Canaan and Babylon are only a dusty page of history. Those angelic beings that set themselves up as lords are now on the run and have cleverly hidden themselves within so many of the things we pursue, even things we perceive as honorable. They still have influence because they have influenced us for ages. We as humans must repent, turn from the things of this world and pursue God in Christ. We must actively pursue His life and lifestyle. Become a people that worship, pray, and serve. Become a nation that loves God, Embraces the Holy Spirt and Lives the Love of Christ with others. We must realign our lives to follow the pioneer of our faith, the hero that broke the chains that bound us in sin, and walk in the light of his Glory and Grace.