Title: The Priesthood of All Believers
Date: Oct 11, 2009
Text: Hebrews 4:12-16
Author: Chris Gooding
Two weeks ago, Jews around the world celebrated Yom Kippur for the year 5770. Since I’ve been trying to learn more about Jewish liturgy in order to aid in interpretation of the Old Testament (and to further inter-religious dialogue and to build relationships with local synagogues), I’ve recently been attempting to attend synagogue for the High Holy Days, a cluster of Jewish holidays that fall at the beginning of the Jewish year. My attempts to do this have been met with mixed success. I was able to attend synagogue for Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, with one of my friends, but I was out of town for Sukkot, and my attempt to attend Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a spectacular failure. This is because Day of Atonement services have something in common with Christmas services: just as many nominal Christians attend church services only during Christmas, many secular Jews attend synagogue only on Yom Kippur. This means that it isn’t unusual for synagogue attendance to double or even triple in size during the holiday, which is often more volume than local synagogues can handle. Many synagogues solve this problem by selling tickets for the event, and these sometimes get quite pricey, as they tickets technically cover all High Holy Day events (one local synagogue puts a $200 price on its tickets). So, as I was strapped for cash and came to this information quite late, securing tickets was near-impossible. However, despite the fact that I failed to attend a Day of Atonement service, I feel that I came away from the experience with a valuable piece of information. I find it quite interesting that secular Jews who almost never attend synagogue would still find Day of Atonement services so important that they would pay a significant amount of money to be able to attend (perhaps this just seems odd to me because I’ve never paid $200 to attend a church service). I think it’s an interesting way to highlight just how important it is to have a way of dealing with your sins. And since the lectionary was kind enough to drop Hebrews 4 in my lap this week, which is about Christ’s role as the great high priest (an important motif during Day of Atonement), I thought that I would use this recent experience to reflect on the passage, and especially on the themes of atonement and priesthood contained in it.
The primary text read for Day of Atonement is Leviticus 16:1-34, which (relevant to understanding our text in Hebrews today) describes the duties of the High Priest on Day of Atonement. In Leviticus, the High Priest is instructed to enter into the innermost parts of the sanctuary, and effect atonement for the people of Israel. He sacrifices a bull for his own sins, takes two goats, sacrifices one to atone for the sins of Israel and casts one into the wilderness as a scapegoat. Before casting out the scapegoat, the high priest confesses all of the sins of Israel over the head of the scapegoat, effectively letting the goat carry Israel’s sin out into the wilderness. The High Priest then cleanses himself with water and offers a ram as a burnt offering to the LORD. During the Day of Atonement, the people are instructed to fast and to do no work (the day is effectively a Sabbath), and this is instructed for both the Jews and the aliens who live in their midst (for their sins are atoned for as well by this process). Now, since the temple is no longer in existence, modern Jews obviously do not continue on this process of sacrifice. However, the fasting and cessation from work are still carried over, and, since the presence of God is taken to reside not in the innermost parts of the temple, but in the Torah itself, the Ark containing the Torah scroll in rear of the synagogue’s sanctuary is left open during the entire service during Yom Kippur (this also means that everyone stands during the entirety of the service, in recognition of the presence of God). The public and corporate confession of sins is still carried out, not over the head of the scapegoat, but through the liturgy. In many ways, corporate confession has come to overshadow the offering of sacrifice in modern Day of Atonement services, whereas, in Leviticus, arguably this is reversed.
Confession seems to overshadow sacrifice in the atonement scene in our passage in Hebrews as well. The passage begins with the ability of the word of God to lay sins bare, to expose us even to the point where our innermost thoughts and actions are made public in front of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest. The scene the passage describes sounds somewhat like approaching a confessional booth – it explains that we can come to Christ in this moment of confession with confidence that we will receive mercy and grace, for our Great High Priest is human, and, as such, understands our frailties. Certainly, the passage directly following this (which is in the lectionary for next week) does mention sacrifice in an oblique way, but the emphasis is still more on the character of our confessor, Jesus Christ. And because of his character, we can come to him to confess our sins with confidence.
At this point, such a concept of individual repentance, of “approaching the throne” on one’s own, can sometimes seem quite off-putting to Jewish thinkers. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, states the logic behind Day of Atonement in these terms: “It is not that G-d forgives, while human beings do not. To the contrary, we believe that just as only G-d can forgive sins against G-d, so only human beings can forgive sins against human beings. That is why Yom Kippur atones for our sins against G-d, but not for our sins against other human beings” (I might add, however, to Rabbi Sachs’ words that during Yom Kippur, Jews do ask for God’s assistance in obtaining the forgiveness of others when they go to reconcile with them). Using logic similar to Rabbi Sachs’, a friend of mine once became critical of the idea that we can merely go to Christ in some sort of individualistic way in order to atone for our sins against others. One might think that the atonement scene in Hebrews might seem far too individualistic and might short circuit the reconciliatory and social aspects of confession. Why go to those we’ve wronged if we can go to Christ for forgiveness? After all, we know he will forgive, but we can never quite be sure if those we have wronged will forgive us.
While I do think that such a view of atonement would be problematic, and may be true of a particular variation of Protestantism that focuses too much on personal legal standing to the detriment of the reconciliatory aspects of atonement, I think that this is a far cry from what the author of Hebrews is advocating. I think the author of Hebrews would fully agree with Rabbi Sachs when he says “forgiveness is not merely personal, it is also political… When people lack the ability to forgive, they are unable to resolve conflict. The result is division, factionalism, and the fragmentation of a nation into competing groups and sects.” I believe this to the case because the author of Hebrews goes on to describe in chapter 12 how Christ is supposed to serve as an example for us, especially in his humble servitude toward God and toward his enemies. His priestly role is public—it extends even to those who have wronged him. But my friend’s words of caution are well taken. It is my opinion that we often mistakenly believe that the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” entails exactly the kind of problematic view of atonement that my friend expressed contempt for. We often mistakenly believe that to be a part of the “priesthood of all believers” means that we have no priests, and that confession is an act that primarily takes place between us and God and involves no human mediation. Such a notion of “confession” might even be limited to a private conversation that the offender has with God in his or her own head, thus making no impact on the outside world. But the priesthood of all believers actually has the opposite implication: it means that we are all priests to each other. And although Hebrews 12 primarily holds Christ up as an exemplar for us in his submission to God and love of enemies, I don’t think it would be stretching the text too far to say that Christ also serves as an example for us in carrying out our priestly roles, for we only exercise any priestly authority through participation in Christ. In fact, in the passage that follows our lectionary text, it is on the basis of this suffering, obedience, and “reverent submission” that Christ carries out his High Priestly duties. The way of the cross and the mantle of the priesthood are intimately linked.
The characterization that Hebrews 4:14-5:10 gives of Christ as he carries out his role as priest is important, because, as I’ve recently come to realize, being a confessor is hard work. Certainly, contrary to what my friend argued, we should go to those whom we have wronged and ask for forgiveness: reconciliation with those that we have wronged is emphasized numerous times in Scripture. But what are we to do when such a thing is not possible, because the wronged party cannot be contacted, or because they have died, or because, despite our efforts to reconcile, they withhold forgiveness? In such occasions, the role of the confessor is particularly important. I was recently in just this position: I confessed to a good friend of mine a sin that I had committed against someone that I was now unable to contact or locate. And even at a time when I could contact her, she refused to respond to my plea for forgiveness. My friend demonstrated the proper exercise of his priestly office by saying the following to me: “as a representative of Christ, I forgive you of all your sins.” The gesture was so powerful that, afterward, I wept. It’s a practice that I’ve since enacted myself every time someone confesses something to me.
There is a lot of power in the exercise of this priestly office. So much so that acting in this role can seem somewhat insane. It seems horribly presumptuous to say that we can wield the power of the Son of God to wipe away the iniquities of others. But this is precisely what it means to be part of the priesthood of all believers. It means that, from time to time, we are called to be “God with skin on” to one another: the presence of Christ mediated through the peculiarity of our own particular flesh and bones. The role of confessor is a difficult one to play, because it involves the hefty task of binding and loosing. It can be difficult when someone comes to you for absolution to judge whether or not further encouragement is needed on their part to reconcile with those whom they have wronged. It is sometimes hard to discern when to obligate, and when to loose from obligation (when to place the sins on the head of the goat, and when to let it go in the wilderness, so to speak). After all, to obligate someone is to place a burden on them, and we would not wish to exhaust those who are weary with too heavy a load for them to bear. Because of this difficulty, and because the power of forgiveness is a weighty thing to wield, I find myself often shying away from my priestly role. But this is so merely because I am uncomfortable with wielding power and authority in general, and, as such, am guilty of a fair dose of the sin that Karl Barth labels “sloth”: the refusal to exercise power and authority when one is obliged to do so. It is no good to be squeamish about exercising mutual aid, admonition, and absolution within this community once we have entered it: we find ourselves called as vicars of Christ to take these roles very seriously.
Though the role of the confessor is difficult, I think that we ought to take the description given in Hebrews to be a good benchmark: sympathy for weakness due to a common testing ground, a non-judgmental demeanor in order to instill confidence in the confessee, and a certain amount of prior internal housekeeping—that is, we ought to learn to be good confessees in order to become good confessors, and we ought to, as Christ did, walk in the path of the cross (just as the High Priest first offers a sacrifice for himself). Without following these steps, we will find ourselves unfit confessors—we will be the blind leading the blind. And while we are well reminded of the public and political aspects of atonement, and the high need to go and be reconciled to those we have wronged by the very public acts done by our Jewish brothers and sisters on Day of Atonement, I suggest that the private act of confession that takes place between two individuals may be the most public act of all, or at least the best place to start: in the confidence of a secluded room, with an attentive ear and in the power of the phrase “As a servant of Jesus Christ, I forgive you of all your sins. Go and sin no more.”