I wanted to share something in my sermon this Sunday that reflected my experience at Assembly 2012. I decided to reflect on the two passages that conclude Being a Faithful Church document 4 (BFC 4). Here is the sermon I came up with. It focused on Hebrews 5:12-14
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.
For about 3-4 years now Mennonite Church Canada has initiated and developed a process called Being a Faithful Church. The purpose of this process has been to both identify the critical issues that the church is facing and then help equip the church to address them. The issues that were identified at the start of this process included;
1. Unity and Diversity in the life of the Church;
2. Being a peace church;
3. Confessing Jesus as Lord in a pluralistic context;
4. Human sexuality in the life of the church;
5. Ecological concerns from a perspective of faith.
These are all major issues. And they are issues that we are already engaging with at various levels in local churches. The General Board of Mennonite Church Canada has developed this process because while Mennonite churches are responding to these issues many times we are doing so at times in seemingly ‘irreconcilable directions’. Many of us agree that these are important issues but sometimes we address them with opposing views (of course I have the question of same-sex relationships at the front of my thinking). The Mennonite Church in Canada is trying to take responsibility for addressing the issues presently facing the church as well as acknowledge and wrestle with the diversity within the church. I suspect that enough of you how difficult it can be to make decisions here in our own church never mind across the church’s in Canada. This process is important. It is one that I hope to we gain increasing familiarity with as we approach the topic of human sexuality in the life of the Church over the next couple of years.
This past weekend over 400 of us met in Vancouver to study and reflect on the role of the Bible in this larger process. It was a weekend full of engaging lectures and diverse workshops. I was inspired by some of speakers, disagreed with others, and was challenged by still more. I was excited to come back here and share the implications of some of the profound insights I learned. But as I was thinking about what to say I realized that what I heard last weekend is pretty hard to explain and I’ve noticed that you are not very good at understanding theology. The thinking around here tends to be a little slow. It seems that most of you can only handle simple illustrations and predictable applications so that you don’t have to worry if you miss something when you get distracted in the pews or at least be sure that you don’t have to think too hard about it when the service was over. So I decided that it is probably better that I don’t even try and get into it and stick with something a little more basic.
[So how did that feel?]
Many commentators agree that it was just this sort of sentiment that the author of the book of Hebrews was trying to communicate to his audience in our reading this morning. The author was introducing a particular concept of Jesus as the high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. Now I could have just told you that was what the author was trying to do, and maybe you knew what I was up to the whole time, but I wanted you to experience perhaps just for a moment what it felt like to be called dull in your understanding. Do you find yourself pushing back in defensiveness? Do you hang your head in acceptance and resignation? Do you lean forward with a little more attention to see if in fact what is being said is true?
Before actually exploring this particular image of Jesus the author pauses and emphasizes that he has much to say about this matter and that it is indeed hard to understand. And then you can almost hear him sigh as though saying this will take a while since you have become so slow in figuring this stuff out. The author hoped they would be teachers by now but no they are like children, they need someone to spoon feed them, they are out of practice when it comes to engaging the word of righteousness or justice out in the world. Not the most flattering way of getting attention, but a way of getting attention none the less. And I should not that I choose these passages because they were at the end of one of the documents we discussed at Assembly. Is the Board trying to tell us something?
Some commentators take this to be a straight forward criticism of the church while others suggest that maybe the author is being a little bit playful here. Often there is little better way to motivate a student then to tell them they may not be able to understand what is next; that is, if we can get over our defensiveness and negative self-image. And this really is a question of education, but a particular type of education. To use contemporary vocabulary we might say that the education is not so much about acquiring information but about an engaged formation. The author uses the word skill and practice in the context of this education. And this makes sense at the basic level of the imagery used here. An infant has an inherent instinct to suck on milk. As a person grows older they do not only learn how to eat solid food but they must learn how to acquire and prepare it. The author is encouraging the church to learn and develop the faculties, the understanding or sensibility, that is trained and formed in distinguishing good from evil. But we simply cannot do that when we are coddled. Now again, we must be coddled at one point. We must have those times of simple protective nurture. No one would survive without it.
So what is the author of Hebrews trying to teach the church and what could this mean for us today? Hebrews attempts to shape the reader in the image of Jesus as a high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. So let’s take up the challenge and consider this image; after all Melchizedek is not exactly a common figure in the Bible never mind trying to relate how the figure informs our understanding of Jesus.
Outside of the book of Hebrews Melchizedek is only referred to twice in the Bible and furthermore the entire story in which we learn about him spans only six verses in Genesis 14 where he speaks only once. Melchizedek appears to have been a king and priest of the Canaanite city Salem who recognized the work of God in Abraham (who was still Abram at the time). Melchizedek comes to out to meet Abraham and blesses him. Abraham receives this blessing and gives Melchizedek a tithe of all he had. This is about all the information we have. So how can this simple story become so central for the writer of Hebrews? What insight is being drawn here?
First, Hebrews makes sure to properly locate Melchizedek. Melchizedek encountered Abram before God made a covenant with him. There is something about origins here; something that helps us understand particular pattern or way of relating. And what does the author draw from this? The author focuses precisely on the ambiguity of this figure; the fact that it is not only difficult but impossible to understand his background. In Hebrews 7:2-3 we read that Melchizedek’s name and title means that he is both of king of justice and king of peace. And then it says that he is “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 forever.” And again thinking about the priestly office of the Levites the author emphasizes “But this man [Melchizedek] . . . does not belong to their ancestry.” The writer then builds to a sort of climax where Melchizedek is connected to Jesus who is priest “not through the legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life.” I don’t know about you but that strikes me as pretty powerful imagery. But again, what is to be understood from it?
The author of Hebrews is trying to articulate the authority of Jesus’s priesthood and ministry; but how? Not on the priesthood of Aaron and the Levites. Not even on the covenant and faith of Abraham which Paul leans heavily on. Melchizedek is someone that seems to literally come out of nowhere and he is someone able to recognize the presence and work of God in the world. Melchizedek does not appeal to some other authority but simply names God as God is present. We could say that Jesus’s work and ministry displayed a continual recognition and engagement of the God of life. I think it is at this point that we can return to what the author here is trying to teach his readers.
After the author challenges the readers warning them that what will come is difficult to understand the text goes on and we read, “Therefore let us go on towards maturity, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” There is a basic understanding that comes with becoming a Christian. These are of course not bad things. It would be like saying an infant should not have milk because they will later need more than that. The author, however, is saying we cannot reside forever in these things. We cannot simply re-circulate these basic teachings. This is not living in the spirit of Jesus. So the author of Hebrews says specifically that we must go leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ. Those are pretty strong words. For what purpose? We go on, or perhaps I should say we go out, to become skilled in the word of justice. To be trained in the practice of distinguishing good from evil.
This is what we are calling each other to in Mennonite Church Canada. We must set out and engage the realities of diversity, of violence, and of sexuality not that to simply re-entrench our position on basic teachings (though that may happen) but so that we might, like Melchizedek, discern the presence and work of God in the world regardless of tradition and genealogy. If something testifies to the power of an indestructible life then we must honour that for we serve and worship the God of life. Melchizedek is identified as the king of peace and justice, these then are the skills we learn and the practices we engage. Peace and justice are not always self-evident but they remain the orientation for our pursuits and discernment.
It be helpful for us to also to admit up front that these can be unnerving skills to develop. Who wants to leave the warmth of a blanket and the comfort of a glass of milk? The author of Hebrews is no idealist when later in the book we find out what happened to many of the people who developed these skills of peace and justice. But I think it is also tremendously exciting to develop these skills. These skills involve courage, creativity, experiments, and risks. And above all they are meant to expand and free up our capacity to love and, as the author goes on to say, to give us a better hope. When Hebrews talks about Jesus’s own struggles we read that it was the joy that was set before him that helped him endure.
There is much here that is indeed hard to explain; much here to consider. And I don’t claim to be the expert telling you how it should be. But I do want to share in the challenge that we find here. The movement of faith is into the world. As a local and as a national church we are calling each other to sharpen our understanding and recognize or even confess that perhaps we are out of practice in the skill of discerning peace and justice or good and evil. But it is not difficult to begin practicing. All you need is a place of work, a neighbourhood, a family, a stranger. All you need is a neighbour. This is not about ‘witnessing’ to them in the traditional North American sense of the word. But it is about witnessing. As Melchizedek witnessed the work and presence of God in the world he in turn blessed it and blessed God for it. May we share and encourage one another as grow and mature into such a faith.