Among the many reasons I have heard, over the course of my lifetime, as to why people do not come to church, is that of the sin of hypocrisy which is discussed in the readings this morning. I have often heard say that the church is full of hypocrites who act all nice on Sunday only to act as the devil incarnate the rest of the week. And of course, this may be true of some people who go to church, but certainly not all of us.
When I first moved into our house in South Buffalo many years ago, my neighbor, who was Roman Catholic at the time, told me that she would never step foot in her church again. When I asked why, she told me that it was because she saw her parish priest in a movie theater, one where he ought not to have been. Of course, perhaps she also, ought not to have been there either, but that did not seem to weigh too heavily on her conscience at the time. She was angry because someone she respected, who taught in his congregation about the the law and scriptures, was found wanting in his personal life and she was upset because she found out that her priest was as human as she was and it did not set well with her. At the time I tried to remind her that Christians as a whole are not perfect . . . but they are forgiven . . . and that perhaps she should understand that everyone, including her priest, is imperfect . . . and will, at times. fall short of the glory of God.
In today’s reading James tells us “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” So how can we do this? How can we live our lives being both hearers and doers of the word, being as we are, imperfect people in an imperfect world?
There is only one way of course . . . and that is through Jesus Christ . . . for it is he who has adopted us into God’s family and it is he who has given us power to overcome the world in every circumstance in which we find ourselves, if only we would let him.
Last February, you may remember the beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians that took place in Iraq. These men were executed because they were identified by ISIS as “people of the cross.” In them, we should be reminded of the possibility of martyrdom and the reality that in this side of glory we are but strangers in a foreign land.
Consequently, we Christians often find ourselves in a most difficult position. We are called by God to love our neighbors— even neighbors who might better be described as our enemies. And we are never to return evil for evil regardless of how much we think we are justified in our feelings of revenge. While most of us will not face the imminent threat of death, testifying to our belief in Christ is most often far from easy. How then, are we to live faithfully amid these challenging circumstances and among very difficult people?
As sons and daughters of the One who is both the eternal King and our High Priest, we have assurance that we will never be forgotten or abandoned. We do not need to be absorbed with self-preservation; we are in fact free to live our lives shaped by mercy and to love others as ourselves. To appreciate this vision, we must understand that we are in fact chosen as a people to be a blessing, and that we are to carry out this important work in a priestly manner.
A few weeks back, the apostle Peter gave us encouragement when he wrote: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”. Peter here drew from a long and cherished tradition, theologians call ‘election’ that is woven throughout the Old Testament.
You may remember when God called Abraham, He made it clear that from this man a great nation would arise. What is interesting about the idea of election in this context is that the goal was a gracious inclusion rather than hard-hearted exclusion. At the time, God chose Abraham and his offspring, the Jewish nation, to serve as His representatives in the world. In this way, Israel was meant to function like a city on a hill or a lighthouse, where others would be drawn to the light of the creator Lord. We, as God’s adopted people should never forget that we, like the Jewish people, are in fact blessed, in order to be a blessing. That is at the heart of the biblical movement of election. But Peter reminds us that election and priesthood are meant to go together.
Peter references the Book of Exodus where we read of the promise that “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel of course had a specific people set apart to be ordained as priests, but the promise to Abraham was that all of God’s people would serve him as priests and as kings.
It is clear from scripture that all who now have faith in the Christ, the messiah, are part of this “chosen race” that is “a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” We then, with the Jewish nation, together, are the true heirs of Abraham’s covenant with God. Barriers between Jew and Gentile are all meant to and will eventually disappear. What unites us as a people is not our ethnicity or culture, but our worship of Yeshua Meshya – Jesus our Messiah. Even amid serious diversity we have become one in Christ. As those who are connected to the Great High Priest, His people are to carry out His final work of reconciliation in the world. We as believers are to carry out two vital ministries as part of the royal priesthood.
First, in our priestly role, all Christians are to live sacrificially for others. We are, as ISIS has so rightly labeled us, “the people of the cross”. Jesus laid down His life for sinners who are in desperate need of grace and love. As imitators of the crucified Lord, we now are to offer ourselves to Christ through sacrificial acts of love done in behalf of our neighbors, even the neighbors who consider us their enemies. We can truly honor God through our works of grace and mercy, hoping and praying that these same people, who are the enemies of God now, may one day “glorify God on the day of visitation”. We cannot make atonement for them, but through our lives, we can point them to the Lamb of God who alone can bring reconciliation between a holy God and a sinful world.
Second, we are faithful in our priestly role when we offer our prayers of intercession on behalf of others. In the New Testament Paul urges Timothy to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for ”all people, for kings and all who are in high positions”. Part of living as the chosen people and a holy nation is that we are set apart to be instruments of God’s grace and reconciliation in this world. And this begins with our prayers. We must pray not just for those we love, nor even just for God’s own people, but for the world, including even the most dangerous people who wish to do us harm.
Jonathan Cahn, a well known prophetic Rabbi commented recently that the days of grayness are now at a close . . . that there is very soon to be only light and darkness (i.e. only good and evil) in the world. He admonishes all believers to choose and to stand firm – in the light – for salvation is quickly drawing near to us. But for those who persist in living in darkness, they will soon be lost – forever. And that is the world where we find ourselves today.
So how can we love our neighbor? We must intercede for them, asking for the light of God’s mercy to overcome the looming darkness. Jesus did this as an example for us even as He hung on the cross. You and I cannot change or save our neighbor, but we must continue to believe that God can.
Jesus, our high priest, is the perfect Mediator who makes intercession on our behalf, offering Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice so that we might enjoy peace with God. We who have received mercy are now His chosen vessels to be instruments of His grace and love to the world. This is what it means to live as part of the royal priesthood.
But in order to live the life we have been chosen to live, Jesus commands us in his Gospel today when he says to all his followers . . . “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” So we must, every one of us, prove all things; hold fast to that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. And may the very God of peace sanctify you always; and pray to God that your whole spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.