5th Sunday of Easter
by Bruce Pennie
Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
Good morning on this, the 5th Sunday of Easter. I am Bruce Pennie, husband of Fiona and also the Bishop’s Officer for Reader Ministry in Liverpool Diocese. I am grateful to Fiona for the opportunity to preach this morning – although it is a totally new experience for me to deliver a sermon not in person and the spoken word, but in the written word.
This week the Old Testament readings at Morning Prayer have been from the book of Exodus. They have described the institution of the Levitical priesthood, with Moses’s brother Aaron as the first high priest, and the construction of the Tabernacle (which was the forerunner of the temple). The system described puts God at the centre of the Israelite nation. The Ark of the Covenant was covered by the Mercy Seat – the earthly throne of God. This was screened from sight within the Holy of Holies, which in turn was approached through the Holy Place. Only priests could enter the Holy Place and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies – and that only once a year – on the Day of Atonement. So for the ordinary Israelite, God was both close, in that His throne was there with them, yet remote, since He could only be approached by the priests. Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians; the Ark of the Covenant, together with the Mercy Seat, was taken away, never to be heard of again.
Yet there was still a need for priests – for people who could act as intermediaries between non-believers and God. But this was no longer to be limited to the descendants of Levi. The Bible describes an older order of priests. When Abram (later known as Abraham) returned from rescuing Lot, he was greeted by Melchizedek, the King-priest of Salem (later Jerusalem) with gifts of bread and wine. It is to this order of Holy and Royal priests that Peter refers. He proclaims that we are all “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. We are to form ourselves into a spiritual house as a holy priesthood and the sacrifices we are to offer are spiritual rather than animals. But the point of this priesthood of all believers is not for our own benefit or status. Peter tells us that we have been made a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
All of this has two important implications for us today. Firstly, the restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus epidemic mean we can no longer go to church, meet with other Christians and be led in worship and the Eucharist by a priest. How has that made you feel? Presuming that you’ve been missing it, what is it that you have missed? Obviously there is a social aspect; we are called to be a community of believers and that is hard when we cannot meet together. There is something about the rhythm of the liturgy that is hard to replicate on your own or in small household groups. Particularly for those of us who are not musically gifted, there is a loss of an aspect of worship in not singing; I, for one, am only comfortable singing in a large group – preferably with loud accompaniment. But none of this means we cannot meet with God. The way is open for us to directly approach and meet with God ourselves. Since Christ died, the barrier has gone; we don’t need the services of an intermediary and through prayer, Bible reading and worship in our own homes, we can still meet with God and receive His blessings.
By the time of Jesus, the Temple had been rebuilt and was undergoing extension and refurbishment. The Holy of Holies was there, separated from the Holy Place by a curtain – but now empty. As Jesus died on the cross, Matthew, who was writing predominantly for a Jewish audience, tells us (27:51) “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” As Jesus died, God tore open – significantly the curtain was torn from top to bottom – the barrier between himself and the people. The significance of this took a while to sink in. The death of Jesus became the “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice” – so there was no need to continue the system of animal sacrifices to atone for sin. The major function of the Levitical priesthood therefore also became redundant. Through that system of animal sacrifice, the Levitical priests had acted as intermediaries between the people and God. That was no longer required. The way to God was directly open to every believer – signified by the tearing of the temple curtain.
The second implication is that we have a job to do. As a royal priesthood, a holy nation our job – all of us, not just those we ordain – is to spread the Gospel, to proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvellous light. And we do that in the things we do as well as in what we say. In some ways, that is more difficult in our present circumstances than it would be normally; certainly our social interactions are reduced. But, on the other hand, since our normal ways of doing things are suspended, it feels much easier to do some things. The pace of life has slowed and social barriers seem lower. It feels easier to have a longer and more in-depth conversation with neighbours (at an appropriate social distance, of course) than usual. It is more natural to pick up the phone and call someone ‘just to see how they are doing’, rather than needing a specific reason to ring. And, of course, good neighbours are needed more than ever, especially by those who are shielding or self-isolating. We are called to preach the Gospel at all times, using words when needed. This is not to prioritise actions over words – words remain our most powerful way of communicating the Gospel. When times are dark, and many people feel them to be very dark at the moment, we have been called out of that darkness into the light of Christ. Wherever, and whenever you can, as His Holy and Royal priest, share that light.