Thursday, March 17, 2016

Old Order, New Covenant

Throughout the history of the Church, religious orders have been founded as a means for like-minded Christians to unify under a similar code of behavior and belief.  The Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans, Augustinians, and the Dominicans followed monastic rules of life and faith.  Not all the priestly orders founded were for men.  Women, too, felt a calling from God, and turned away from secular life to take up the cross.  Following the religious rules of their male counterparts, these women lived lives of holiness and chastity, serving God, helping the poor, and ministering the name of Christ to all they met.  St. Clare formed one such order known as the Poor Ladies at St. Damian.  Other convents and orders were formed by women of like faith who burned with a desire to serve God.

Not all the orders were peaceful, either.  Some priests transformed themselves into warriors, yet continued to live according to a priestly rule.  Under orders with names like Knights of the Sword, Order of the Dragon, and Hospitallers, they found a way to combine the bloodshed of battle with the banner of the cross.   They wore fearsome uniforms and vestments, so all would know who they were in battle.

Christianity has had many different kinds of priests over the centuries.  With the advent of Protestantism, many churches today have rejected the term “priest” in favor of “pastor” or “minister.”  We have done this because we believe Jesus to be our great High Priest (Hebrews 4).  Yet, I want to look more carefully at the priestly orders we have seen in our past.  I want to do this because the Bible says that we are kings and priests before God (1 Corinthians 4:8; Revelation 1:6).  If we are to be priests, then we need to decide what order in which we belong.

Of course, priesthood in the Bible is much older than the Templars or Carmelite or Benedictines.  The Aaronic priesthood of the Old Covenant had the duty to handle the sacred things of worship—to perform the sacrifices, to prepare the shewbread, to trim the lampstands—all the things that had to be done in order to make sure the Holy Place was holy.  This Aaronic priesthood is also called the Levitical priesthood, because it was the Levites who followed in Aaron’s rule and order.  Yet there was a priesthood older than that of Aaron.

Before the Aaronic priesthood was the priesthood of Midian.  Moses learned of God from his father-in-law Jethro, who was a fellow descendant of Abraham and the high priest of Midian.  When Moses fled from Egypt and married a Midianite woman, he spent forty years learning of God from this Midianite high priest.  No doubt the priesthood of Midian played an important role in Moses’ understanding of the God of Creation.

But there is a priesthood still older than that of Midian.  The first holy priesthood mentioned in the Bible is the priesthood of Melchizedek.  In Genesis 14 we read how Melchizedek blessed Abram as he was returning from battle.  In return, the patriarch gave the high priest one-tenth of all the spoils he brought back.  The author of the Book of Hebrews makes a great deal of the fact that the Levitical priesthood is subservient to the priesthood of Melchizedek’s order, because the Levites were (conceptually) still in Abram’s loins when Abram gave a tithe to Melchizedek.  It is as if the Levites themselves were paying homage to this great high priest of antiquity.  

So, if we are going to try to find out what kinds of priests we are, we need to understand what kind of high priest this Melchizedek was.  Because he is the very first priest ever mentioned in the Bible, he is our primary example of what a priest should be.  

The first thing the Bible tells us is that he is king of Salem.  This word Salem is the word from which we get the Arabic word Salam, and the Hebrew word Shalom, which both mean peace.  So Melchizedek was the king of a place called peace.  

The second thing we know about him is that he was high priest of El Elyon, which means “God Most High.”  This is the first time we see this name for God in the Bible.  It is a different name than what has been used before.  So Melchizedek was a priest who made people think of God in a new and different way.

The third thing we know about him is that he was a priest, not by virtue of a Levitical bloodline or special training, but because of the relationship he had with God Most High.  His religion was not one of regulation, but of relationship.

These three things lead the author of Hebrews to a radical statement: “So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek (5:5-6).’”  Jesus, the Prince of Peace, gives us a new relationship with God Most High, not based on regulation, but based on relationship. For this reason, he is our High Priest.  What order is he in?  The Cistercian order?  The Benedictine order?  No—the Order of Melchizedek.  And if that’s the order Jesus is in, that’s the order I want to be in too.  The Levitical priesthood showed us that nobody is capable of keeping all the rules and regulations—that’s why they offered daily sacrifices to God for their sins.  But since Jesus became our Great High Priest, the only thing we need to come to God is relationship.  

The Jewish people based their initial covenant with God on the Ten Commandments.  Instead of relationship with God, they trusted in regulations.  These were expanded into 613 commandments before it was all said and done.  But Jeremiah 31:31-34 says, 

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The Melchizedekian priesthood is an old order.  Under the old order, Jesus gives us a new covenant—one where the laws of God are written on the heart, not on tablets of stone.  Where is God’s law written for you?  Is it alive with every beat of your heart, or is it cold as granite, entombed in the pages of your Bible?  Jesus calls us to an old order with a new covenant where we become priests of peace, willing to think about God in new ways, and interacting with God and others on the basis of relationship, not regulation.  Are you willing to be that kind of priest?  Are you ready to be part of that old order, and that new covenant?

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