5th Sunday of Lent, March 21, 2021, Hebrews 5:5-10, 1st Peter 2:4010, John 12:20-33
The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas
So, who is Melchizedek? According to the Book of Genesis, Melchizedek was the king of Salem, who greeted Abram (later known as Abraham) after the Hebrews had defeated the king of Elam and rescued Abraham’s nephew, Lot, from him. Melchizedek, as a gesture of gratitude, offered Abram bread and wine. At this point we are informed that Melchizedek was also the priest of God Most High, who blesses him in God’s name. (Genesis 14:19-20)
Before there was any officially organized faith acknowledging God as the one and only Lord, there was Melchizedek who, like Abraham, was descended from the Noah’s son, Shem, and a precursor to the lineage of priests that would rise from Moses’ brother, Aaron, and lead to Jesus, whom the author of Hebrews called the high priest appointed by God above any mortally chosen cleric who might assume such an office. (5:5) What’s more, his designation as high priest had nothing to do with things he accomplished to impress human standards, but rather for his submission to humiliation and death upon the cross.
Death by crucifixion was the most lethal form of punishment during the time of Jesus. The way in which the criminal was positioned on the cross, with seven-inch nails hammered through the wrists and feet, was intended to eventually render the body incapable of holding its weight, forcing it to compress upon the heart, ultimately causing death by suffocation.
Add to this the fact that, while most artists portray Jesus as wearing at least a loincloth, he was most likely stripped naked; and observing a person’s nakedness outside the intimacy of marriage was forbidden among Jews. So, for Jesus, who many proclaimed as their Messiah, to die naked upon a foreigner’s cross was the ultimate act of humiliation, providing proof to his detractors that he could not possibly be the Messiah.
But despite the humiliating circumstances of Jesus’ death, his resurrection turned the cross from a source of shame to a symbol of hope. Still, gradually and unfortunately, this symbol of conquest over death has become a symbol of death and oppression toward Jews and any people, culture or religion that challenges the supremacy of Christ.
The irony of our faith is that, though it was founded by a man of peace, it has flourished by means of violence. When the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision on the eve of battle with his arch rival Maxentius, in which he looked up at the sun and saw a luminous cross beneath the Greek words, “Ev Toutw Nika” meaning “In this sign you will conquer,” he commanded his troops to inscribe the symbol on their shields and, with their victory, he proclaimed his allegiance to the God of Christ.
While Christianity has contributed to so much good in the world, so much evils has also been associated with the armies of the cross. Leonard Bernstein, in his musical, “Mass,” conveyed this sentiment when he said:
God made us the boss.
God made us the cross.
We turned it into a sword
To spread the word of the Lord.
We used His holy decrees
To do whatever we please.
Such are the negative nuances of lifting up the Christ in our day and age. Yet the negatives need not have the final say. By remembering how Christ transformed the death-dealing connections of the cross into life-affirming reminders of the resurrection, we follow Christ in becoming what the Apostle Peter referred to as a holy priesthood of believers “through lives of spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1st Peter 2:5)
My introduction to Vermont was through a summer ministry in which I served as an itinerant church school supervisor traveling to different towns and supervising two-week church schools for congregations. During one particular stint, several children, with their teachers, rushed into my office with the sad news that they had discovered a dead bird outside the church. After burying the bird, singing a hymn and offered a prayer of farewell, I tried to assure the children that the bird was now in God’s hands. And amid the silence came a response from one of the children: “Yuck! What would God want with a dead bird?” Yuck, indeed. What would God want with a dead bird, or anyone God had meant to fly?
You were meant to fly. You are the holy priesthood of God’s high priest Christ Jesus, who rose from the dead that you too might rise to new life in Christ. Amen.