A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45
"And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’”.
Had the sons of Zebedee been blessed with the gift of foresight they might have been more reticent about making their request of Jesus. They make it in the tenth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel. In the eleventh, Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Within days his glory is revealed. When it is, one man is indeed at his right hand, and another is at his left. But they are, all three, convicted criminals hanging on crosses.
It’s almost certainly not what James and John have in mind when they approach Jesus. They are presumably interested in a more conventional sort of glory: status and influence, affirmation and recognition, wealth and power – in other words, in the sort of glory that attaches to great leaders – whether great political leaders, great cultural leaders, or great religious leaders.
It’s as great leaders, perhaps, that James and John think of themselves. But it’s not how Jesus thinks of himself. He is resistant to such thinking and disparages the tyrannical “great ones” who lord it over their Gentile subjects. And, interestingly, it’s not what the author of the letter to the Hebrews thinks, either. If James and John believe that religious authority will be a passport to fame and fortune, the author of the letter manifestly does not. In the passage that we have heard its author outlines an understanding of earthly priesthood which is very different from - and altogether more sympathetic than - that held by the two apostles.
Firstly, priests are priests because they are called by God, the letter claims, not because they take that honour for themselves. Second, priests deal gently with the failings of others, the letter claims, because they are not ignorant of their own failings.
Such a nuanced understanding of priesthood as divinely ordained yet distinctly human seems a long way from the brothers’ brazen request of Jesus and their rather bullish insistence that they are equal to whatever ordeal they will face.
But the author does not rest there. His principal concern in the letter is to push further and articulate an understanding of heavenly priesthood – an understanding of the priesthood of Jesus. Like the earthly priests of his ancestral faith, Jesus is called by God. Like them, Jesus is fully human and able to empathize with the needs and the sufferings of the people. Yet there is also a crucial difference between him and them.
The Jerusalem Temple must have been a chaotic place, the ears of its visitors filled constantly with the noise of panicked animals, their noses with the stink of wood smoke and incense as the daily, hourly round of sacrifice was made. The priests of the Temple made offerings for sin, but the high priest, Jesus, is offered for sin. Here is the essential difference that Hebrews picks out. Jesus does not give the life of another; he gives his own life, in an act of what the letter calls “reverent submission” to God.
This essential difference helps to explain why Reformed Christianity has historically experienced such discomfort about the notion of “priesthood” in the Church. There is no mediator between God and humanity except Jesus, this tradition insists; there is no sacrifice for priests to offer; there can be none other than Jesus; faith in him alone suffices.
Yet the understanding of priesthood sketched out in this brief passage serves as an effective critique of the ambitions of James and John – and I believe that it serves also as an effective critique of much human behaviour; more specifically, of much human leadership. Entire educational establishments have been created to teach leadership, of course, and countless books have been written on the subject. Would-be leaders are invited to identify as Monarchs or Warriors or Prophets. This brief passage with its threefold understanding of what we might call “Priestly” leadership perhaps suggests the contribution Christian theology can make to such teaching, and it is a contribution which is relevant to all who exercise any sort of leadership, not just to those who the Church has ordained.
Priestly leaders are “called by God”, writes the author of Hebrews. Their ultimate allegiance is to God, not to any human ideology or human faction or human interest. Priestly leaders root their leadership in the values of the Kingdom of God, and their exercise of leadership points consistently away from themselves and consistently towards those values. This Cathedral, for example, identifies integrity, generosity and compassion as the values which underpin the leadership it aspires to in this city and this Diocese. To these we hold ourselves accountable rather than to any project, or agenda, (or, for that matter, Dean).
Priestly leaders are “subject to weakness”, writes the author of Hebrews. They entertain no illusions about their uniqueness, their distinctiveness, or their infallibility. Their leadership serves others because priestly leaders know that they are not so very different from others. They know that because they practice above every other skill the skill of listening. It’s not an accident that in Orthodox icons holy men and holy women are always depicted as having very large ears, very large eyes, and very small mouths.
Finally, priestly leaders offer themselves in “reverent submission”, writes the author of Hebrews. They know that the goal of their leadership is not their own flourishing or even their own survival as leaders. The goal of their leadership is the vindication of the values they espouse in the service of the people among whom they belong. Their leadership and their authority are simply a means to that end and may be surrendered in its achievement.
Consider some recent headlines and some of the models of human leadership which they disclose. A dissident journalist murdered in his country’s embassy overseas; a survivor of alleged sexual assault ridiculed at a political rally; a historic territorial agreement for the island of Ireland put in jeopardy. Priestly leadership – value-led, self-consciously flawed, and careless of self – might just have made a difference in each of those scenarios. It is something that Christians can offer wherever they find themselves. For “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. Amen.