The high priest prays too

January 18 — Hebrews 4:14-5:10; January 25 — James 5:13-18

Jan 3, 2015 by

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The author of Hebrews focuses on Christ as our high priest. His chosenness, the ways in which he is different, are at the forefront in this passage.

Florian

Florian

The repeated emphasis on being “of the order of Melchizadek” reminds the reader of lineage, of honor, of lordship. We are reminded that ordinary high priests are subject to weakness and must offer sacrifices for their own sins as well as for the people. Christ is appointed to this role but fulfills it sinlessly.

Still, this high priest is not far removed from the ordinariness of human life: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Our high priest has become like us and sympathizes with what we experience. But he encounters the weakness we live with and remains holy.

It’s the kind of conundrum the early church fought over for many years. How is Christ both like us and unlike us? What does it mean to sympathize with humanity, to become human, yet remain the high priest — to remain the thing that we are not?

One thing that it means, according to our text from Hebrews, is that we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness.” We can ask for what we need, and we will receive grace and mercy. The high priest is gentle with the ignorant and wayward, because he knows our weakness.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I find this difficult. I am not bold when I approach the “throne of grace.” Rather, I tend to come before God with my head hanging low (metaphorically or otherwise), ashamed, as if anticipating all the ways my requests will be considered wrongheaded. Sometimes I don’t ask at all, and when I do, I rarely expect grace or mercy. I certainly don’t expect gentleness.

Our second text, from James, addresses a result of this lack of boldness — the tendency to not even ask. “Are any among you suffering?” the author asks. Pray. “Are any cheerful?” Praise. “Are any among you sick?” Call the elders to pray and anoint. Their prayers will save the sick. Like the prayers of Elijah — a human being like ourselves — the prayers of these righteous ones are powerful and effective. It sounds so straightforward.

I shy away from words like “powerful” and “effective,” though. We read these truths over and over throughout the Bible, yet as I reflect on the past year and look forward to the next, so many cries seem to go unanswered. Prayers seem decidedly ineffective.

I find myself returning to the question of who prayer is really for, of what prayer really does. And as I consider the high priest who intercedes on our behalf — the one who prays and also has the power to answer prayer — I wonder if prayer is one way we are reminded that God is God, and we are not.

What then does it mean to approach God boldly, with the expectations articulated in James? Perhaps it means confidence — not in oneself or one’s merits, not in the effectiveness of oneself as one prays — but confidence in the gentleness and mercy of the one who knows our flesh and our weakness as only one who lives with us can. Confidence not in ourselves but in the high priest, who honors not the strong but the righteous and faithful.

Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., works in the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.


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