Why We Pray in JesusOctober 18, 2009, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Why do we pray in Jesus’ name?” The question came by way of a young mother who was trying to teach her children to pray. Her little girl had asked, “Is that the only way God hears our prayers?” The mother, unsure of what to say, and recalling the public uproar and national debate that had emerged when Jerry Falwell had suggested such a thing, now found herself facing the same question and wanted help. What would you have said to her? Why do we pray in Jesus’ name? More, why, at the conclusion of our communion prayer, does one of us say “through Christ, with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory are yours Almighty Father, now and forever?” The Letter to the Hebrews answers our question: Jesus, having passed through the heavens, is seated at the Father’s right hand. We affirm it in the creed every Sunday; but what does it mean?1
Three weeks ago, our lessons from Job began with the Adversary, Satan, standing in God’s heavenly court, provoking God into the bone-crushing, skin-for-skin test of Job to prove his integrity. Scripture reminds us that in Jesus’ radical obedience, the Accuser has been driven out of God’s presence.2 Hebrews tells us that in his place is Jesus, robed in flesh of our flesh. Not only has the Adversary been cast out, unable ever again to bring accusation against us before God, but now Jesus is there pleading our case. As flesh of our flesh, tempted and tested in every way as we are, he is able to be sympathetic with our weaknesses. We have a compassionate advocate. But he is more than our advocate; he is also our high priest. Now what does that mean?
The imagery is particularly foreign to us at first, because in most Protestant churches the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has been corrupted to mean we need no priests whatsoever; when in fact, you and I are called to be priests to one another–mediating Christ’s presence and ministering to one another’s needs through Jesus. Further, most of us know little about the liturgical and sacrificial practices of ancient Israel that lie behind and define the office of High Priest.
When God made covenant with the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, God divided the prophetic and priestly functions, giving the former to Moses and the latter to Aaron and his descendents from the tribe of Levi.3 Now what do priests do? They lead people in worship. They work with holy things to mediate the presence of the Holy, just as you hear us say, as we invite you to this table: “These are holy things to make us holy; gifts of God for the people of God.” In Israel’s life, priests offered various kinds of sacrifice on behalf of the people, presenting the people’s gifts before God, whether offered in gratitude, supplication or repentance. Finally, the priests mediated the presence of God to the people on God’s behalf and were a visible reminder that God was in their midst. The Levitic priesthood4 rotated in service and leadership every year. Annually, one among them was chosen to serve as High Priest. Beyond whatever administrative and other priestly tasks the High Priest might have, one was preeminent. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, after offering a sacrifice for his own sin, he stepped behind the Temple Veil to enter God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. Once there, he offered the sacrifice of atonement on behalf of all the people, wiping clean their slate so that they might begin their life with God all over again. This, says Hebrews, is precisely what Jesus did in his own self-offering, once and for all. His self-sacrifice made atonement on our behalf so that through him, you and I can safely enter God’s presence. It is through him that we have God’s ear. It is through him that we even dare approach God. Have we in the West, especially in Protestantism, so domesticated God that we have forgotten Hebrew’s warning: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God?”5
Did Jesus choose this role for himself? No, Hebrews tells us he was appointed to it by the one he called “Father.” Quoting Psalm 2, a liturgy used each year when Israel celebrated and re-enacted the King’s coronation, God says, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.”6 On that day, Israel’s king became, or was again reminded that he was God’s adopted son, called afresh to faithfulness, and told again all God promised concerning his reign. In this psalm, the early church quickly found a description of what was revealed in Jesus’ resurrection: he is God’s Holy, Anointed One, the Christ, the King, God’s Son.
But there is a second royal psalm that Israel used when enthroning kings, Psalm 110. It says, “The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” In this text, quoted in the New Testament more than any other psalm, the church found further meaning in Christ’s resurrection and ascension: the foretelling of Jesus’ enthronement as Lord and Christ “seated at the right hand of the Father.” But there is more. Psalm 110 does not stop with enthronement. It continues, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind; you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”7
What is that about? King Melchizedek emerges in the Book of Genesis as the mysterious king and priest of the Most High God8 from Salem,9 who blessed Abram and to whom Abram paid tribute after defeating those who had captured his nephew Lot.10 Melchizedek’s name means “King of Righteousness and Peace.” His priesthood existed long before Aaron’s was established and was thought eternal. By Jesus’ day, according to one of the scrolls of Qumran, Melchizedek was believed to still be exercising his priesthood within the courts of the Lord.11 To say that Jesus’ priesthood was in the order of Melchizedek is to say three things. First, it is everlasting; second, it is taking place in God’s courts, and third, it is superior to Melchizedek, not only because God has appointed Jesus high priest, but because he is God’s Son.
Hebrews has as high a conception of whom Jesus is, as God’s Son, as any book in scripture–what theologians call Christology. But astonishingly enough, Hebrews also has one of the most complete and revealing affirmations of Jesus’ humanity. No other book in the New Testament gives us such a human Jesus. Recounting the prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears that Jesus offered to his Father–the One who could save him from death–our minds turn almost immediately to Gethsemane. We remember Matthew telling us of Jesus’ pleading that the cup pass from him,12 and Luke describing his agony there as his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.13 But this could well be describing his entire passion and death, as Jesus cries from the cross with a sense of abandonment.14 Here Jesus’ humanity is not only real, it is jarring! He fears death as you and I do. Like us he cries out, pleading to avoid it. Not unlike us, he fears that God has abandoned him when his prayers are not answered to his expectation or that God’s presence seems far away. Like us, he had to learn obedience. Even though he was a Son, like every child, obedience had to be learned. He was like us in all things, Hebrews reminds us, save sin. And how was obedience learned? It was learned through his suffering and death. It was in fact his obedience that brought upon him suffering, and his suffering that enabled him to become an intercessor and model for us in our sufferings.15 “Having been made perfect;” first, a word of caution: the word “perfect” here does not mean some kind of moral achievement. Rather, the word our text translates “perfect” means “coming to fulfillment,” “bringing to an end,” or “to completion” as in “to perfect.”16 Hebrews is not saying that Jesus finally became perfect in his suffering. Rather, in his obedient suffering he brought to fulfillment and perfected God’s purpose in him. He fulfilled his vocation and finished what had to be done in preparation for his eternal priesthood–his testing, suffering and death.17 Therein he revealed God’s love for the world–for all humankind–and fulfilled God’s commitment to redeem what God has made and initiate a new creation. Jesus was heard because of his reverent submission. His prayer was answered, not by avoiding death, but by moving through it into resurrection and eternal life in order to reveal what lies beyond death, and to take up his eternal priesthood. Jesus entered the inner shrine behind the curtain between God and humanity to take up his eternal priesthood at God’s right hand, for us.
To pray in Jesus’ name is to claim the power of his life, death and resurrection for ourselves. To pray through his name is to realize that every prayer that reaches the Father’s ear does so because Jesus is there offering it up to the Father on the supplicant’s behalf. To pray with Christ is to join our voices with his obedient and faithful voice pleading for God’s mercy to make us like him in all things. To pray in Christ is to recognize that in baptism we have been clothed in him. To pray with Christ is to recognize that as he lives in the Father’s presence, robed in our flesh, so one day we shall also live. We pray in Jesus’ name because of what it means–God saves. For there is no other name under heaven by which that is true.18
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A), 1.2; 2.2.
- Revelation 12:7-17
- Thomas Dozeman, Holiness and Ministry, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- Both Moses and Aaron were from the tribe of Levi. Ever after, as descendents of Aaron, Levites would be set aside for priestly service.
- Hebrews 10:31
- Psalm 2:7b
- Psalm 110:4
- El Alyon can be translated “God most high,” or “God of gods.”
- Salem means peace, and is precisely the same place David chose as the site for the capital of the united kingdom–Jerusalem, which means “God’s [Yahweh’s] Peace.”
- Genesis 14:17-20
- A. S. Van Der Woude, “Melchizedek,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976) p. 585; 11QMelch.
- Matthew 26:36-46
- Luke 22:44
- Mark 15:33-39
- Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), p. 63.
- teleioo, “to bring to an end, to complete, perfect” used in scripture as follows: accomplish(2), accomplished(1), finish(1), fulfilled(1), made perfect(5), make perfect(2), perfect(2), perfected(7), reach a goal(1), spending the full number(1)
- Craddock, p. 63
- Acts 4:12
- A Saving Mystery - October 18, 2015
- Wisdom’s Word on Suffering: Beware of Counsel Without Knowledge - October 21, 2012
- God’s Change of Heart - October 21, 2012
- Why We Pray in Jesus - October 18, 2009
- When God Shows Up - October 22, 2006
- A Word Fallen on Hard Times - October 19, 2003
- What Did He Do? - October 19, 1997
- God's Impossible Questions - October 16, 1994
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