In the 16th century, the French theologian John Calvin[1] described the priesthood as “an honorable status without a defined function.”

This morning we heard an excerpt from John’s Gospel known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus.[2] It’s more than ironic that this name was bestowed by another Protestant theologian[3] – a German Lutheran, no less – also in the 16th century, a time of foment and upheaval in the church, perhaps not unlike today.

This morning a portion of this “high priestly prayer” makes a rare appearance in the Sunday lectionary.[4]

Now, it is a bit curious that this particular portion of John’s Gospel has this particular name – a name given by a reformer, and a name that has stuck. Think about it. Where in the Gospels is Jesus ever called a priest? Where does he identify himself as one? He is the shepherd, the way, the truth, the life. So how, and when, did Christians begin to understand Jesus as “high priest”? 

Listen to these words from the Letter to the Hebrews, written in the second half of the first century:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin….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…” [5]

Reading between the lines, it appears that the author is attempting to make a distinction between the traditional Jewish understanding of a high priest, and the emerging understanding of Jesus as high priest.  The motive, I suspect, was twofold: first, to draw on the contemporary readers’ understanding of high priest, and second, to show that Jesus not only met and exceeded that understanding, but in fact transformed it.

Here’s an abbreviated, incomplete version of what might be called the job description of a temple high priest:

• To make God’s will known
• To teach the law
• To conduct worship, including preparation of sacrifices
• To care for the shrine and the sanctuary
• To bless [6]

Then come the two most critical duties:

• To be preside at the rites of Atonement Day (Yom Kippur), the most solemn of all Hebrew fasts. On this day, and no other, the priest entered the Holy of Holies. Even if he fell short of the mark in any other duties, this one was mandatory. He could not fail in this.
• Finally, he had to preserve a high degree of ritual purity, which meant he could not defile himself through any contact with the dead, even his closest relations.

It is in these last two qualifications or responsibilitites that we see priesthood transformed: Jesus was not only present at the Day of Atonement, he was – is – the atonement. Does he become defiled by contact with the dead? No, he speaks to the dead, he raises the dead, he descends to the dead, and by his own death grants eternal life.

There’s another unique aspect to this high priestly prayer. In the Gospels, to whom does Jesus speak? Quite a range of beings! Satan, sinners, demons, Samaritans – a Samaritan women, no less -- a blind man, lawyers, Saducees, a centurion, Pharisees, scribes, money changers, crowds on a mountainside, fishermen mending their nets, a tax collector in his booth, those who mourn the dead, even the one who betrays him. Yet when do we hear him speak to – pray to – God?

The instances are few and far between, and the prayer in John 17 is the both the longest and the most elaborate (or detailed).  Having delivered a lengthy discourse to his disciples,[7] he speaks directly to God. He prays for himself. He prays for his disciples. He prays for the church universal – although he does not use those words. He prays for unity of Father and Son with the disciples. He prays for us.

A few years ago, speaking of different roles in the church, the teacher of a confirmation class asked this question:  “And what does the priest do?” One little girl who had been serving as an acolyte for some time eagerly answered, “He’s the one who breaks the bread!”

The one who breaks the bread, who washes our feet, and who prays for us, just as Jesus did.

In our liturgy, we see a human priest at the altar. In our theology, we speak of the priesthood of all believers. Yet at every altar where the Eucharist is celebrated, there is but one High Priest present, blessing, breaking, giving, touching, healing, praying.


[1] 1509-1564

[2] John 17

[3]David Chytraeus, 1530-1600

[4] Thanks to John Covert for this correction to the sermon as delivered

[5] Hebrews 4:14, 15;  5:5

[6] See Num 6:22-27

[7] John 14, 15, 16