Being Priests

GoodhueDetail

Detail from the Resurrection Window, Harry Wright Goodhue, 1929. All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.

A sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 15, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25, and Mark 13:1-8.  This is the last sermon with Father Beddingfield as rector of All Souls Parish.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

We’ve all probably been shaken by the bombings and shootings in Paris on Friday. Not only because of friends and travel, but for many reasons, these attacks feel very close. This morning, we remember and pray for the victims and their families and for all who try to live without fear or intimidation.

Yesterday, I think Bishop Budde put it well when she reminded us that part of being human is the capacity to hold conflicting feelings together. We can be heartbroken for the victims and their families, and we can be angry at the perpetrators. We can be sad for some things, while at the same time being joyful for others. We can be anxious about a transition, but hopeful for the future.

And so, this morning, perhaps a little more than some Sundays, we can be mindful of the many emotions in us and around us. We can breathe, we can pray, and we can give thanks for this moment—this day—this life—even as we open ourselves ever so gently to where God might lead us.

In various ways, the scripture readings today offer ideas for times such as these—times when it feels like the world is collapsing; or if not collapsing, then at least changing a speed that leaves us lost.

In the Gospel, one of the disciples admires the great temple, but Jesus has an unexpected reaction. Jesus responds, “Do you see these great buildings? The day will come when there won’t be a single stone left, but one upon the other, they’ll all come down.” Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple—something that, in fact would eventually happen.

But we also know that Jesus used the temple as a symbol for his own body. The temple of stones would be destroyed, but a new living temple of the Body of Christ would arise in its place. A world would end, but another world would begin.

Some worlds do seem to end. We know the world of our life could end any moment with our own death. But not only with our death, sometimes it feels like the world ends when someone close to us dies. The ending expands outward. Scientists interpret the signs for us—overpopulation, global warming, hunger, water scarcity, disease, the sun, asteroids—and some tell us our world is ending.

The world of work can sometimes come to an end for us, as the job that seemed safe suddenly vanishes. The world of a relationship can end. A world of ideas or a world of opinion can end when someone challenges us and makes us think. The person we had planned to spend our life with, dies. The home that seemed permanent, but is taken away—worlds can, and sadly do, end.

Given these scary times—whether terrorists, natural disasters, or everyday challenges—we might be tempted to do what Jesus warns against—look for a quick fix, a guru, a temporary authority, or another messiah. Simply numb ourselves with any means at hand. Maybe we’re tempted to pray in a magical way to be delivered without our having to do anything—perhaps to call on the Archangel Michael to rise, and fight, and protect us. Many our day do believe they are in allegiance with the angel-armies, and given the chaos created by warfare and terrorism, it’s sometimes easy to support extreme measures for a counterattack.

But the middle scripture reading today—the Letter to the Hebrews, offers us something else. In what can at first sound like real criticism of Judaism and the temple priesthood, I think the Letter to the Hebrews actually magnifies another theme of scripture and theology that we sometimes overlook.

The Letter to the Hebrews draws a sharp contrast between the temple priests and another priest—the High Priest, the Super Priest, the Priest-to-end-all-priests: Jesus Christ. The temple priests are always standing, day by day. But Jesus sits. He sits because his work is done. Christ has undone the whole sacrificial system by offering himself, a blameless victim. Perhaps no more comprehensive description exists in English than the words of our Rite I Eucharistic Prayer:

[Christ] by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again. (BCP, 334).

Continual sacrifice of bulls and turtledoves: out. Perpetual memorial: in.
Temple priests of the old sort: out. Christ the one and only priest: in.

But what are we to think about those people we call “priests?” What role to do they (we) play? It’s an especially relevant question as I conclude my ministry as your rector—the priest for this place—and you begin an interim time toward eventually calling another clergyperson, another minister, another pastor, … another “priest.”

Throughout the scriptures, except for the Jewish temple priest, the word “priest” is not really used for a religious leader in charge of a congregation. That has come later, through theology and practice, and brings us to the odd in-between place of the Anglican way, in which all may say and think “priest.” Some perhaps should say and think “priest.” But none shall say and think “priest.” Minister, pastor, priest, friend—it’s a matter of theological and cultural perspective.

Where scriptures DO talk about priests, however, the scriptures are talking about ALL OF US. Though others had raised the issue, it was Martin Luther who wrote and preached that YOU are priests. Luther wrote, “this word ‘priest’ should become as common as the word Christian because all Christians are priests” (Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY, Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), 106).

Luther remembered in Exodus where God says, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:6), and Isaiah’s word, “You shall be called the priests of the Lord, they shall speak to you as the ministers of our God” (Is 61:6). God’s talking about everybody here. And finally, Luther points to the First Letter of Peter, “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The passage goes on to say, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession that you may proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2).

When it feels like we live in apocalyptic times, when it feels like the world is collapsing, perhaps it’s an especially good time to reclaim this doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” It’s not just a Lutheran “thing.” It’s not just a “Protestant thing.” But in Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents out of Vatican II, the Roman Church says,

The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God,(103) should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.

[If you want to have a little fun with your Roman Catholic family members over the holidays, just casually ask them how their parish is living into Lumen Gentium’s vision and the priesthood of all believers!]

Art Lindsley is a Reformed theologian who writes about the priesthood of all believers and suggests at least four implications for us—for all of us. [“The Priesthood of All Believers,” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.]

First, we all have direct access to God. It’s not like the old days when only the priest when into the temple once a year to talk with God. It’s not only the one who prays beautifully, or lives a holy life. But each of us—fallen, sinful, tired—in our own blessed way, who can and should speak to God and listen to God. Prayer is our direct line.

Second, even though we don’t offer bulls and turtledoves as sacrifices, as priests, all of us offer spiritual sacrifices. The New Testament is clear that we are to offer but sacrifices such as prayer, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, justice, kindness, and love. This empties our hearts for God and turns us more deeply towards God.

The third implication of our all being priests is that we each have a prophetic role to play. When we see injustice, we’re to speak out. When we see despair, we’re to offer hope. When we see people or institutions or governments heading in the direction of evil, we speak out.

And finally, because we’re all priests, we are to work for reconciliation. Even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against the culture. Even in the face of violence, warfare, and terror. Christ works through us so that we can work for peace. It is the Peace of Christ that we share, after all— not our peace.

As priests, we are a busy people. We have a lot to do, but we all share in this vocation of priesthood— to pray, to sacrifice, to prophecy, and to reconcile.

After 9/11 and still, we often hear the phrase, “If you see something, say something.” But for these times—both outside our walls and within, as All Souls begins an interim period—perhaps the phrase should be something like, “If you feel something, DO something.”

If you feel like calling or writing or visiting someone, don’t wait. Do something.
If you feel like giving money or food or clothes to someone you see along the way, don’t wait to analyze the situation or interview the person in need. Do something.
If you feel like there should be a new program addressing a particular issue. Don’t wait for someone wearing robes to approve or disapprove. Do something.

The Gospel today ends with Jesus predicting dangerous, unruly times. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” he says. Another version translates this, as “But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming” (The Message, Mark 13:8).  Somethings about to happen. It’s scary and might be dangerous right now. But there’s room for something new to be born.

With Christ as our guide and friend, may we be midwives and helpers as the Holy Spirit creates a new world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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