Living into Priesthood (of All Believers)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

At yesterday’s Diocesan convention, several hundred of us were gathered in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. We were excited to be back in that beautiful space together, joined by others online in our first Diocesan hybrid convention. We all did our best to celebrate faith and enjoy the day. Parts of the worship, prayer, and program were glorious. 

But there were parts that were sad, and hard, and worrisome. As we move into November, all our churches are nervous about the coming year’s budget and programs and possibilities. Will families move back to the city? Will people who have drifted come back to church? Will groups that lease space return again? Will we stay healthy and faithful and creative enough to make it through?

If we pay attention to the news, we might feel like some of today’s scripture readings from Daniel or Mark are coming true in our times. With climate changes, famines, and storms, the pandemic continuing to flare up here and there, and wars and rumors of wars, we know the uncertainty of the times.

We might be tempted to do what Jesus warns against—look for a quick fix, a guru, a temporary authority, or another messiah. 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.

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.

As I was reminded yesterday, that beautiful prayer asking God to “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new” is not only used on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but also in the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons. But it’s a prayer that involves all of us.

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. 

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.  

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.

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 fourth 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.

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.

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