“God’s Universal Priesthood” 10 of 11 in a series on the 16th Century Reformations (1 Peter 2:4-9)Mark Longhurst, November 19, 2017
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page
First Congregational Church of Williamstown
Rev. Mark Longhurst
“God’s Universal Priesthood”
1 Peter 2:4-9
10 of 11 in a series on the 16th Century Reformations
There’s an explosive principle at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. It’s this: the priesthood of all believers. It means basically what we think it means. Regardless of degree or ordination status or vocational calling or non-celibate living or race, gender or sexual orientation, we are all priests. We all mirror God to each other.
Did you know this? Did you know that you have direct access to God? Did you know that you reveal Christ to each other, to the world? It’s scandalous, really, that you and I, professors, writers, managers, doctors, artists, and retired folks and unemployed folks, and students and moms and dads, are all invited to stand naked in the fullness of God’s presence, the holy of holies.
We may have heard this phrase, “priesthood of all believers” before. We may have joked about it in clever ways, as did a church I once attended, printing Ministers of the Church: All of Us! on the back of the bulletin. But frankly, it’s shocking that divinely egalitarian communities spring up in 1 Peter’s day, in Martin Luther’s day, and in our day, that dare call everyday women and men representatives of God. And not only this, 1 Peter’s writer dares call us temples of God, too. Not only are we the leaders in the temple, directly encountering God’s presence, but we are the temple. The author wants to be sure we internalize the point. We are priests and priestesses, but we are also the bricks, the stones in a spiritual house. These people. These bodies.
We may take this principle for granted, but it’s worth lingering on, especially in a Reformation series, because our religious history has typically lifted up not the priesthood of all believers, but the priesthood of one believer. The one mediator between God and humanity. The one who believes on our behalf, maybe even so we don’t have to.
In the book of Exodus, Aaron does quite well for himself. God chooses Moses to lead the ancient Israelites into liberation from under Egyptian slavery, and God gives stuttering Moses a helper, Aaron. He is to speak to Pharoah on Moses’ behalf.
But then something interesting happens in the narrative: once the people are freed, once they are living a nomadic life in the wilderness and once Moses has gained his own confidence, Aaron fades temporarily from the scene. We don’t hear much about it.
Then, as ancient Israel’s numbers expand, as the Torah instructions, and instructions around the Torah instructions expand, religious bureaucracy likewise grows. A complex system of animal sacrifice emerges, which naturally requires a holy, set apart, high priest to administer. That role is given to Aaron, and Aaron’s sons, and then eventually their whole tribe. The Tribe of Levi becomes the tribe of priests in ancient Israel. The book of Leviticus is called such because it’s written primarily as a rule book for the priests. It’s their job to ensure that the correct vestments are used, that the proper gold is attached to the priest’s breastplate, the right color of yarn is incorporated into the priest’s robe, that the minister wears the right liturgical color on her stole. And that’s just the clothing.
Then there are the rules about animal sacrifice. The correct animals are to be killed in a given order, with body parts placed on the altar to burn before God in just the right succession, with animal blood dipped and poured in just the right places, with just the appropriate amount. And that’s just the sacrifices. Then there’s the ritual purification laws needed to enter into the holy place of sacrifice in the first place, which fills the entire book of Leviticus.
At first, Aaron is simply Moses’s helper. By the end of the wilderness wanderings, he’s a leader in a religion, he’s a priest, one who serves as an intermediary between God and the people. It’s not enough anymore for ancestor Jacob to build an altar out of rocks and claim that God is here, in this place. Now we need a religious industrial complex to do it for us.
No wonder the chief priests in Jerusalem plotted Jesus’s death. By operating as if he has a direct line to Mother-Father God, he threatened the functioning of their system. But religion seems always to find a way to evolve, and then devolve, and then, we hope, evolve again. Take communion, for example. First, there are simply Jesus’s followers eating the Eucharist, or what they called the agape or love meal, which in effect is a ritual potluck. It only takes a few hundred years, however, for Eucharist to devolve from community feasting, (which surely involved 1st century equivalents for pie, by the way), to sacrificial meal for clergy only. By Martin Luther’s day, the laity do not even participate. They simply sit there while the priest ingests the spiritual food for them. On their behalf, sometimes even separated by a screen, so that you cannot even see what the priest was doing.
Martin Luther explodes his critique in the early 1520s with a couple of blistering writings. One is called An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and in it he writes: “There is, at bottom, really no difference between lay [people], priests, princes, bishops, or in Romanist terminology, between religious and secular. All have spiritual status, and all are truly priests, bishops and popes.” (page 409) We differ according to occupation and role; sometimes we give different jobs to different people, he says, but we are the same in spiritual status. We are all truly priests, bishops, and popes. Yes, according to our Protestant tradition, you are on the same spiritual level as Pope Francis! And that’s pretty cool. Be grateful, “You are a royal priesthood,” as 1 Peter tells it.
But we can sense this push-pull of priesthood even within the Bible. This letter of Peter, likely circulated among rural communities in the Roman empire, is bold. “You are the priesthood,” which is another way of saying “this is what democracy looks like.” Not everyone in the New Testament agrees, however. The letter to the Hebrews, after all, does not calls us priests but lifts up Jesus as the high priest, through which we all gain access to God. There’s a subtle difference between Jesus as the chief priest of a universal priesthood and Jesus as the only priest. The nuance is in how we conceive authority.
We like our strong men and women; even liberals, if we’re honest. Even if we’re a little more expansive than claiming our Jesus is the only way; we still embrace our charismatic figures, our best-selling preachers and teachers, our powerful men, our gurus and media stars, the politicians that we love, and ones that sicken us but from whom we cannot turn away. We may be guilty of overlooking the authoritarian and oligarchical tendencies of our strong men, and our strong women, even those on “our” side, even those tendencies such as “sovereignty” that we attribute to God, almost without thinking.
But something is shifting these days towards the priesthood of all believers. We’re tearing idols down, these days, instead of lifting them up. We’re finally believing the women who name their sexual assailant’s names. Donald Trump. Roy Moore. Louis CK. And even Bill Clinton. The courage that women are showing in force, together, today, is nothing less than reclaiming their inherent priestly identity. They, too, we too, stand in the holy of holies, even though men of power have shoved and kicked them, us, out. We all have direct access to God, which is always good news for those with less power.
Our church, the First Congregational Church of Williamstown, is God’s universal priesthood in action. It’s the democratizing principle at the heart of our identity. A bishop doesn’t assign a pastor; you discern God’s Living Word and call her. And I don’t simply direct you to how I think the church’s life should unfold; on my best days, I find that sweet balance of both leading and serving our collective discernment of God’s guidance. We join Ministry Teams not because we need to fill a slot on a Team, but because your unique skills and passions and voices are essential to the vibrant running of the church. We give to the Pledge Drive, not because it’s a spiritual commandment, which it is, but because we truly believe our contribution matters and helps serve a larger vision of God’s love and justice in community.
We rely on each other to see and mirror God, to be the body of Christ, to each other. And, eventually, this priesthood of all believers cracks us open to the sacred nature of reality itself. To paraphrase Richard Rohr on the Eucharist, if Christ is revealed in bread and wine, Christ is revealed in everything. Or, to use the words of Mary Oliver, our priestly task is nothing less than to love the world and to shout with joy to the moth and wren and sleepy dug-up clam that, yes, we live forever.
1 Peter 2:4-9
4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (ESV)