15 October 2017

A Holy Priesthood

1 Peter 2:1-10

“There’s a wild boar loose in the vineyard.”  That boar was none other than Martin Luther (1483-1546).  This is how the Church in Rome viewed Luther in June of 1520, almost three years after the incident in Wittenberg, Germany, when this young priest/monk/theology professor took on the Church by writing 95-Theses against the sale of indulgences.  Tradition has it that Luther nailed his theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, although there is no first-hand account that ever took place.  Some said he used glue and pasted his theses to the church door.  Far less dramatic.  Whether he used a nail or a pot of glue we’ll probably never know, but what we do know is that the theses were sent on the 31st October 1517 to Archbishop Albrecht, the most important Churchman in all Germany.  Within two months almost everyone in Germany knew about the theses.  Hence, 31 October 1517 marks the beginning of the Reformation (although, it didn’t technically start on that date, reform started decades earlier).  It was the writing of this text that sparked the Reformation—it was a text that sparked the reform.  A text undermined Papal authority.  As historian Lyndal Roper writes in her new biography Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, the 95-Theses “implied the root-and-branch critique of the whole edifice of the late medieval Church,”[1] which led to questioning the sale of indulgences, effectively questioning the Church’s power to grant absolution, to grant indulgences that released a loved from the holds of purgatory, thus undermining the priestly function of the Church and undermining the authority given to priests.  

In several weeks, we will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  The churches of the Reformation are intentionally remembering and honoring the great events of the sixteenth-century reform of the church, but not celebrating; it’s a commemoration.  There is much for which we can be thankful; but the Reformation also has a shadow or dark side to his history—and we share in this legacy today, both the good and the bad. 

Luther was a child of God, which means he was a sinner like the rest of us.  He’s not someone who should be idolized.  He had his shortcomings.  He could be rude and crude and curse like a drunken sailor.  He was also anti-Semitic, like most of the Church at the time.  The reformers were not perfect.  The same goes for John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva; Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1541) and Heinrich Bullinger (1505-1575) in Zurich or John Knox (c.1513-1572) in St. Andrews.  Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger, Knox, among others, were reformers trying to heal the church, they were innovators, but they weren’t radicals.  They never wanted to leave the Church, merely reform it from within.  They viewed themselves as being the true Church, not a new Church or something called “Protestant.” 

These reformers had little patience with those who wanted to push for greater reforms, such as the Anabaptists, the radical reformers, as historians call them. Anabaptists didn’t recognize baptism as infants in the Roman Church, so they were baptized again (hence, ana-baptist) as adults, by being fully immersed.  In 1527, Zwingli was so enraged by the Anabaptists that, with cruel irony, he said to the city council, “Drown the dippers.” And, so, they were drowned in the Limmat River in Zurich. Today, there’s a moving memorial to the victims in Zurich, along the river where they were drowned.  Religious terrorism—“Christian” terrorism—is nothing new.

Perhaps the greatest loss to the Church because of the Reformation is the fragmentation of the body of Christ. Therefore, we shouldn’t celebrate the Reformation, but commemorate it. Georges Florovsky, the great twentieth-century Orthodox theologian, captured the dilemma of the Church. Catholicism means “unity at the expense of freedom,” whereas Protestantism meant “freedom at the expense of unity.”[2] Today, there are roughly forty-three thousand Christian denominations in the world. There were approximately five hundred in 1800, and thirty-nine thousand in 2008.  By 2025, the number is expected to rise to fifty-five thousand.[3]

Despite its divisive nature, there is still much within Protestantism that needs to be honored and affirmed today—in new ways. Consider the great pillars of the Reformation: Sola fide (faith alone).  Sola scriptura (scripture alone).  Sola gratia (grace alone).  Solus Christus (Christ alone.  Sola Dei gloria (for the glory of God alone).  Scripture needs to read in one’s language. The interpretation of the Bible must not be filtered through tradition or priestly authority, but come directly through the Holy Spirit illuminating the text to an individual and to a community.  Faith saves us, not human works or efforts or acts of do-goodism.  It’s all about grace, free, freely offered by Christ.  All of these themes of the Reformation are just as relevant today.

The Protestant way of being Christian emerged out of the rise of humanism and Renaissance sweeping Europe in the late fifteenth- early sixteenth-centuries.  Without the Renaissance, meaning rebirth, there would have been no reform or renaissance of the Church.  One of the hallmarks of Renaissance humanism was: Ad fontes. Back to the fountains, meaning, back to the sources.  There was a deep hunger to go back to ancient texts, both religious and non-religious texts, to learn from them and then be informed by them.  This led to a questioning spirit, which permeated everything, including theology and the Church.  It led to questioning the interpretation of scripture, questioning the tradition of the Church, the authority of the Pope, the role of the priest, the nature of the sacraments, the meaning of salvation, the nature of Christian vocation, the relationship between the Church and the State.  A questioning spirit sparked intellectual growth, encouraged more people to read and, therefore, think for oneself.  This led to the democratization of thought, helped to spark the rise of science and an age of discovery in the 1600s, and, eventually, led to the emergence of democratic governments.  Renaissance led to reformation led to revolution, especially here in the United States in the 1770s, where most people living in the colonies were Calvinists, in one form or another.

There are many aspects of the Reformation which we could focus on to help shed light on the contemporary church.  The one I feel led to highlight today is the priesthood

One of the cardinal principles of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.”  As we know, Luther did away with the priesthood.  The leaders of worshipping communities were not called priests, but pastors.  Calvin preferred the designation minister.  I am not a priest. Although I’ve gotten used to being called Father when I’m visiting a hospital wearing my dog collar.  Sometimes I’m referred to as a priest, especially when I’m introduced in public settings where most are Roman Catholic. This doesn’t really bother me. 

What is a priest?  To be a priest is to be a mediator between heaven and earth, between humanity and God.  In ancient religions, priests offered sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the people.  I’m not this kind of priest.  I don’t preside as a priest at Communion.  There is no sacrifice being offered in this sanctuary.  That’s why Calvinist churches have tables and not altars in their worship places. 

Martin Luther's Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, 1520
Luther, the wild boar, really stirred things up in 1520 with his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation.  Luther criticized the traditional distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” orders between the laity and the clergy.[4]  From a Calvinist perspective, we should never use words such as laity and clergy.  There’s no such thing as clergy as a spiritual caste set apart, considered higher and more holy than everyone else.  Some so-called “clergy” think of themselves in this way, as being better than the so-called “laity.”  Sometimes congregations project upon their leaders the notion that they are more spiritual and holier than others.  From a Calvinist perspective, the ordination of a minister or elder or deacon is never to a higher status.  Ordination doesn’t elevate.  Ordination is to function and service.  Ordination differentiates, it sets people apart for a particular function, work, or responsibility. 

Luther argued that all who belong to Christ through faith, baptism, and the Gospel share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and belong, therefore, “truly to the spiritual estate.”  We hear this same idea here in 1 Peter, where the church is viewed as living stones, participating and sharing in the life of Christ. Christ is working with living stones—human beings—to build a new temple, a spiritual house, offering a new way for us to relate to one another and the world as agents of Christ. And who leads rites and rituals and sacrifices in the temple? The priest.  But, there is only one great high priest (Heb. 4:14-16), Jesus Christ; and, as Paul said, there is only one true mediator between God and humanity, and that is Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).

According to Peter, we, as part of the community of Christ, take on the priestly function of Christ, both individually and together.  This means, theologically, that each of us have become priests, by virtue of our baptisms.  “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism,” Luther said, “can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although of course it is not seemly that just anybody shall exercise such office.”[5]  All baptized believers are called to be priests, Luther said, but not all are called to be pastors.

But you are a chosen people,” declares Peter, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” The “you” is plural here in Greek. You all.  Y’all.  Y’all—are a chosen people.  Y’all are a royal priesthood.  Priests. 

Neither Peter, nor Luther, are claiming that “I am my own priest.”  Instead, in the body of Christ, in this holy temple, we get to mediate the presence of Christ to one another.  And, as priests, y’all have the authority, as priests, to pray to God on behalf of the world, on behalf of one another.  Luther wasn’t advocating for religious individualism or privatism; instead, he called the collective power of the community of the saints to mediate, share, embody, enact Christ’s love to another.

Calvin framed the priesthood of all believers in terms of the Church’s threefold office of Christ as Prophet, King, and Priest.  For Calvin, and many Protestants, every Christian is mandated to be a representative of Christ reaching out the world—not just the religious professional.  “All believers,” Calvin said, “should seek to bring others into the church, and should strive to lead the wanderers back to the road, should stretch forth a hand to the fallen and should win over the outsiders.”[6]  We each have a calling.  We don’t rest on our titles as priests.  We’re called to action.  We’re commissioned to act.

And, it needs to be stressed, therefore, that you have the authority to act. By virtue of your baptism, you are authorized to act.  You have more power, more influence, more ability, more capacity than you think.  You don’t have be at the mercy of an outside authority who gives you permission to be a priest.  God assumes that you’re competent.  You have everything you need to serve.  You have everything you need to love.  You have everything you need to offer grace, to care for your neighbor, to transform the world.

In many respects, through the notion of the priesthood of all believers, rooted in scripture, Luther is saying to the Church: grow up.  Set aside childish dependency. Become an adult.  Step into your own authority.  Live from your core identity.  Claim it.  You’re free to.  You have the power to mediate the presence of Christ. You have the power to mediate God’s grace.  Christ has called you out of darkness into “wonderful light.”  You/we can live from and with and through that “wonderful light”—thaumaston autou phos.  The marvelous, wonderful light of Christ.

Isn’t this what we’re called to be about as the Church today?  It’s so easy for us to become depressed about declining membership rolls and statistics, and so we get stuck and frustrated and despondent.  We grieve over the membership losses of the old Mainline denominations, we grieve the loss of power and influence in society that came with being the majority.  Looking backward doesn’t help us be faithful to what Christ is calling us toward today. 

The Reformers didn’t worry about membership decline.  Do you know why?  Because they were a minority!  They were a fringe movement within the Church.  They weren’t worried about statistics.  Instead, they had passion for Christ, for the work of Christ, their hearts and minds were on fire.  They were people with deep conviction and from that place of assurance, they acted in bold, courageous ways.  Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that American Protestantism is on the decline, that we have lost our voice and influence in society, because now we’re freer to really be the church, freer to be faithful to Christ, released, as it were, from our “Babylonian” captivity to the culture around us, freer to the vision of the gospel.

So, church: exercise your authority, use your gifts, take risks, serve, love, forgive, work for justice, for reformation, be agents of transformation.  One of the greatest blessings and joys of the church (when it is really being the church and not a religious institution or social club) is that we get to be priests, we get to mediate Christ presence to one another and the world. We do so because we can. 

Y’all can pray for one another, and on behalf of the world. 
Y’all can love. 
Y’all can listen. 
Y’all have the keys of the kingdom (Mt. 16:19).  
You have the capacity to extend mercy and forgiveness and peace.  You can offer hope and healing.  
You can be an agent of Christ’s marvelous, wonderful light. 
May it be so.

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[1] Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Random House, 2017), xix.  For an excellent overview of the Reformation see Dairmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (Penguin, 2005).  See also Alec Ryrie, Protestantism: The Faith that Made the Modern World (Viking Press, 2017).
[2] Cited in George Hunsinger, “Can the Churches Be Reunited?Commonweal Magazine, October 11, 2017. 
[3] Cited in Hunsinger.
[4] Cited in Timothy George, “The Priesthood of All Believers,” First Things, October 2016.
[5] Martin Luther, cited in George.
[6] John Calvin, cited in George.