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.


[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.

01 October 2017

Proclaiming Peace

Ephesians 2:14-22

“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14).

Both groups into one.  The groups Paul has in mind are Gentiles and Jews. The Gentile question preoccupied the early church.  Can Gentiles follow Christ?  Or, must Gentiles first become Jews, that is follow the Jewish Law, to follow Christ?  Jesus was Jewish after all, and he certainly wasn’t Christian. Was Jesus sent only for Jews or did God have the entire world in mind?  Are Jewish followers of Christ bound to Jewish Law? 

These questions permeate Paul’s writings, the debates over these questions were intense and fierce.  Paul’s answer is clear, especially here in Ephesians.  Paul writes—and pay close attention to what he’s proposing—Christ “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances”— toward what end? —“that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Eph. 2:15).

This is a remarkable window into Paul’s grace-filled imagination.  He understands God to be doing a new thing in and through Christ, “to create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”  A new humanity in place of the two, making peace.  At the risk of oversimplification, what we have here is a summary of Christ’s ministry and a beautiful description what happens when we are in Christ.  It’s an arresting image:  Christ at work breaking down walls of division to form something new.  You see, Christ is always at work breaking down walls of division, if we let him. Between God and humanity; between ourselves and God; between ourselves and others.  And, Christ’s people are continually being formed into something new, as disparate groups of people, not only two but three or four and more, are forged into a new humanity, with a new identity rooted, not in an ideology or group or ethnicity or even nationality, but in Christ.

“So [Christ] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:17).  Not either-or, both-and. This is the way of Christ. This is the way of Christ’s people.  This is how you can identify the work of Christ today, wherever this pattern is enfleshed in the world. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mt. 5:9).

And, so Paul, being a practical pastor-theologian, invited Christ’s people to re-imagine themselves. He gave them a new vision. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph. 2:19). What an image.

In several weeks, we’ll commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. When we think of Martin Luther (1483-1546), we think of passages from Romans, such as "the just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). However, I was struck by a comment made by Susan Jaeger, several weeks ago our adult education class.  She cited N. T. Wright’s observation that the history of the church since the Reformation would have been very different had Luther, instead of focusing on Romans, turned to Ephesians with its image of Christ as our peace, tearing down dividing walls. If only.

In place of walls and fences and divisions, Christ offers us peace.  And one of the best expressions of this peace is Christ’s people gathered around a table.  It’s been said, “In a place of privilege, it is better to build a longer table than a higher fence.”  Our ultimate privilege is who we are in Christ.  We are God’s “new creation,” God’s “new humanity,” rooted and grounded in love (Eph. 3:17).  Our lives are to reflect the Lord of love, who came not to divide but to bring God’s children together, declaring peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.  As Paul came to know personally, when we are in Christ, all these categories of near and far, insider and outsider, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, friend and stranger, indeed, every category, breaks down.  Dividing lines begin to blur as disparate groups, disparate identities, disparate nationalities, disparate ethnicities merge to form something new—a new humanity that lives in the community of Christ’s people, the Church.  And the symbol around which the community gathers is none other than a table, not a cross.  Yes, Christ’s death on the cross changes us; Christ’s suffering transfigures human suffering and transforms our lives.  But the symbol of the new humanity in the early church was not the cross, but the table. A table.

Catacombs of Priscilla
Go down into the catacombs outside Rome and you won’t find a single fresco of Christ on the cross.  You don’t find the cross anywhere.  Remember, the cross doesn’t become a Christian symbol until the fourth century, when the Roman Empire coopted Christianity.  But what you will find in the catacombs are frescoes of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples gathered around a table. The meal was central. We know that the first Christians worshipped on Sunday evenings and shared a meal together.  They not only remembered Jesus, they encountered his real presence in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, they affirmed their commitment to one another, they shared their lives, they held all things in common (Acts 2:44), they prayed together, they sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making melody in their hearats to the Lord (Eph. 5:19), and they offered thanksgiving to God.  Thus, they came to know what being a living temple of the living God looks like and feels like; they realized that the community had become a dwelling place of God—not in a building, not even in a sanctuary (as beautiful as this one is), but in them and in the community, the koinonia.  We are the temple.  Christ dwells both in one’s hearts and hearts united in Christ. 

On this World Communion Sunday, as followers of Jesus we know that tables matter more to the Lord than fences or walls—and we need to affirm this especially today in a world obsessed with fences and walls, that prefers to instill divisions between peoples and races and groups.  And, friends, do not underestimate the counter-cultural power of the Lord’s Table; do not underestimate what we are about celebrate here.  The table calls us into a radically different way of living, a subversive way of being, which imagines an alternative way of being human, of being in relationship. Just consider the early church in Rome, above ground the Romans were crucifying enemies of the statement, while below ground, underground, we have images of Christ's people around a table.  The contrast couldn't be more striking.

~ ~ ~ ~

“To participate in the Eucharist [or Communion] is to live inside God’s imagination.  It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ.”[1]  We are being drawn into that body.  For, the Lord welcomes us, in all our wild diversity, to participate in his life; he invites us to lift up our hearts into the life of God.  

And this new life is symbolized in what happens here at this table, when we experience Christ in the breaking of the bread—which is Christ in our breaking and in those places where the world is breaking; when we experience Christ in the sharing of the cup—which is Christ sharing his life with us and our lives with him, sharing in the life of the world. And because of this mystical participation, this sharing, of suffering and life, we experience unity, we discover that Christ is our peace.  And, because Christ has welcomed us here, we extend that welcome to everyone. We make sure there are plenty of place settings, that no one is excluded.  We make sure that every barrier is removed, that everyone has free unencumbered access to the abundance of this table, to the presence and peace of the Lord.

So, come, taste and see that God is good (Ps. 34:8).  

Know again—or, maybe for the very first time—the gifts of God are for the people of God, for you.  For the world.

Thanks be to God!


[1] William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 279.