A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 25, 2015, by Christopher L. Webber.
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“but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:24-25
Until I moved to California two years ago I served on two committees that have to do with the ministry of the church. One of them is called the Society for the Increase of the Ministry or SIM. SIM is an organization that gives out money to encourage people to go to seminary and prepare for ordination. The other committee I served on was the board of examining chaplains which examines candidates for ordination and some people think it’s a committee dedicated to rejecting the candidates SIM sends forward.
It did sometimes feel as if we were working at cross-purposes, but I have to admit that I did sometimes wonder whether the candidates had learned what they ought to have learned. One thing I was looking for that I seldom found, was a sense of priesthood. It wasn’t so much facts – though that was sometimes an issue, but sometimes we would get into a discussion of priesthood and I would ask the candidates for ordination why they felt called to be priests and they would tell me they like working with people or that they like to teach or that they’re good at counseling or they feel a vocation to serve, but almost never did I hear from a candidate for priesthood why they felt called to be priests. If you’re going to be a doctor you probably know what doctors are for and if you’re going to be a bus driver, you probably know what bus drivers do. So shouldn’t a future priest know what priests are for?
A priest is, of course, many things: a marriage and bereavement counselor, a discussion leader, a bulletin proof-reader, a program organizer, a teacher, preacher, baptizer, etc. and so forth, but first he or she is a “priest.” That’s the term used in the ordination service and all through the Prayer Book for the one presiding at the ordinary Eucharist, the weekly gathering of the people of God. You also find the term “minister” in the Prayer Book but that could be anyone; any lay person can be a minister. I think the Prayer Book is a little schizophrenic on that subject. The Catechism says the “Ministers of the church are lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons” but it sometimes speaks of “ministers and people” as if there were a difference.
But ordination in the Episcopal Church is not about “ministers” – as I said, that’s everyone – most often it’s about “priests.” And I think we often overlook that fact and sort of lump Episcopal priests with Protestant ministers. There is a difference and it’s useful to think about it today because the term comes up again and again in today’s second reading and also because I celebrated an anniversary of ordination just last Tuesday so priesthood has been on my mind.
We read a passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews and it ought to be required reading not only for future priests but for all Christians because priesthood is central to the life of the church and large parts of the church lost sight of it at the Reformation. The Epistle to the Hebrews is not read as often as it should be. It’s not always easy reading but no other book in the New Testament has as much to say about priesthood. It’s talking about Jesus’ priesthood, but it’s because Jesus has a priesthood that the church has a priesthood. We are members of Jesus’ body, the church, and the Epistle of Peter calls the church, you and me, “a royal priesthood.” So I’m not just talking about future priests, I’m talking to you who have a priesthood yourselves.
As members of the Body of Christ we share Jesus’ priesthood and the people we call priests are simply the ones who symbolize and express what all Christians are called to be. It’s maybe something like the way in which the President represents America.* We’re all Americans but when we need to negotiate treaties or persuade Congress to act the President is empowered to act for us. We’re all Americans but only he can act for us all. So we all share Jesus’ priesthood in the church but the priest stands at the altar to represent us before God and reenact Jesus’ priesthood. Jesus took bread and wine and said, “This is my body . . . this is my blood;” and the priest does that same thing on behalf of the congregation. The congregation provides the bread and wine and the priest does what Jesus did – takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to the gathered disciples – that’s you. And the bread and wine becomes what Jesus said it was – his body and blood, his life to renew our lives. It becomes holy, set apart, because of what the priest does with the congregation – he or she can’t do it alone, only with you because all of us together are Jesus’ body and here we are fed with that body to be renewed in his life.
So priesthood first of all is something shared: you and I together in different roles become who Jesus is and we together become for the world what I am for you – priests – a priesthood, a royal priesthood – to do what priests do: which has to do with sacrifice and offering and holiness. Only Roman Catholics and Episcopalians and the Eastern Orthodox talk about their clergy as priests. It’s one of the reasons we call ourselves a Catholic Church: that we maintain and continue a priesthood.
We are surrounded, of course, as I said by Christians for whom, for historical reasons, priesthood is an unknown aspect of ministry, rejected at the Reformation and never recovered. The protestant churches became centered on preaching instead of sacraments. But I think something is happening. In our visual age, as people become less and less able to assimilate long sermons, as we respond to the visual images of television rather than the aural input of radio and lectures and sermons, as we become attuned to the eye instead of the ear I notice that the Protestant churches are recovering some of the outward signs and symbols – wearing vestments, putting crosses on their buildings and in their buildings and, indeed, holding communion services more often.
So perhaps this is an opportune time to share with Protestant Christians some understanding of priesthood — if we have such an understanding ourselves. What can we hope to accomplish if priests don’t know about priesthood and people don’t know about their role as priests? So what is priesthood? Here’s my definition: “Priesthood is many things. It’s first of all about sacrifice, a critical Biblical concept. It’s about self offering. It’s about participation in Christ’s self offering. It’s about the reality of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. It’s about a God who works through material things to become known in material beings and to bring us life through material things.”
Ultimately we need life and human beings have always had a sense that out there somewhere is a life giver – a source of life, a Creator. But how to approach that life giver is the problem. Most races and tribes have evolved some way to do that: they make an idol and pray to it or they take an animal and sacrifice it. We have Jesus, who offered himself in sacrifice for us. And our calling is to offer ourselves and our world, to come here and bring our offering, the money and bread and wine, but more important, ourselves: to offer ourselves for God’s work, offer ourselves to be Christ’s presence in the world. It is not about a spirituality divorced from the real world. There’s too much of that these days, too much self-centered spirituality. It’s about bringing Christ to the world and bringing the world to Christ. Another name for it is mediation – Christ our great high priest is also “our only mediator and advocate” as we still say in Rte I – but we are members of Christ’s body, what he is, we are; we share that mediatorial work. The church has a priesthood to the world and the priest personifies that role within the church.
Think how critical that is. Protestant ministry is primarily a ministry of the Word, a preaching ministry. We have that ministry too and I’m not sure we exemplify that any better than we do priesthood. But be that as it may, nobody likes to be preached at all the time, nor is that our role. A mediator has something to offer: the world to God and God to the world, the gift of life and meaning and purpose. That’s useful. It connects to a real world and its needs. So a priest is a mediator.
My favorite Bible text is Hebrews 4:15-16: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” I quote that to Inquirers’ Classes all the time. For my money, it’s what Christianity is all about. It’s about the role of a mediator, the one who makes connections. We all have needs and out there is someone able to supply that need. Maybe I need a job and somewhere there’s a chief executive who could use my skills. Maybe I need money and somewhere out there is a Wall Street plutocrat with tons of the stuff. But the common fix we are in is that the friends I have don’t have the jobs and the money and I don’t know the people that do or how to get to them. e often say, “We need connections.” So we need a mediator, a way to approach the one whose help we need, and Jesus – the one who has come here to share our life – the one who is God in human flesh – Jesus – is that mediator, that priest. We know him and he “has connections” and he knows us and he brings us back to the source of life.
That’s good news enough, but even better news is that he offers himself as mediator for the whole world and calls us to share that mediatorial work and to make that role as specific and concrete as possible by embodying it in a certain few who can represent to the rest of the church and the world that priesthood, that mediatorial function. That’s an incredible gift. And here we sit with this gift – and ignore it, hide it, misrepresent it, when it needs to be offered and shared. Won’t we find more and better candidates for ordination if they realize the full meaning of the call? Wouldn’t the church be less divided if we truly saw ourselves as a royal priesthood with gifts to share rather than a debating society about sex and morals?
For now, maybe it’s enough to know that we have a gift to share and a gift to celebrate and a job to do in a world that need Christ’s presence: to be a mediatorial priesthood bringing Christ to the world and bringing the world to Christ. It’s an enormous job but it’s desperately needed and God gives it to us. Let’s do it. Let’s be the royal priesthood we are called to be – here – today – together and tomorrow wherever God places us, a royal priesthood – breaking down barriers, bringing people together, reuniting the world with God.
*I didn’t say so in the sermon but it is of interest that the term used in the early church for the one presiding at the eucharist was “president.” Nowadays people often use the term “presider.”
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.