[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.]
One of my favorite passages in Scripture, on which Martin Luther used prominently in the development of our Lutheran tradition's "priesthood of all believers," is First Peter 2:9-10. It says of we believers in Christ: “...you are...a royal priesthood...in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Beautiful language, but what exactly does it mean for you and me to be part of “a royal priesthood”?
Before his retirement, William Harkey worked in marketing by day. But his real job, as is true of all believers in Jesus Christ, was to be a priest. In a wonderful book called How to Share Good News Without Being Obnoxious About It, Harkey tells about a time when he was living in the Chicago suburbs.
Two doors away was a neighbor who, he said, “was icy. I was friendly. A curt ‘Hi’ was all I could ever get out of him. One day, I noticed him in his backyard, practicing his golf swing. It was almost professional. It was beautiful.”
Harkey says that he himself had always been a terrible golfer. Here was a chance to connect with his neighbor! He strolled toward his fence and asked if the neighbor could give him a few tips on his swing.
“In a matter of minutes,” Harkey says, “he was coaching me like a club pro. Within weeks, we were teeing off together. Around Christmas time [they had become such good friends]…” Harkey says, they were talking about faith issues and his belief in Christ.
Bill Harkey was acting as a priest. He genuinely, authentically befriended someone and that friendship led he and his friend to genuinely, authentically share their ideas of and experiences with God together. Harkey was even able to talk with his friend about Christ.
Are you living out your call to be a priest in your everyday life?
Our second lesson for today, from Hebrews, which points us to Jesus as our great high priest, reminds us of what makes a priest a priest.
A priest, first of all has a purpose. Our Bible lesson says that, “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
Back in Old Testament times, priests at the temple in Jerusalem offered sacrifices for the people’s sins. They recognized, as Paul would put it in the New Testament, that "the wages of sin is death." Knowing that sin deserves death, the priests would offer stand-ins--sheep for those who could afford them, doves or even cereal offerings for those who were poorer. These stand-ins took the punishment for the sins of people who wanted to renounce their sins and turn back to God.
These days, as I mentioned last Sunday, we don’t need such sacrifices. Jesus was our stand-in when He died on the cross. All who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ have forgiveness of sin, God’s presence and power in their lives today, and life forever with God.
Our priesthood involves representing God to others and representing others to God. That’s why we’re involved in so many of the ministries of service and love here at Saint Matthew.
Being priests may also entail taking the time to befriend and value crabby neighbors, allowing them, through us, to experience the friendship and love of God. We do all this because we’re priests with a purpose. Our purpose is to connect God and people in the Name of Jesus.
A second thing that makes a priest a priest is sympathy. A priest, our lesson tells us, “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.”
That phrase, deal gently, translates a single word from the New Testament Greek, metriopatheo. It has the idea of laying aside our own emotions in order to feel what other people feel, to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. This is what Jesus does for us. It's what He calls us to do for others. And Hebrews mentions two groups of people with whom we are especially to make the effort to deal gently: the ignorant, those are folks who wander haplessly into sin, and the wayward, those who sin despite knowing better.
Of course, as Christians we can’t mince words about what God calls righteousness and what God calls sin. Jesus tells us that we have a sacred obligation to exercise what’s called “the office of the keys,” conferring God’s forgiveness on the repentant, withholding if from those who don’t repent. “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “and God in heaven will allow whatever you allow on earth. But he will not allow anything that you don't allow.”*
Priests know though, as Paul writes in the New Testament, that it’s the kindness of God that leads to repentance. We follow a Savior of Whom this same book of Hebrews says, “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.” Jesus went to a cross for us because of His sympathy for us. We’re to display that same sympathy for others.
Pastor Gerald Mann says that sometimes the mission of the Church is to clean up the rotten reputation given to God by Christians. I don't know why it is that Christians so readily fall into self-righteousness, looking down their noses on others. But it's wrong. One of the few bumper stickers I would ever consider putting on my car is the one that says, "Christians Aren't Perfect; Just Forgiven."
Christ endured the cross so that He could sit at the right hand of the Father and when our prayer requests come to heaven, He can turn to Him and say, "It's okay, Father. She's with Me. He's one of My own." Christ, our high priest, shows us sympathy.
I had totally bungled things. A member of another pastor’s congregation, a person I’d experienced as credible and levelheaded, had spoken to me with complaints about the pastor. He said that his opinions were also those of others. I was just out of seminary and didn’t have any sense. (As opposed to my status today: twenty-five years out of seminary and still no sense.) I went to the pastor to tell him what this person had said, not divulging the person’s name.
Without intending it, I conveyed the idea that there was widespread disaffection among the people of that church. Yes, I was trying to be helpful. But I think that I was also feeding my ego, playing the role of Superman.
Within hours, the pastor had composed a letter asking the congregation to tell him, since there was widespread unhappiness with his ministry, if it were time for him to go. I was shocked! When he read this letter to me over the phone, I put down the receiver and ran to his office.
I asked him, “Would it help you to know who was saying all of these things about you?” He said that it would and when he learned the person’s identity, he laughed and said, “He was born with a lemon in his mouth and a list of grievances as long as your arm.” He tore up the letter.
Then, he and I went to talk with his wife. You see, he had called her immediately after speaking with me and she was furious with me, sure that I was part of some cabal to run her husband out of the ministry. I apologized profusely (and genuinely) for the heartbreak I’d caused them both.
You might rightly have expected them to keep me at arm’s length forevermore. But they completely forgave me. They remain good friends. They have sympathetic spirits. They know all about what it’s like to be human and so they don’t hold grudges. Their demenor reflects Jesus, our great high priest, who knows exactly what it’s like to be human and is willing to be the advocate and Savior for all who turn from sin and turn to Him.
A third thing that makes a priest a priest is call. Our lesson tells us that a priest “does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God” and points out, “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’”
In gratitude to our Lord, you and I are called to use our lives to glorify God. People who dedicate themselves to this call lead useful lives, lives that point others to God for help and hope, lives through which God gives help and hope to people. That’s why the leadership provided by our servanthood team this year has been so important. They’ve held up the central importance of our call to be priests of Jesus Christ!
At our last Church Council meeting, we set a new date for our congregational Friend Day. It’s a time when you and I will bring the non-churchgoing neighbors and friends we’ve invited to be with us to worship God and hear the Good News that we all can be made new when we turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ.
Friend Day will be on May 2. It’s not too early to begin praying about who you will invite to be with us on that day.
And it’s never too early to claim your role in Christ’s priesthood of all believers. We can claim that role because, in Christ, we have a purpose, because we have sympathy for other sinners who need the forgiveness and grace of Christ as much as we do, and because we have a call from God. Amen
*This rendering of the passage is from the Contemporary English Version (CEV).