Church and the Priesthood of All
A sermon based on Acts 2:42-47
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 7, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A pastor’s sermon emphasizing how not just ordained ministers, but all Christians need to provide service and witness to their neighbors inspired a church family. The mom really took it to heart and invited their next door neighbors to dinner. At the meal she was keen to show the guests how her family upheld Christian standards. So she asked her 5 year old to say grace.
Little Johnny was a bit shy. “I don’t know what to say.” There was an awkward pause, followed by a reassuring smile from the mom. “Well darling just say what Daddy said to God at breakfast this morning. And then say ‘Amen.’” The boy shrugged his shoulders and obediently repeated what he remembered his dad said . . . “Oh God, we’ve got those awful people next door coming to dinner tonight. Amen” 1
That story is in sharp contrast to our lesson today. The mom’s response to her worship experience was on the right track, but Church is supposed to lead all of us to be good to others– this includes not deriding others behind their backs. Our short little Bible lesson is actually packed with a lot of information.
We heard that the early Church’s dedication to teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers together caused awe. And all who believed did not just come together, but cared so much that they’d sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. And we are told that they did all of that with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. That kind of church and response by its members we’re told “added to their number those who were being saved.”
Churches have long been measured by whether they have Acts 2’s teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers together. Those four essences of church are honed in on in one form or another in seminaries and in church councils and worship committees so that most churches can and will claim they have those foundational markings. But the responses of the church members in Acts 2 that come from those markings are often glossed over, even ignored. See those markings of the church are supposed to have effect, an effect so profound we desire and live toward the ideals set out in the lesson. Christian response to church done right is supposed to be that we all aim to do life right–and care with glad and generous hearts and give, in the words of Acts to “ as any ha[s] need . . .”
And unlike many churches, maybe even the Church as a whole today, the result of the early Church was it was reported to have “the goodwill of all the people,” or as the New International Version translation puts it was “enjoying the favor of all the people.” That was at least what the early Church was aimed at. Scholars think these Acts 2 church reactions to this form of worship; that response of the caring for all who had need and doing so with glad and generous hearts, are early ideals and that not even the early churches fulfilled them fully. What they are, are the ideal, the goal.
Interestingly many modern Christian churchgoers expect clergy– pastors, bishops, and the Pope– along with cloistered monks and nuns– to live toward the ideals, to do life right and care with glad and generous hearts and give to “as any ha[s] need . . . and hav[e] the goodwill of all the people.” Christians aspire that their clergy and cloistered do this, and resoundly criticize them when even just the lay member’s interpretation of what they think that means is not met.
But, see, here is the thing, that family in the joke I told, the laity, the parents, as Christians are all supposed to aim for those ideals too. Not just the mom, but the dad and the children old enough to be led by example. Instead of begrudgingly inviting folks and speaking ill of them (like, “Oh God, we’ve got those awful people next door coming to dinner tonight”), they like all of us Christians – clergy and laity alike– are supposed to be a part of what has long been called “the priesthood of all believers.”
Martin Luther’s is responsible for giving the concept the label “the priesthood of all believers.” And I’ve heard many UCC churches, including this one, state that there is a “priesthood of all believers.” That is because it is a cardinal principle of the Reformation. Professor Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, notes that
In his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520), Luther criticized the traditional distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” orders—the laity and the clergy—arguing that all who belong to Christ through faith, baptism, and the Gospel shared in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and belonged “truly to the spiritual estate”: “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism 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.” All baptized believers are called to be priests, Luther said, but not all are called to be pastors. 2
Put simply, clergy are not the only ministers in church. 3 (FOW 425). We are ALL supposed to minister.
But as Luther points out that doesn’t mean each church member gets to take over the pastor’s position and try to be in charge of worship or administration of the church. It means Christians as a rule are supposed do, expect themselves to do, and to do life right–and care with glad and generous hearts and give to “as any ha[s] need . . . ” Professor George put it like this,
for Luther, the priesthood of all believers did not mean, “I am my own priest.” It meant rather: In the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other. We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God’s Word to one another and we celebrate his presence among us in worship, praise, and fellowship. Moreover, our priestly ministry does not terminate upon ourselves. It propels us into the world in service and witness.
Professor George goes on to sum it up like this:
The priesthood of all believers is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of the life of God’s people in the body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world, the world for which Christ died. 4
Church done right includes Bible related teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers together. Which is what we are doing this morning with a lesson and sermon, communion, time here and downstairs together and in our prayers through music, silence and words spoken aloud. Those four essences of church are here, we have the those foundational markings. To quote the pertinent part of the lesson, we are devoted “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
All members of Christ’s churches are supposed to – through what we now call “the priesthood of all believers”– respond to church-done-right experiences of the Sacred by exuding love in our every day actions to one another and in our every day lives to all others. Church done well, propels Christians into the world in service and witness, to care so much that we use our own resources to help those in need, and do so with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. That’s the ideal.
And our attitude toward God can make a difference in whether we succeed. Some churches worry so much about God being hostile that they believe, in essence, that Christianity is a means to appease God’s wrath by avoiding it through a set of doctrines that must be believed. Other churches – including this one– take a different approach. We understand God is love and therefore caring and nurturing. For us Christianity is a means to share that love and further that care and nurturing by literally becoming a part of it.
Marcus Borg once preached a sermon on faith noting that faith is a way of seeing the whole of existence. In that sermon he summarized another great theologian, Richard Niebuhr’s, three very different attitudes humans develop toward our beingness, the whole of it, what the Book of Acts calls the God we live and move and have our being in. One attitude is to understand it, God, the whole, as hostile and try to appease it. Another attitude is to understand it, God, the whole, as indifferent and try to give it meaning. The third attitude is, as Dr. Borg preached, to understand it, God, “the whole [,] as gracious, nourishing and supportive of life, to see it as that which has brought us into existence and continues to nourish us.”
Dr. Borg goes on to note that in this third attitude and understanding
“[t]here is nothing Pollyanna-ish about [it]. This attitude is still very much aware that the flower fades, the grass withers, that we all die. But to see reality as supportive, gracious and nourishing creates the possibility of responding to life in a posture of trust and gratitude. 5 (26)
Dr. Borg is right.
And like this church, Jesus and the early Church– seem to have understood that that which we live and move and have our being in (God) not as hostile or indifferent, but as gracious and nourishing. And the early Church response to that understanding of God is, in the Old Testament language of Genesis, to act like the image of God on earth that we were made to be– that Jesus the Christ clearly became.
To use another Old Testament concept – this time from Micah– the early Church knew that the worship time is meaningless unless we leave with the attitude of becoming God’s agents in action in our daily lives. In other words, worship needs to result in doing the good that God requires; which Micah 6 (8) clearly states is to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. (You’ve probably seen that somewhere before.)
The bottom line is that worship and church is great, but it’s not being responded to Biblically if it does not lead to seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Or to use the our Lectionary lesson, all Christians should leave church hoping to and aiming to help as any have need, and to so with “glad and generous hearts, praising God.”
All of this that we do here on Sunday is meant to lead us to answer the call to the priesthood of all believers. We must – together and alone– respond to church-done-right experiences of the Sacred by exuding love in action out in the world ministering not just to one another, but to the sick, the poor, the imprisoned and the stranger, to Christ in everyone as has need. Thank God for the church done right and for Jesus Followers who accept the call to the priesthood of all believers. AMEN.
1. Based on a joke I found at http://jokes.christiansunite.com/Hypocrites/Just_the_Truth.shtml
2. From The Priesthood of all Believers by Timothy George posted on his website “First Things” at https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/10/the-priesthood-of-all-believers
3 Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, p 425
4. George, Timothy, The Priesthood of all Believers
5. Borg, Marcus, Days of Awe and Wonder: How to Be a Christian in the Twenty-first Century, p 26.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED