(Acts 6:1-6; Psalm 110:1-4; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14)
Last week the sermon was about what makes a church successful. Acts 2:42-47 taught us that the first church had six characteristics: Bible study, fellowship, communion, prayer, worship, and generosity. These are the essential characteristics of a successful church. This week we will learn that every member of a church is a priest. Not everyone wears a priest’s collar or robe, not everyone baptizes or serves communion, not everyone preaches or prays publicly, but ALL are priests. We are Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ, so we are priests.
The biblical basis for the understanding that all Christians are priests comes mainly from 1 Peter 2:9:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
The belief that all Christians are priests is called “the priesthood of all believers.” It is a central belief in the American Baptist tradition. Jesus Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection, once and for all did away with the separation between God and human beings. In his life, he taught us how to live in communion with God and with our fellow human beings through the two greatest commandments. In his death, Jesus broke the power of sin and evil by his sacrificial obedience to the way of God and the will of God unto death, “even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). In this way, he restored the possibility of communion with God (what is often referred to as atonement). In his resurrection, Jesus revealed that the way of God is the way of life. As Paul states in his letter to the Romans, not even death “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). We have no need of priests separate from all believers because Jesus, as high priest, is all we need. Hebrews 5:7-9 states:
“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”
As Jesus breathed his last and died on the cross, the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the people was torn in two, signifying that God and God’s people were no longer separate, and that all who desire to do so have direct access to God through Jesus Christ, our high priest.
The priesthood of all believers is described in the brochure, “Ten Facts About American Baptists,” which states,
“American Baptists believe that the committed individual Christian can and should approach God directly . . . [They] hold that all who truly seek God are both competent and called to develop in that relationship. They have rejected creeds or other statements that might compromise each believer’s obligation to interpret Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and within the community of faith.
(By the way, the contents of that brochure is on our church website under the tab, “Believe,” in case you want to read it.)
If all disciples of Jesus Christ are priests, then why do we need professional clergy to lead us? This is a legitimate question. The truth is, we don’t have to have professional clergy. Any disciple could do what professional clergy do. He could visit and pray with the sick. She could serve communion. He could lead a worship service. She could preach. He could baptize. She could officiate at a funeral service. One of the reasons we have professional clergy lead us is so that we have trained people lead us, people who have studied the Bible in depth, learned the history of Christianity, been taught how to put a sermon together and preach it, practiced crafting a worship service, learned how to navigate a hospital, had psychological testing to verify their psychological stability, and so on. We have professional clergy for the same reason we have professional teachers, or professional musicians, or professional electricians, and so on.
Another reason we have professional clergy is related to spiritual gifts. Those who become professional ministers have (hopefully) the gifts required to do the things that professional clergy do. They have church leadership ability not only because they are trained ministers, but because they were given that gift by the Spirit.
The difference then, between laity and clergy is not hierarchical, but functional. All are priests, but they express their priesthood through different functions in the church. The functions of the professional clergy are preaching, teaching, administering, nurturing faith life, and designing and leading worship. Lay members of the church may do some of these things, too, but not to the extent that the professional minister does them. Chairs of boards and committees will administer; Sunday School teachers will teach and nurture faith; and members of the church may participate in leading worship and, even, preach, on occasion (as, for example, Jon does). But the pastor takes a leading role in “equip[ping] the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12) in these ways. Lay people may do some of the things professional clergy do, but they are not responsible in the same way that clergy are for those things.
Even so, lay people are not off the hook! They, as well as clergy, are priests! We all are called to serve God with the gifts we have been given by the Spirit for the work of ministry and the building up of the body of Christ. The only difference is that we do so through different gifts and thus have different functions. We can see this in the passage read today from Acts. As the number of disciples increased, the Twelve (the original 11 disciples and Matthias, who replaced Judas) weren’t able to do everything there was to do. The Greek converts complained that their widows were being overlooked in favor of the Hebrew widows in the daily distribution of food. (The disciples of Jesus were faithfully taking care of the “least of these” by making sure widows, who were vulnerable in the patriarchal society of that time because they didn’t have husbands, had food to eat.) The Twelve felt that their main role was to the ministry of the word of God and to prayer, not the distribution of food. They were the ordained clergy of their time and felt they needed to focus on preaching, teaching, and prayer. So they gathered all the disciples together and chose seven from among them that were full of the Spirit and wisdom. These seven would take over the distribution of the food. Then the apostles laid hands on them and prayed over them. The “pastors” were free to do the work they were called to do, and the “lay” people were free to do the work they were called to do.
We are all priests, called to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (Peter 2:9). We have “tasted that the Lord is good” (Peter 2:4) and we “long for the pure, spiritual milk” by which we may “grow into salvation” (Peter 2:2). We are “living stones” being built into a “spiritual house,” which is our church (Peter 2:4-5). We have received mercy and are now to give that mercy to the world in the various ways the Spirit has gifted us (Peter 2:10).
I’d like to share the story of a way I feel that God’s mercy flowed through me and to me this year. This past Thursday, I completed a semester of tutoring at the Gateway Community College (GCC) Writing Center. I took on this job because my family needed the money I would make at it. I know how to write and have taught students before, so it seemed like a good way for me to use the talents God gave me to contribute to my family’s financial needs. Even though I had some apprehension about taking on 12 hours of work and commuting time in addition to everything else I do professionally and personally, I felt like I could handle it.
The semester began in late January. I tutored all kinds of students working on all kinds of writing projects. I learned about subjects I didn’t know about through their papers, which I found interesting. I was exposed, also, to these students’ lives: their dreams, desires, struggles, accomplishments, and so on. There is a wide variety of students that attend GCC. Some of them and their stories have stayed with me, including:
- the young woman from Iran who wrote a paper about the oppression of women in her country.
- the young man from England who was lonely in a new country and who was wondering if he should just go back home.
- the retired police officer who is getting a degree in Drug and Alcohol Counseling because he is struggling with how to help his son who is a heroin and crack cocaine addict. He also has a daughter who was diagnosed with breast cancer and is recovering from a double mastectomy.
- the young man with a disability who is struggling to learn how to write correctly.
- the many, many ESL students who work hard to communicate correctly in a language that is not their original language: from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America, the Philippines, and Europe.
- the middle-aged woman with a chronic illness who has a passion for healthy eating and wrote numerous papers about the food industry.
- the young woman who returned to school despite wondering if she would be successful at a career change.
- the middle-aged man who had lost his job and was retraining and hoping for a new career.
My exposure to all these people from all walks of life and all places made me reflect on the beauty of our country's ideal laid out in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It also brought to mind the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” All these people I met with; all seeking life, liberty, and happiness; all working hard to achieve those things; all struggling with their own challenges and difficulties; some tired, some poor, all yearning. Although I was, often, tired and, at times, challenged when working with the students, I realized I was grateful for the opportunity to participate in their lives in a small measure and contribute to each of their dreams a tiny bit. It was glorious to see what our country and its institutions can give to the "huddled masses" that live here.
By taking on this extra job, God’s mercy flowed through me to them and through them to me. They received writing tutoring and a sympathetic ear, and I received knowledge about subjects, exposure to life around the globe, and a deepened appreciation for what the country I call home can do for the “least of these” who are either born here or immigrate here. I’m happy to have completed the semester and be able to use those 12 hours to do others things I need or want to do, but I’m grateful God was working alongside me while I did the job.
Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we are ALL priests. Although we don’t all wear a collar or a robe, we must remember that we carry the love and grace of God with us wherever we go. We can bless or curse each moment, each interaction we have – whether it is with a clerk in a store, a beloved family member, or a student at the local community college – for we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, who have the honor and responsibility to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 14, 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.
 Bartlett, David. Ministry in the New Testament, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993, 193.
Image is from https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/4b/27/66/4b27664a084c3db38c5a9c0f5124de41.jpg