5/14/17: The Scandal of Priesthood, 2 Peter 1:2-10
The Scandal of Priesthood
Fifth in the series: Scandalous Good News
First Lesson: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 2:2-10
Rev. Scott Dickison
It should give us some hope that at the time when this letter known as 1 Peter is thought to have been written, which was within just a generation or two of Jesus, they were still trying to figure out just what this thing called the church was supposed to be.
1 and 2 Peter are part of a group of letters near the end of the New Testament that we call “the Pastoral Epistles,” called so because their stated purpose is to encourage and instruct the church on how to be the church. Jesus left very few instructions, after all. Mostly just a lot of stories about the Kingdom, and the memories of a few miracles—and of course a resurrection. Jesus hinted at what the church was to be, but it would be the responsibility of those left behind, aided by the Holy Spirit, to figure out what this bridge between Jesus and the Kingdom of God should look like.
So searching for some familiar language to offer, this teacher in the early church remembers back into Scripture and lifts up two images from the history of their faith and says, This is kind of what it’s supposed to be like. The church is meant to be something new in the world, but this points at it.
He says, You should be like stones that God will use to build a spiritual home on earth—a home for all people to gather in God’s presence. Jesus is the chief “cornerstone,” remembering Psalm 118—quoted by Matthew, you’ll remember, at the crucifixion: the stone that the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone. Jesus is the cornerstone of this new home God is building in the world, but you, too, as the church, are part of the same raw materials. You, too, may be rejected by the world as Jesus was, but God knows your true worth. Let, then, God, the master-builder, the creator of all things, work with you, polishing away your blemishes, smoothing your rough edges, fitting you together just so to make something durable and holy in the world. The image here is not of uniform bricks, mind you, but individual stones, asymmetric and imperfect, that will be pieced together through God’s own imagination.
And it’s true this is not the most exciting of images, to be a rock, a stone, for the Lord’s service. But that may be the point. Perhaps he’s reminding us we don’t have to do and be all of this all by ourselves—remember you’re just called to be one stone among many. One, small, imperfect, but valuable stone among many. You’re part of something, here. And, in any case, a single stone can end up being pretty important.
I heard a curious story recently from the town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, just north west of Philadelphia. In February of last year, a stone fell from the bell tower the First Baptist Church of Pottstown, taking out one of their concrete front steps. No one was injured, but as these things go, it quickly spiraled into fences, road closings, and engineering studies, culminating in the conclusion that the tower was leaning dangerously and had to come down immediately at a cost of around $200 thousand dollars to the church.
Like many downtown churches these days, the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Pottstown is not large and the building is “historic”—read, high maintenance. They had just recently replaced the sanctuary boiler (yes we have one of those) and were also searching for a new pastor. The church had been active in the community, hosting the area Head Start program, Narcotics Anonymous, the local Hispanic social service agency, and so many other things. As Laura Alden, a colleague of mine who’s a member of this church put it, the church had strong relationships but not tons of resources. They publicized their situation and began fundraising. “Some members even prayed,” she said, ironically. They visited banks and credit unions and kept meeting dead end after dead end. Until something miraculous started to happen. They started to hear from other churches in town. Laura put it this way:
Then we got a call from the Episcopal Church a couple of streets over saying they would give us $50,000. Then a letter arrived from the Presbyterians offering us $30,000. The Episcopalians called again with an additional no-interest $40,000 loan. The Lutherans contacted us with a $10,000 gift. A Baptist church in another town sent $1,000. An anonymous donor contributed $10,000. A Go-Fund-Me page raised $5,000. Our neighbors, friends and members attended our events and pitched in another $5,000 or so… And it continues. Some of the gifts come from abundance, some from sacrifice.
In reflecting on all of this she said, While many other things have happened in the world, in the country, in our community that are troubling, what we experienced [last] year in this one spot in Pottstown was grace, generosity and goodness. A stone falling from a tower brought out charity and kindness in a community. In a strange and mysterious way, that has given us hope.
Like living stones, he tells them, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house. You don’t have to do it all yourself—not as an individual or even as a church. Remember we’re part of something much bigger—not just as part of a congregation, but as the Christ’s church, that extends much further in ways we don’t often reflect upon. Don’t we forget this? We silo ourselves off in the walls of our church, even as they crumble at times. Comparing ourselves with others, competing even. The church of Jesus Christ is built stone upon stone upon stone—believer, upon believer, upon believer, but also congregation upon congregation upon congregation. All of imperfect, all of us dull in some places, all of us with jagged edges in others. But in God’s holy imagination we fit together just so. I think those churches in Pottstown understood this, how that stone that fell from the Leaning Tower of Pottstown, as it were—that Baptist tower—I think they knew it was part of their spiritual house, too.
Be like living stones, we’re told.
But in case this image living stones wasn’t enough, he gives them another. He says: You should be like a holy priesthood, to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of others. This is an image with which most of us should be familiar. “The priesthood of all believers” is how we usually talk about it, which has come to mean, essentially, that each individual believer has access to God without the “interference” of creed or clergy, which is how some in the baptist house tend to put it. It’s one of the central tenants of Protestantism, and Baptists in particular have held to this principle as the cornerstone ofour way of doing things. And in theory it’s a powerful thing: that each of us is capable of and even invited to commune with God directly. Which is all well and good, except in practice, saying everyone’s a priest has a way of looking a lot like no one’s a priest! In practice we get this confused a little bit. The whole idea of the universal priesthood is not that we should all be free of the tyranny of priests, but that we each should take on the responsibilities of priests—and there is a big difference.
This is rooted in a pretty anemic understanding of the priesthood. Priests were understood to be mediators between God and the people. It’s true that the priest took on the responsibility of being the presence of God for the people: consoling them in times of distress or hardship or advising or even admonishing them as to presence of God in their life. It was a position of great authority, no question about it. But the priest also took on the responsibility of being the presence of the people before God. The priest was charged with offering sacrifices on their behalf, praying, even pleading with God to show them mercy and love on their behalf. You see, you can never be a priest by yourself. You can only be a priest without a community. You can only be a priest on behalf of others. And this is the beauty and power of our notion of the priesthood of all believers, or the priesthood of the church. We’re all called to be priests before God for each other.
We’re called to pray to God for each other. To plead and cry before God for each other—to lift up the concerns of others as if they were our own. We’re called to sacrifice for others, to carry burdens, sometimes heavy and sometimes light, for each other. Knowing that when we all carry these burdens, the load becomes much lighter. Our own prayers get lighter when we know they’re not the only ones lifting them. Our own gifts get bigger knowing that we’re not the only ones giving them. Our own sacrifices become more bearable knowing that e’re not the only ones making them, and that perhaps ours are not the greatest ones being offered. Our own demons on not quite as deadly when we know we bear them not alone. The darkness from which we’re called is not near as dark, and the marvelous light to which we’re traveling is much brighter when we know that others travel with us. This is what it means to be a “royal priesthood:” that we offer these things on behalf of others.
My friend, Alan Sherouse, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC shared a story with me once of a man who knew when he was pastor of Metro Baptist Church, a quirky little collection of saints in the heart of New York City.
The man was new to their church. He had been a successful New York attorney but had fallen on hard times: drug addiction, mental illness. It all came to a head when he drank bleach, maybe as a cry for help, maybe something else. He survived and was admitted to a mental health facility. Alan and others from the church visited him several times, and after some weeks he was discharged. Alan met him at his apartment to celebrate his homecoming, and the man told him of his roommate at the hospital. He was a young man, much younger than him, but they’d grown close. He remembered, with tears in his eyes, how he’d told him, I don’t think we’re supposed to exchange contact information in a place like this, but if you ever need to get in touch with me or need anything, you can go to 40th and 9th. There’s a church there, my church, and you can ring the bell. Someone’s always there, and they’ll know where to find me.
They’ll know where to find me. Isn’t church is a place where we’re known, a place where we’re found, but also, but also isn’t it a place where we find each other? The place that connects us with each other, uniquely? If you’re looking for me, they’ll know where you can find me. If you’re in need, if you’re at your wit’s end, if you’re at the end of your rope, go there. Someone will be there. They’ll know what to do. Maybe one day, in God’s time, you’ll be that person. Isn’t this what it means to say that we’re all priests one to another? That in God’s great imagination, we all have the capacity to be that voice at the end of the line?
This man’s now an attorney in Newark, and commutes in on Sundays for church, where he’s a trustee. Alan said he would later speak of that time in the hospital and the care he received from the church as his “resurrection.”
Be like living stones—imperfect, asymmetric, jagged in some places, dull on the other—let yourself be built into a spiritual house. Let God find ways to bring you together, turning and turning until you fit just right, supporting each other, stone upon stone upon stone.
Don’t forget that you’re a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, so that you might proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Be this light to each other. Call each other out of the darkness—there’s something scandalous about all of this, you know. There’s something scandalous about confessing that we can’t do it alone. That we’re not spiritually self-sufficient, that all we need to know about calling of God in our life and in the world can’t be found in the recesses of our own imagination or the beating of our own heart; that we need each other. There’s something scandalous in claiming that we’ll be priests to God for each other—that we would take on that great and holy responsibility. But this is what it means to be the church.
I hope you students who are moving on from us out into the world will remember this. I hope you’ll remember that it isn't all up to you. That in those times when you feel imperfect and dull that God will use you anyway; God will keep turning you and turning you until you find your place. I hope you remember there is a place for you in what God is doing in the world. You have been called by God to be bearers of light and love and mercy and compassion in the world. But should you ever find yourself in need of anything or just someone, remember there’s a church here at the Top of Poplar. Your church. Remember we love you, and are proud of you, and that this will always be home. Amen.