We recently began a sermon series in church on the Book of Hebrews. Last week message about 'Holding on to Faith' can be found here. But this week we move on to a consideration of priests. If you can join us, we would love to welcome you, but if not, well... we send our greetings via the internet. So then. Priests.
Back in the Old Testament days, if you needed any kind of religious service taken care of, you had to call a priest. The office of priest was not just for anybody. It was a hereditary appointment. You needed to be a descendant of Aaron. You had to be anointed with special oil and approved by various governing bodies. There were different ranks of priesthood, the greatest of them being the 'High Priest' who had the special job, once a year on the day of atonement, of going into the most holy of holy places, to offer a sacrifice for the forgiveness of peoples sins.
There was a lot of sacrificing to be done. Every infraction of the laws of Moses incurred some kind of penalty that meant some poor animal had to be offered up as recompense. Barbaric as it might seem to our minds today, it was a powerful reminder that when we don't do things God's way, there is a price to pay. Sin was a matter of life and death.
The New Testament teaches that, with the coming of Jesus Christ, a huge change came to the idea of priesthood. Hebrews 9:26 tells us about Jesus that 'He has appeared once for all ... to remove sin by the sacrifice of Himself.' From the earliest days the church taught that because Christ died for our sins, the system of sacrifices and priests has been superseded by Jesus. Hebrews describes Him as 'Our great 'High Priest' who gave His life as the ultimate sacrifice.
So what became of the idea of priesthood? Over the centuries different denominations have viewed priests in different ways. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches retained the idea of priesthood. In their traditions the priest remained an intermediary between God and God's people. The priest has to fulfill certain obligations and perform certain duties, such as hearing peoples confession and offering the Mass.
Many Post-Reformation churches have a doctrine known as the 'Priesthood of all believers'. In my own Presbyterian Church we often put the phrase in our bulletins, 'Ministers; The Congregation'. The idea is that as Jesus is our great High Priest, we don't need any intermediary before whom to confess our sins, nor do we need anybody to make a sacrifice or say a prayer on our behalf. Through Jesus Christ we all have direct access to the heart of God.
Most reformed denominations do though still have an ordained ministry of some kind. They may be described as 'Priests' or 'Clergy' or 'Ministers of Word and Sacrament' or even - in my own PC(USA) - 'Teaching Elders'. Though we acknowledge that all Christians are called into God's service, we still set aside some folk to perform certain functions, such as administering the sacraments of baptism and communion, leading worship services and preaching. We often add to that expectations of pastoral care and taking responsibility for governance within a particular church.
I'm not trying to put myself out of a job.... but I do like that concept... of every Christian being part of the new priesthood instituted by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:9 tells us 'You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people!'
In practical terms I understand that as meaning that every person who belongs to a church has a unique role to play within their faith community. While some folk may well be set aside for particular roles, the life and health of the church depends on every body playing an active part.
That can happen in so many ways! Through prayer, Through giving. Through service in the community. The list is endless and there are things on it we have yet to think of! So.... 'Calling all priests! Calling all priests!' Your church needs you. Now.
For some music, a classic hymn 'All to Jesus, I Surrender'. See, that's another thing about priests. They have to allow God to work through them if they are to be effective ministers of God's love and grace. But that's another story....
Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.