The Rev. Dianne O’Connell                                                                              May 22, 2011

First Congregational Church

Acts 7:55-60

John 14:1-14

I Peter 2:2-10


“A Priesthood for Protestants?”

Good morning, this being the first day after Judgment Day – the day some Christians believed would be marked by the Rapture and the second coming of Christ. I actually waited until after midnight this morning to finish my sermon on the outside chance that I would be among those taken directly to heaven.  But here I am.  I did post a message on Facebook for friends to check in and let me know if they were still here, and I made a few phone calls this morning for the same purpose. Nobody was missing. And all of you are here, too.  Somehow that is comforting. 

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Harold Camping of the Family Radio and Project Caravan Church Movement has been predicting that May 21, yesterday, would be Judgment Day, beginning with an earthquake in New Zealand and moving from time zone to time zone through the following 24 hours.  As many of 200 million people would be raptured directly to heaven leaving the rest of us here in total chaos – left behind. Mr. Camping and others have spent millions of dollars advertising this prediction all over the world with billboards, fliers, and internet postings.  This morning, Mr. Camping says:     (insert comments tomorrow)


The vast majority of Protestant Christians have been quoting Acts 7:1 in response to Camping.  “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set to his own authority…”

But this whole circus has brought up another question for me, and that is the role of a trained clergy leadership in the Christian church versus the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers – and our personal responsibility to read and mediate on the Scriptures and think and discern basic truths for ourselves.  Harold Camping and Terry Jones down in Florida have done just that – and have come up sorely wanting, in my opinion.

            You will remember that the Protestant Reformers back in the 1500s departed from the Roman Catholic Church primarily on the basis of three great principles:

  • 1.) Sole Authority of Scripture.
  • 2.) Justification by Faith Alone.
  • 3.) Priesthood of the Believer.

These were big steps five hundred years ago. But today’s reformers must push them even further.  For instance, prior to the Reformation, church tradition and the word of the Pope carried as much or more weight than what was stated in Scripture.  Protestant leaders said, no, we will base our faith on the Bible alone.

In today’s world, thinking theologians – and I hope that includes all of us – challenge that position and possibly add, yes, our faith is based in Scripture, but it is also informed by  such things as science, personal experience, and societal values.  Just reading the first letter of Peter this morning  to the believers in Galatia, Cappadocia and Bithynia, I found myself  filtering Peter’s pronouncements through my own personal theology. For instance, I had no problem with his call for Christians to be holy, hospitable, to take up responsibility for the care of each other.  I had a great deal of trouble with his commands to obey all earthly authority, and for wives and slaves to be submissive to their masters. These concerns came out of just one letter. It takes a lifetime to apply one’s power of discernment to the whole Bible.  But let’s move on to the second great Protestant Principle – that of Justification by Faith alone.

This is the Good Works versus Faith Alone argument. This is worthy of a sermon of its own. But suffice it to say this morning, for me anyway, faith is crucial, but without good works, life becomes pretty self-centered, even empty.  So, my personal theology includes both.  Which brings us to my original sermon topic: the priesthood of all beleivers, or as Peter calls it: the Royal Priesthood.

That sounds pretty snazzy. Maybe I could turn in my white robe for a purple one with ermine around the edges. Then I remembered that the Protestant theological professors wore there plain, black academic robes to preach as a sort of protest against the ornate fashions of the Roman Catholic clergy of the time.  Simplicity was called for.

More important than fashion to the Reformers was the idea of just who could play priest.  Was there a special class or caste of  person who could serve as intermediary with God and humanity – dispensing blessings or withholding forgiveness to individual Christians?  Protestants said no, we as individual Christians have our own personal relationship with God – we acknowledge this every time we take communion and I say something about eating the bread together as a symbol of our unity, and drinking the wine as we  receive it as a symbol of our individual relationship to God.

 So, what’s this Royal Priesthood idea?  The writer of I Peter tries to express his understanding of the role of church members through several strong and rather pleasant sounding metaphors.  

The first thing Peter says is that Christians are members of a chosen race.  Throughout the Old Testament this title is applied to the Jews.  It was not because of their superior culture; the Egyptians were older; the Greeks were more sophisticated.  It was not because of their righteousness: they were a pretty earthy crew; not much worse than their neighbors, but certainly not much better.

Moses explanation was simple:  "God loves you because God loves you."  The reasons why, only God could understand.

This was what the author of First Peter was trying to say about the church.  The early Christians, too, were at a loss to explain why God had chosen them. Then it occurred to Paul; God had done it again: He had chosen people, not because of their righteousness, but because he loved them.  So Paul said, "Look around the church - there are not many wise, not many powerful, not many noble: yet from this hodge-podge, from these nobodies, God has chosen a people. (I Corinthians 1:26 ff)

But chosen for what? "Chosen for privilege" or "appointed for service". I’m pretty sure most of us agree that Christians have been chosen, or appointed, to serve; we have been summoned by God, but to be a people for God's purposes.

The second thing Peter says is that Christians belong to a royal priesthood. A basic Protestant tenet is that all believers have a priestly role. But what is that priestly role? Well, for one thing, a priest connects people with God. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, -- which means bridge-builder—one who brings two sides together.

To accomplish this, priests are expected to speak for God to the people.  That is a switch for some of us; we have thought it was the duty of others to speak for God.  Many of us, if we had any awareness of responsibility for others at all, may have felt that we had done our share when we have gotten other people to church.  To change metaphors, we, who are the church, are God's letter carriers, authorized to deliver a message.  Getting people to church is just another method of delivery - general delivery at that.  What God has given to every Christian is a special delivery message for those we contact.  If people act surprised that we are the ones chosen to deliver that message, let us agree with them.  We are like messengers from Western Union trying to deliver a singing telegram, when we cannot carry a tune.  Something is lost in the transmission.  The message is, of course, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God loves people, forgives them their waywardness and accepts them as his children in spite of their weaknesses.  As priests, that is the kind of message we must deliver.  The message is one of reconciliation.  As they go through life, people come to sense their separation, their estrangement from God, from their fellows, and even from the better self they would like to be.  It is for such persons that we have good news - the good news that God accepts - the good news that the gulf between ourselves and God was not of God's making, but our own - and it has been bridged.  God and humans have been reconciled.  As priests, that is the kind of message we are called to deliver.

But priests also speak to God on behalf of the people. 

Peter goes on to say that Christians are part of a holy nation. This is a touchy one – and one that might remind us of the Koran-burning public nuisance in Florida. Holy Nation  was originally a title given to Israel.  The "nation" part of that title was certainly more evident for Israel, for they were people of a common ethnic background and they were settled in a confined geographic place.  When applied to the church, the term is more difficult to understand, because the church is composed of people from varied national backgrounds, varied languages, widely distributed across national boundaries.  This new nation transcends national boundaries.  It's citizenry is unified by a common allegiance to one Lord.  It is called the Kingdom of God.  It is not a territory; it is an attitude in the hearts, minds and wills of its citizens; an attitude in which God is recognized to be Lord of all.

As a priesthood of believers, we are called to be bridge-builders not moat-diggers  There will be a Judgment Day for each of us, and we ourselves may actually be the toughest judges assigned to our case.  I think Harold Camping has been wasting his God-given resources and someday, perhaps, he will judge himself accordingly.  Pastor Terry Jones in Florida, from my perspective, has been an even worse spokesperson for God –promoting hatred and fear among God’s children.  But, as a Protestant theologian, like you, and as an American, for that matter, I still believe they each have a responsibility to think these issues out for themselves.

And so do we. May the Lord bless each and every one of us, members of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation -- God's own people.  Amen.

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