Sermon Series: Love Yourself, Love Your Neighbor
“You Are a Priest”
Sunday, January 3, 2010
I remembered seeing a commercial for a cell phone, and one of the people in the commercial was a priest talking about texting. (Or, I assume, an actor pretending to be a priest talking about texting). I couldn’t remember exactly what he said in the commercial so I googled the words “commercial priest texting.”
I got one relevant hit. It was on one of those sites where people type in questions and anybody can type in an answer.
Someone who identified herself as Msqueenie, Female, 29-35, had typed in this question:
“I love the commercial for T-mobile with the priest that was, like, he wants unlimited texting ... and then he’s, like, what you think we don't text—we do. I wonder do they really text? I don't see why not, I just never thought about them actually using cell phones.”
Her question was dated about two months ago and nobody has bothered as of yet to answer it.
I think just about every human society in history has had priests… priests, priestesses, shamans, medicine men and women, gurus, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuṇī, magi, mobeds… people whose assignment is to mediate the transcendent realm and the mundane world.
Priests historically have almost universally been the object of awe and fear as well as of ridicule and mockery and often lots of untested assumptions. Priests, in order to do their work, have often had to have an element of mysteriousness and otherworldliness about them.
Msqueenie says it had never occurred to her that priests might use cell phones.
I once visited a church that had three rest rooms. The door on one was labeled “women;” the door on the second was labeled “men;” the door on the third was labeled “clergy.”
Priests have to be different from ordinary people to pull off their work. Priests have usually been considered a little strange, a little weird.
By the time Christianity came into existence, Judaism—out of which Christianity was born—had developed an established priesthood.
There was the high priest who was the only one allowed into the holy of holies in the temple. The high priest’s most important duty was to enter the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement and sprinkle the Mercy Seat with the blood of the sin offering sacrifice. The high priest mediated divine forgiveness for the entire people.
Then there were all the other priests. Their job was to mediate God’s forgiveness and grace on a daily basis. They oversaw the sacrifices through which people experienced forgiveness. They cared for the holy vessels and holy objects in the temple through which people experienced cleansing. They decided whether people were clean or unclean according to the law. You remember, when Jesus healed the 10 lepers, he sent them to show themselves to the priest to be declared clean (Luke 17: 14).
To be a priest within Judaism you had to be born a priest. It was not a choice. If you were born into a priestly family you were a priest. The high priest was the nearest descendent to Elezar, Aaron’s son. The other priests were members of one of 24 families who were descended from Aaron’s other sons, Zadok and Ithamar. Their family name became Kohen or some variation of Kohen. If you know someone whose last name is Cohen, he or she is probably a descendent of the priestly families of Israel.
Priests had the authority and responsibility to mediate God’s forgiveness and grace.
In the New Testament as the first Christians were trying to make sense of their experience of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ, they turned to the traditions and theologies of Judaism for ideas and concepts they could use.
They came to the conclusion, some of them, that Jesus was like the high priest, except he was a high priest for all eternity… the one who mediated God’s forgiveness and grace on the cross once-and-for-all and forever. No need anymore for sacrifices. No need for a Day of Atonement anymore. Jesus is the perfect and great high priest. This is the theme of the book of Hebrews.
They also then came to the conclusion that all Jesus’ followers were like priests… all of us. That it is the duty of Jesus’ followers to mediate God’s forgiveness and grace to the world on a daily basis.
I Peter says: “Let yourselves be built up into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood… You are… a royal priesthood.” The Greek word translated “royal” here means “having power.” So what I Peter is saying is: You are a powerful priesthood. You are a priesthood with the power of kings and queens.
There are some verses in the gospels that suggest that Jesus gives his disciples the priestly power to decide whether to forgive sins or not. In John 20:23, the disciples are hiding behind locked doors, because they don’t want what happened to Jesus to happen to them. Jesus appears to them and he breathes on them and says to them: “Receive the holy spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In Matthew 16:19 Jesus says to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
But if you think that applies only to Peter, read Matthew 18:18 where Jesus says to everybody who is listening to him: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
That is a lot of power. That is a powerful priesthood. If you forgive somebody’s sins, they are forgiven in heaven? If you retain them, they are retained in heaven? What you bind on earth is bound in heaven? Whatever you loose on earth is loose in heaven? That’s a lot of power.
So the New Testament begins to teach that all the followers of Jesus are a priesthood, and it is an enormously powerful priesthood. Heaven gives over to you and me the power to forgive or retain sin… to bind or to loose.
Here’s how I think this works. I think that, when it comes to forgiveness and grace, ideas or thoughts or theologies, as important as they are, are not enough. We need to not just grasp the idea of forgiveness and grace. We need to experience it. We need to receive it. It needs to be embodied. Most of us are most able to experience forgiveness and grace when it is extended to us by another flesh and blood person.
That’s the role of priests… to be the persons who communicate to others God’s forgiveness and grace.
I think Jesus tells his disciples that they have the power to forgive sin or to retain it, because most people will not experience forgiveness and acceptance unless another human being communicates it and embodies it.
You are a priest with the power of royalty. If you don’t forgive, there are people whose sin will not be forgiven. That is what the Gospel of John says.
If you decide to retain someone’s sin, if you will not forgive it, it will not be forgiven.
You are a powerful priesthood.
This is actually the way I think it works. If you have responsibility at work to supervise or support somebody, you never want to overrule their decisions unless it is absolutely, absolutely necessary. Why? Because they will stop making decisions, if you do. They will come to you and you’ll need to make all the decisions because they don’t want to risk you overruling them. You try to train them in such a way that they make good decisions. You try to help them learn how to make better decisions, but if you overrule them, you’ll have to do a lot of their work for them.
And if other people see you overruling your staff, they stop going to your staff and start coming directly to you for what they need. Why go to someone you might overrule, so you’ll end up doing a lot of your staff’s work. Much better to have people say, don’t bother going to her because she always supports what her staff decides. Much better to have a few mistaken decisions than to have everybody coming directly to you all the time.
I’ve learned this. If you come to me to try to get me to overrule something one of our staff here has decided, unless it is illegal or unethical, I will look you in the eye and agree with the staff person whether I really do or not.
I think something like this is the way heaven works. Heaven just hands over the power to you and me to forgive or retain, to bind or to lose, and sometimes we might make a mistake but it is better for us to do it because otherwise there will be no time in heaven to do what they need to be doing there… which is to praise God and to enjoy being with God forever and ever.
Something like that. Maybe it is not an exact analogy.
You are a powerful priesthood. You have a lot of power over the lives of others.
I’ve been talking this Advent/Christmas season about the part of Foundry’s key Scripture where Jesus tells us to love others the way we love ourselves. I’ve had just one simple idea, really, this whole season.
To love others well, we’ve got to love ourselves in a healthy way.
To forgive others, we need to receive forgiveness ourselves. To liberate others, we’ve got to let ourselves be set free.
I’ve been thinking this Christmas season quite a bit about things in my life I’ve done that were stupid or thoughtless or mean. There are three or four things that just bother the dickens out of me. They are probably not even the worst things I’ve done in my life, but they just nag away at me when I let them.
I’d be better at forgiving others if I could accept forgiveness for those things and let them go.
You are a powerful priesthood. It would not be a bad thing if people thought we here are a little weird. That we accept ourselves and others here in a way that is a little strange… a little unrealistic… a little unworldly, maybe. That people are liberated here and set others free here in a way that is unusual. This would not be a bad thing. People have always thought that priests are a little strange.