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July 11th, 2007

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by human beings but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 2:4-5)

Police in Portugal arrested a man last month for a crime that probably doesn’t make many arrest warrants. The arrest took place in a church in a small town in the north of the country, and it took place during the baptism of a baby. By itself, all of that makes the arrest unusual. And then there’s the arrestee; the man that the cops took away in handcuffs was the priest who was doing the baptism. (Literally, they got him right in the middle of the baptism, immediately after he said, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”) All of that would suggest that this wasn’t your ordinary arrest. But as I said, it’s the crime itself that really stands out in this unusual story.

The man was arrested for impersonating a priest.

Rightly so. Can’t have just anybody bringing people into the kingdom of God, now can we?

Of course, the guy was wrong to impersonate a priest. The article I read didn’t say why he did it, and I don’t want to speculate. The story did mention, however, that he had several similar arrest warrants to his name. Maybe his intentions weren’t so honorable. But maybe he just wanted to be a priest and for whatever reason couldn’t go through seminary. Maybe he loved the idea of bringing people together with God, and to his way of thinking pretending to be a priest was his only recourse.

If that’s the case, I wish I could tell him that he doesn’t have to pretend.

In nearly every denomination, sect, or flavor of Christianity, there is a distinction made between clergy and laity. We don’t always use those terms. We don’t always use titles like “Father” or “Reverend” or “Pastor”. Sometimes we’ve used functions, like Preacher or Evangelist, as a way of differentiating. In my own heritage, I grew up calling “the minister” of our church “Brother So-and-So”. (Except I actually used their last names....) Supposedly, I guess, that was to remind us that he was just like the rest of us – our brother in Christ. But since I didn’t call anyone else “Brother” or “Sister,” I might as well have called him “Most Exalted Reverend Father”.

This clergy/laity distinction, however we might express it, has some seriously detrimental effects on the church -- not the least of which is the loss of personal responsibility and ownership. And while that will undermine a church, it’s even worse for the people who are parts of that church. If we believe that “the clergy” (whatever terms we use to differentiate them) are responsible for the work of the church, then we fail to participate in one of the most wonderful blessings of life in Christ.

Peter reminded the church scattered throughout parts of the Roman Empire – and the church scattered throughout the world today – that in Christ we “are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.” To a people who knew very well, whether in a Jewish or pagan context, the difference between clergy and laity, Peter wrote that Jesus makes those distinctions meaningless. Temple? We, together, are God’s temple, home to his presence. Priesthood? We are priests, all of us offering sacrifices to God in which he delights.

Those sacrifices differ among us, of course. Some of us plan and organize. Some of us implement. Some of us pray. Some of us teach. Some of us give money. Some of us give time. Some of us feed hungry stomachs. Some of us feed hungry souls. Some of us love to spend time with children, while others mentor teenagers. Some of us lead worship, some make sure the communion trays are ready and the light bulbs are replaced and the air conditioning works. Some of us are Marthas, busy in the kitchen so that the Marys won’t have growling stomachs when the Bible lesson is over. Some of us visit nursing homes, some staff the food pantry. Some prepare sermons while others prepare song services. Some write, some preach, some lead children’s church. Some baptize, and some keep the baptismal clothes clean.

What all these sacrifices have in common is that they’re all done for God’s glory, and he appreciates every one. While we tend to place more importance on the more public sacrifices, God knows about the ones no one else knows about, too. While maybe we tend to emphasize the more “spiritual” sacrifices, God doesn’t really see a difference between those and the more “secular” ones. While maybe we are more impressed by the sacrifices that demonstrate expertise, formal training, or advanced education, God is honored too by sacrifices offered by self-taught priests with calloused hands and soft hearts.

They also have a common purpose: like all sacrifices, the ones performed in the church are performed to bring people to God. They reassure us all of God’s mercy, and the availability of forgiveness. They tell us of God’s favor and love. They give us opportunities to thank him. They allow us to worship him.

To elevate certain of those sacrifices over all the others by designating them “sacraments” or “ordinances” and setting them apart to be performed only by a special group of clergy is, I think, to not take seriously enough the fact that in the act of coming to Christ, we all become priests. Jesus makes us priests for one another and for the world. There’s no need for someone to give you his or her approval – you have all the approval you need from God, who in Christ has made you part of “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” You don’t need to first get good at doing the things that churches expect their clergy to do – whatever God has given you the resources, abilities, time, opportunity, or passion to do, that’s your sacrifice, and it’s “acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

What that means, of course, is that you have a great responsibility. Here’s the way Peter puts it: “Live such good lives among the pagans that...they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12) After all, priests have to live holy lives. What you’ve been entrusted with is far too sacred to drag through the mud of a worldly life.

You don’t have to pretend – you are a priest. Sometimes that may seem like a terrible burden, but it’s what you’ve chosen by coming to Jesus. Thank him for calling you to that life, and do your best to live it out in the things you do and say.

The vestments and bishop’s mitre might be a bit much, though.


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