A Royal Priesthood

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “A Royal Priesthood” 1 Peter 2:2-10

There is a national clergy shortage. Some of that is attributable to COVID-19. The pandemic led religious leaders across the country to resign. Some may have been close enough to retirement to simply hang up their collars while others felt that the increased workload, frayed relationships, and political divisions brought on by the pandemic made ministry intolerable.  They felt burned out, citing deteriorating spiritual, physical, emotional, and vocational health. The researchers at the Barna group found a 17% jump in clergy leaving full-time ministry, with half of pastors under forty-five considering a career change.

It is likely that the pandemic simply sped up changes that were already underway for churches. For a number of years now within mainline denominations, more pastors have been leaving or retiring from ministry than there are candidates under care. In other words, fewer young people are going to seminary and preparing to enter the ministry. The same is true for the Catholic church, and even for Jewish congregations. In Catholic dioceses like Buffalo, one priest serves as many as six parishes. Considering the lengthy investment of time, energy, and expense in pursuing graduate education, the clergy shortage is not likely to turn around any time soon.

Churches are seeking ways to function without a pastor, whether they are sharing clergy, turning to lay pastors, or relying on people in the pews.  Even that has its challenges. Researchers at the Religious News Service have learned that the pandemic has had a significant negative affect on church volunteerism.  Before the pandemic, about 40% of regular congregation members volunteered at church. Post-pandemic, that percentage has shrunk to a mere 15%. That’s true even for active churches like this one, where we currently have vacancies on session and deacons, and a handful of volunteers are doing yeoman’s work to make sure that we have Sunday School classes for the kids.

When the Apostle Peter wrote to those first churches in Asia Minor, they were in the midst of their own staffing crisis. There Peter was in Rome and there they were on the far side of the Aegean and Adriatic Seas without a professional clergy person in sight. For the Jewish Christians, their notion of leadership was dependent on rabbis and priests. These were teaching and sacramental professionals who served as mediators between God and the congregation. For the formerly pagan Christians, their notion of leadership was grounded in the priests and priestesses who presided at rites in local temples. Rabbis, priests, pagan priestesses, all were high status, affluent, and influential members of their communities. And the Christians? They were outsiders, ejected from synagogues, refugees from the pagan temples, and under suspicion as enemies of Rome. It sounds like they could have used a good pastor.

Peter told his listeners that God had done something new in Jesus, something that completely changed the very notion of spiritual leadership.  Instead of the Temple in Jerusalem or the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, God was building a new temple, with Christ as the foundation stone and each Christian as a contributing stone in an entirely new structure. It would be a church, built not of bricks and mortar but of people, people who believed in Christ and found new life and purpose in his service. These living stones would respond to the love and grace of Jesus with spiritual worship: praising God, doing good works, and sharing generously (Heb. 13:15-16).

In this new temple, built on the rock of Jesus, every Christian was a priest, able to have a direct relationship with God. Collectively, they were a royal priesthood, faithful people intent on sharing God’s love with the world. Sure, they might need people like the Apostle Peter to provide training and direction and scriptural interpretation, but they knew and were known by God. They were loved by Jesus. This priesthood of all believers would unleash the greatest tide of church growth ever imagined, transforming Christianity from a marginal, persecuted sect of Judaism to an imperial religion within 300 years. Impressive!

Much later, in the 16th century, our ancestors in the faith would return to this understanding of the priesthood of all believers to reinvigorate and reform the church. By the 16th century, the church had again become dependent upon an elite class of clergy to mediate the people’s relationship with God – from forgiving sins to interpreting scripture. Pointing to Peter’s words, Martin Luther argued that Christians have access to God through faith without the need for earthly mediators. John Calvin went one step further, teaching that in response to God’s love and mercy, we are to be “living sacrifices,” dedicating our character, talent, and property in whatever way best served God. Calvin believed that each of us is particularly gifted for God’s service.  When we join those gifts together in that priesthood of all believers, God is glorified and our neighbors are blessed.  Luther, Calvin, and others, in reclaiming the royal priesthood of all believers, unleashed a second great tide of church growth, sending Protestantism to the new world and every corner of the globe.

The clergy crisis in American churches isn’t going anywhere. Pessimists see this post-COVID slump as further evidence of ongoing church decline in a world that is increasingly post-Christian. The naysayers see what is happening now as one more downward spiral in the inevitable collapse of denominations, the closing of churches, and the demise of personal belief. But me, I’m an optimist. What if the current circumstance is a calling and an opportunity? What if this is our big chance to be what Peter told those embattled Christians in Asia Minor they were? What if it’s our turn to be the royal priesthood of all believers?

I have reason to hope. Last year, while we were still slogging our way through quarantines and COVID bouts, this church began working with a consultant John Fong, whose services were paid for by a generous grant from the Synod. John, who has an infectious laugh and unbridled enthusiasm, believes that every church can grow. His formula is about as simple as it gets: church growth comes when members engage in simple acts of kindness in the name of Jesus and invite others to join them in that. We have put John’s theory to the test by inviting others to make Resurrection Gardens with us and to Grow a Row of vegetables for the Food Pantry. We have shared the simple kindness of summertime bouquets – fresh picked, beautiful, and ready for you to deliver to friends, family, and neighbors on Sunday mornings. Today, we’re giving the love of Jesus a tasty spin with cookies, sending packages of home-baked goodness out to bless our neighbors.

If you have joined us in these efforts, then you may have smiled at the abundance of fresh vegetables on summery Saturday mornings for our vulnerable neighbors at the Food Pantry. Or, you may have been tickled by the joy that your delivery of a simple bouquet of garden flowers brought to someone who needed it. If you haven’t joined us in reaching out, today is your big chance with the Cookie Bomb. Who doesn’t like cookies – and who wouldn’t like you for bringing them some on behalf of the church?

I trust that, as we take on the mantle of the priesthood of all believers, there will be growth. We’ll grow in faith and understanding as we employ our personal gifts in service to God. Volunteerism will grow – and that volunteer crisis that affects the post-pandemic church just may come to an end, at least in this church. We’ll grow closer to one another as we care and share and practice kindness together. We may even grow in numbers as we extend love and kindness in ways that give glory to God and blessing to neighbor. We are a royal priesthood, my friends. Let’s get busy. Amen.

Resources:

Daniel Deffenbaugh. “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10” in Preaching This Week, May 22, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jeannine K. Brown. “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10” in Preaching This Week, May 14, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Hans Vaatstra. “The Priesthood of All Believers” in Faith in Focus, 2003. Accessed online at christianstudylibrary.org.

N.T. Wright. “Priesthood of All Believers” an interview with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Accessed online at Priesthood of All Believers (N.T. Wright and John Witvliet) – YouTube

Ian Lovett. “Houses of Worship Face Clergy Shortage as Many Resign During Pandemic” in the Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2022. Accessed online at wsj.com.


1 Peter 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

This honor, then, is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the very head of the corner,”

and

“A stone that makes them stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people,
    but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
    but now you have received mercy.


Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

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