The Audacity of Priesthood

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Thomas
Sanssouci, Potsdam
Sermon for St Thomas' Day 2018, at the  Ordination of Priests, St Philip's in the Hills Tucson, AZ.

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe”

It can be tempting to run, with these words of the risen Christ to Thomas from today’s Gospel, to a place where the corporeal and material does not matter; only unseen things of the spirit count. In this view, “doubting” Thomas is chided not just as the sceptic but as the materialist, the one with his thoughts - and at Jesus’ prompting, even his hands - in the muck of flesh, when he should have had his mind on higher, invisible, things.

Here this evening we refuse or invert that notion of what Jesus and Thomas are negotiating about the meaning of resurrection faith, by claiming to make these two into priests. This is remarkable to say the least. There would be times not long ago, and places not far away, where objection would be raised to this prospect - just take a look at who our candidates are. Yes they are, we must admit...human beings. They are material, concrete, specific, they have bodies.

The strangeness of setting these two apart as priests is considerable; it is grounded however in the same strangeness of the Incarnation that we are about to celebrate at Christmas, and in the resurrection of that same flesh which Thomas was to encounter.

The idea that people can be priests is of course an old one, but one whose history in our tradition is complicated. The English word “priest” actually derives from the Greek and Latin “presbyter,” which simply means an elder, and is used in the NT to refer to community leaders. Some Anglicans, like other Protestants, have taken comfort from this primarily social idea of priesthood as leadership, and it is not one we should pass over lightly. We are ordaining these two to ministries in the Church which are not merely liturgical or even “pastoral” in the degraded sense of being nice to people; they have indeed been called to lead God’s people, to teach, exhort, and counsel.

Yet “priest” has a different meaning too, one that translates functions known in the ancient world, and in various religious traditions, of a person called aside to stand before God and to offer sacrifices, to communicate with the divine and to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation. The role of ancient Israelite priests, Aaron, Eli, Zadok and the rest, was not about community leadership or pastoral care; it was ritual, and the rituals of the Jerusalem Temple were sacrifices. The qualifications of the successful priest would have included such nuanced liturgical skills as the capacity to slit a sheep’s throat, to light and maintain enormous fires to burn victim’s flesh, and to throw blood accurately against the bases of altars.

Disconcerting as these elements of ancient Israelite Church-going may seem - imagine trying to recruit an altar guild - their earthiness, their materiality, is important to understanding what priesthood means, even as they also exemplify some of the reasons Christians have balked at the idea. These performances were the means by which God and Israel communicated and managed their relationship, including not least the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation. Sacrifice is about relationship, and priesthood is its agency.

Of course the Christian community was to emerge with a quite different set of offerings and signs, related indirectly to the worship of Israel but grounded immediately in the person of Jesus himself and his command. Celebrating the meal of the Eucharist, and performing the sign of baptism as the means of conversion and incorporation, the Church did not in any case leave behind the notion that material things could be means of connection with the life of God.

But what about priests? The Letter to the Hebrews suggests that Christ is a new mediator, a great High Priest, whose offering of himself, his own flesh and blood rather than that of animals, fulfills our need for forgiveness and connection with God; “Since we have a great High Priest…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:21-2).

Jesus’ priesthood thus provides us with access to God through Christ. It is not that priesthood is ended, but that Jesus is now our priest. So, you may ask, as did many of the 16th century reformers, do we need present-day human priests at all? In fact even the NT does still speak of Christians themselves as priests; the First Letter of Peter calls its readers “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” clearly comparing them to Israel again, but dauntingly giving all of them - all of us - a collective priesthood, by-passing any ancient Commissions on Ministry with a breathtaking lack of due diligence.

What this still leaves open however is the question of particular priests. If Jesus is our Great High Priest, and we are all a royal priesthood, what sort of sacramental redundancy is involved in singling these two out for ordination?

In the same story in today’s Gospel of the risen Jesus appearing to the startled disciples, he meets them not to say “I’m alive!” but “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.” Of course the immediately following words are “But Thomas...” That is, Thomas’ scepticism is presented not solely as with the claimed appearance of Jesus, but with his commission to the others; not just with what seemed to have happened relative to the laws of physics, but relative to the laws of sin and salvation.

These words about the ministry of reconciliation being entrusted to the apostolic group - not as an exclusive possession, but as a representative sign - are echoed in our ordination rite. So yes, Christians do have the concept of specific human beings bearing this ministry of reconciliation, as a gift and call from Christ. We may not see Jesus either, but we do see others in our midst, not least the ordained priests, who in their flesh and actions become the means by which we receive the blessing of those who have not seen, but believe.

So this is an audacious thing, to ordain priests; and the audacity we manifest here, the unlikely and extraordinary thing that breaks through our expectations is the same at which Thomas balked, and at which the shepherds and Magi fall prostrate; the possibility that forgiveness and reconciliation are not merely abstractions, but that they need the reality of the human, the material, the physical. In the words of the great theologian Johnny Cash, “flesh and blood need flesh and blood.” That is why Christmas; that is why Easter; that is why priests.


Popular Posts