Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A priesthood never envisioned as an individual possession. . .

Curiously, the term in Scripture is a royal priesthood and not individual royal priests.  It is a nuance surely lost in world swept up in an individualism that sees faith in solitary terms.  Today it is most common to frame this spiritual priesthood of the baptized in exclusively individual terms.  In his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520), Luther challenged the typical distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” orders (lay vs clergy) and reintroduced the concept of spiritual vocation that belongs to all who are baptized into Christ.  Every person through faith, baptism, and the Gospel entered “truly to the spiritual estate” and shared in Christ's priesthood.  Of course, Luther was careful to distinguish this "spiritual priesthood" from the special or sacramental priesthood of the pastoral office.  Luther never derived the pastoral office from this spiritual priesthood nor confused it but insisted that the spiritual priesthood is fulfilled when a pastor is called, ordained, and serves the spiritual priesthood of all with the particular means of grace, the authority of which is conferred upon him only.

Rome also rediscovered and reiterated the common spiritual priesthood of the baptized at Vatican II, specifically, Lumen Gentium:  “The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light” (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10).   Understandably, they were even more jealous of the distinction between this spiritual priesthood and the sacramental priesthood, insisting that this was a distinction not simply in degree but in essence.

Luther translator and interpreter Paul Althaus put it this way:  Luther never understands the priesthood of all believers merely in the sense of the Christian’s freedom to stand in a direct relationship to God without a human mediator. Rather, he constantly emphasizes the Christian’s evangelical authority to come before God on behalf of the brethren and also of the world. The universal priesthood expresses not religious individualism but its exact opposite, the reality of the congregation as a community.  This is often lost upon Lutherans and others who claim to be heirs of the Reformation.  Instead it becomes a solitary and individual claim; I am a spiritual priest who needs no pastor or church or anything beyond my own self to be fully Christian and to live out fully my baptismal vocation.  Luther never countenanced such individualism or such arrogance.  Luther and the Lutherans held the pastoral office in highest regard.  What is often overlooked here is the focus of such priesthood.  The spiritual priesthood is directed not internally to the church in competition with the pastor but externally to the neighbor and in the world.

Perhaps it is this to which Pope Francis is trying to draw our attention; if so, it is a noble cause although he has surely done a poor job of communicating it.  That said, this aspect of Luther's teaching remains a bud and has not yet flowered fully for the church.  Too many have tried to pit spiritual priesthood against pastoral office and too many have presumed that this is some sort of egalitarian focus in which everyone gets to be pastor for a Sunday or take their turn in the chancel -- thus fulfilling their spiritual vocation and priesthood.  Missouri had our "Everyone a Minister" faze that still has not died out and given way to the cause of Luther -- who was adamant that God did not need our good works but our neighbor surely does.  Surely this is the genesis of the ordination of women, of women's Sundays in which LWML ladies took over the service, or youth Sundays in which youth led worship or a hundred other variations on the theme.  In confusing the spiritual priesthood that belongs to all with the particular priestly service of the pastoral office, no one should be denied to "take their turn" in the chancel.  In equating the spiritual office with what happens on Sunday morning, it is clericalism to stand in the way of each fulfilling their purpose and preaching or teaching or presiding for a day.  This is not the clericalism that Luther fought against and this is not the spiritual priesthood of which Luther spoke.

We live in a me'n'Jesus against the world kind of popular Christianity in which the church is optional, the ministry is merely a function, and the goal of true spirituality is to play pastor for a day.  In the meantime the world is in crying need of Good Samaritans and there are neighbors in need all around us -- a people and their cause we too quickly assign to the government and some welfare program.  What was once the mark of the church's presence in the world has become the responsibility of the government and the once great arenas of service to the widow, the orphan, the sick, the elderly, the refugee, the hungry, and the homeless have become government services which may or may not be carried out by churches using the government dollar (and playing by the government's rules).  Maybe the unfriendliness of the culture and the government to the cause of church and religion may just be the spark that renews the fire of love that our spiritual priesthood is truly about -- within the venues of home, work, neighborhood, city, nation, and world.  The last thing the church (and God) needs are spiritual loners who believe they have a cause and a right to act like pastors and who are confident that this is the face of I Peter 2:4-10.  What the church needs and the world needs are those who belong to the true spiritual priesthood of the baptized, who live their lives in worship, witness, intercession, and service doing mercy's work at home, in the village, and in the world.  Perhaps what we need to do more often is to read the Table of Duties in the Catechism.

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