Saturday, August 22, 2009

An apocalyptic, catholic priesthood

“The Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions of Christianity have emphasized what Paul Tillich called the sacramental principle—the drive to make the material sacred, stemming from the belief in the incarnation of the divine in human form. The Protestant tradition, in contrast, has emphasized what Tillich called the prophetic principle—the drive to distance the divine from the material in order to avoid idolatry and allow the world to come under the critical judgment of the transcendent divine. Thus in a traditional Catholic church the altar provides a sacred space to house the consecrated bread and wine, the very body and blood of the crucified Christ; while the pulpit dominates the Protestant church, the place from which the word of the Lord can be proclaimed, condemning human efforts to save themselves and offering hope of divine forgiveness to those who surrender their lives to God.”
~ Gary E. Kessler, Studying Religion: An Introduction Through Cases, 138

“To him who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” ~Revelation 1:5, 6

I take it from these two verses (cf. Rev. 5:10) that all freed from their sins by Jesus have been made priests to YHWH. If some, then, are set aside as “priests” vocationally, they are devoted to that catholic calling without the distraction of a “day job.” It follows that the vocational priest must turn their labors to equipping all in their care to live as priests.

Tillich’s “sacramental principle” describes the sociological function of priesthood. Across traditions, the priest is charged with bringing together the sacred and profane, usually constructing and presiding over a sacred space (or Eucharistic altar or mountain top or shrine) where a sacred power (or God or transcendence or ancestor) can be engaged with. If, then, one doesn’t balk at the Reformation, this begs the question of what a “priesthood of all believers” implies. I take it that many settle for the implication that they don’t have to confess their sins to a priest. I think it goes further.

The New Testament is clear—YHWH no longer dwells in physical space of the temple, but the physical space of his people. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to sexual purity: the profane, pagan temples have their prostitutes, but you are YHWH’s temple and must abstain from fornication (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). Everyone freed from their sin by Jesus is given priestly charge to make themselves a dwelling place for YHWH, to be God’s sacred space on this profane planet. Charged to bring sacred and profane (heaven and earth) together so that heaven is witnessed by those immersed in profanity. And, no less, they are called to do it together (Eph. 2:21, 22). Thus our god’s sacramental presence is not limited to—and surely not absent from!—the Eucharistic table overseen by the vocational priest.

Paul identifies the aim of vocational ministry as “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13), the man who lived and breathed as the physical embodiment of Israel’s god. Thus the vocational priest not only constructs (via liturgy) and presides over the sacrament of the Eucharistic table; they also labor to equip their congregation to physically embody the Father of our lord Jesus Christ—while personally endeavoring to embody him as well: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1, 2).*

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” constitutes no less than an apocalypse—a revelation—where the “priest” pulls back the veil of profane reality and demonstrates the supremacy of sacred truth. That Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish prophet who died twenty centuries ago, rules the peoples of the earth rather than those who profanely appear to is chief among revelations. Indeed, it is the chief concern of John’s Revelation, where the reign of the messiah conquers all rulers and all evil and culminates in that final union of heaven and earth where “the home of God is among mortals” (Rev. 21:3). In this way the priest becomes prophet-king, critiquing what is via what should be and transforming what is into what should be via the authority of the High Priest-Prophet-King, the resurrected lord Jesus. In him we have the power to see God’s future (as prophets) and the sacramental power to bring it into the present (as priests).

Thus morality, prayer, mission, community and charisma fuse together and constitute “my Father’s business.” It must integrate both of Tillich’s principles and avoid the pitfalls of either tendency—on the one hand a sacramental baptism of the status quo and on the other a prophetic Gnosticism where the world is going to hell and “I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away.” It is the business of the vocational priest and the priest’s “day job” to make it the business of all who have been freed of from their sins by Jesus, Messiah of Israel and lord of the whole earth.

“[L]ike 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.” ~ 1 Peter 2:5

*I am emphatically not saying that each believer is “fully God, fully man.”

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