The priesthood of all believers (2)

I had quite a few interesting conversations with people after last month’s article about the Priesthood of all believers. It seemed that quite a large percentage of people had always assumed a vast divide existed between clergy and laity that was only bridged by ordination. Not only that, there was an assumption that a much lower standard of character and conduct was acceptable for the laypeople who themselves, quite rightly, demanded the very highest standards from the clergy. I’m sorry, but that’s not on, laypeople and clergy are equally ‘priests of the Lord’, and should have the same high standards.

I hope that you agree! Now I will try to answer one of the questions I was asked, which was, “What is it that this ‘royal priesthood’ of clergy and laypeople are ordained to do?” Paul, in Romans 15,  speaks of himself as “Doing the priest-work of the Gospel.” But what is this priest-work?

In the Old Testament the priesthood was a body of people set apart for the service of God’s Sanctuary – to keep the sacred fire on the altar alight; to offer the daily sacrifice; to trim the golden candlestick and to renew the showbread. In a word, their primary duty was the maintenance of God’s worship.

In the Early Christian Church, as we read in the Book of the Acts, the Christian community is seen thinking of itself as “a royal priesthood, offering up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The Church maintained its priorities in the Breaking of the Bread, the prayers, and the gathering together for worship on the first day of the week. No doubt the Church preached the Word and ministered to the poor, but it saw itself principally as a society for worshipping God through Jesus Christ.

I think we sometimes have to remind ourselves in modern times, of the inseparable connection between priesthood and worship. Today there is a tendency is to make much of moral conduct and philanthropy, and to think that worship isn’t so important. We should be ‘decent’ people; kind to our neighbours and supporters of charities. As for worship, well it just doesn’t seem to appeal to some people. So we have become a nation that is largely non-worshipping – there are so many more appealing things to do with our Sundays!

Humanitarianism cannot take the place of worshipping God – the worship of the creature in place of the Creator – God has first claim on us, and as his priests, it is our appointed duty to “stand in his sanctuary.” It is, I think, obvious that, if the earliest Christians hadn’t seen their gathering together as their primary duty, the Church would have rapidly gone to pieces, and nothing more would ever have been heard of it.

Is the duty of Sunday worship just a mere matter of personal inclination?  What would have happened if the earliest Christians had regarded their priesthood in this way, and had felt no particular obligation to join in when the Church met for worship? Does it matter less now than it did then?

And if we accept and believe in the priesthood of all believers, then we must remember that the priesthood has always had a representative character. In Old Testament days, whether ‘the congregation of the people’ was there or not, the sacrifices were offered; the priests of the Lord kept watch in his sanctuary, and took their appointed place carrying out their priestly duties. Whatever the nation, Israel, did, the priesthood stood before God for them, and made offerings in their name, as their representatives. In the same way our Christian Faith reveals Jesus standing before the Mercy Seat and making his offering for us.

What we have to do is to think of ourselves as forming, collectively, the Church, the priestly body, God’s ministers, in a world which is alienated and estranged from God, as our modern world is becoming more and more – a world too ignorant of spiritual values, too neglectful, too careless, too absorbed in the feverish pursuit of amusement and of money, to offer God the worship which is his due.