A Nation of Priests

Scripture: Exodus 19:2-8, Mathew 28: 16-20

A Nation of Priests.

That’s a controversial title for a sermon in this church if there ever was one. If you’re not quite sure why, I’ll break it down a little bit for you. 

The first reason is the idea of conflating the church with the world of secular politics as the word nation tends to get us thinking about. I do try to avoid partisan politics here as much as I can.  However, as I’ve talked about with the deacons, we live in a uniquely partisan and tense political time, and almost everything can be taken as political.

For my part, I realize that this is a politically divided congregation, and I also believe that no political party on earth can truly match the teachings of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of heaven.  Church is now one of the few places where Republicans and Democrats still gather as part of the same organization.  If this makes us uncomfortable, well, my advice for us to get used to it: heaven is going to be the same way.

Then there’s the word priest.

Some of you who grew up in this church or another protestant church might be bristling at the word priest, while those of you who are coming from a Roman Catholic background might be wondering why I am not your priest, but instead your pastor, and why we don’t have priests at all.

To explain this, it will take a bit of understanding our history, not just of this local church, but of churches like ours. To start off, I hope as a baseline that we’re aware that this is a congregationalist church, (it is in our name after all).  Churches like ours developed from the reformed branch of the protestant reformation.

Our theological ancestor isn’t so much the famous Martin Luther, who nailed 95 theses to the church door some 500 years ago, but instead the less famous, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli.

Other churches that share in this heritage are reformed and Presbyterian churches. Although the way we run our churches is different, we have much in common in our teaching. Indeed, our denomination has a “Full Communion” agreement with the PCUSA, the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. We recognize the ministry that happens at each other’s churches, even while being separate. (While of course thinking that we’re better.)

And in churches that come from the reformed tradition, we don’t call our ordained minister’s priests. That’s because we believe that all baptized Christians are part of the priesthood of all believers. That is to say, we believe that all Christians are capable of the priestly functions that were, traditionally only allotted to a special few ordained clergy.

It’s why, in our church and other churches like ours, someone like Janice Mcyswyny, or Linda Minervini can preside over the communion table, with the approval from the board of deacons, who represent the church’s leadership as a body in all things spiritual.

And yes, I am ordained, and authorized to be a minister by the United Church of Christ, but that did not represent, as it does in the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, some sort of indelible mark on my soul that sets me apart from other Christians.  Rather, it was a public affirmation and proclamation of my being set apart in the midst of a Christian community.

This difference in understanding is part of why I wear a black robe that looks more like a graduation gown then the vestments that Father Kevin at St. Pius or Mother Susan at All Saints Episcopal in town wear.

For this actually is academic dress.  It represents the education and training that I received in seminary. For ministers back in the old days, it was a way of proving your credentials to the congregation. They knew that anyone could preside at the communion table, but who had the education to be able to proclaim God’s Word through preaching on a regular basis?

Of course, sometimes this got taken a little too far: in Scotland, where many of our theological influences lie, it was a practice for if a minister was going to give a “liberal sermon”, that they would wear academic dress from one university, and if they were going to preach a “conservative sermon”, they’d preach from another.

Some of you might suspect which academic dress I’d have to wear most of the time.

A nation of priests.

But that phrase, or the meaning behind that phrase, is complicated and hard, but it also, in many ways, comprises the heart of the history and theology of this church, and others like it in our reformed theological tradition.

On one level, we read these passages as Israel as also being in some way about the church- the church is to be like Israel was, a light unto all the nations of the earth.  It’s how we make sense of and bring forward into our time the book of Isaiah, which on a strict reading, is about a specific historical and political time in the life of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, as being about Jesus Christ.

The church as a whole, not just its ordained clergy, are called to follow God’s commandments as the priests did, and to make disciples of the nations, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ inside and outside our communities.

And that is well and good, and that’s the interpretation we live and hear most often in our churches. But our theological ancestors had another idea too. When God says to Israel that you shall become a “Nation of priests”, some of our reformed ancestors took the metaphor one step further.

What if the church as a nation didn’t just mean matters spiritual? What if the church was also supposed to order secular life like a nation does?

This is the dilemma that we see the early reformers like John Calvin attempting to solve in Geneva, working with civil authorities in that Swiss city to build a model of the heavenly city on earth.

Calvin, by the way, wanted weekly communion, preaching twice a week, and bible study on other days.  So please don’t complain too hard about this 45-minute church service, ok?

While this wasn’t a complete success (or necessarily a complete failure), because after all, they were something closer to Presbyterian rather than Congregationalist in governance, they did inspire another group of reformed Christians to think about the politics of God, what a nation of priests would look like.

This was a group of Christians in England who felt that each individual church could organize and govern themselves. They were especially interested in these ideas because of persecution within England, and the risk of cultural assimilation in the Netherlands. 

They would leave England in the 1620s and 30s and, having been blown off course from their intended target, settled instead in Massachusetts, founding the Plymouth colony, and later the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Dissidents, from that group, including Thomas Hooker, would later trek southward, and found the colony of Connecticut. This idea of the nation of priests was perhaps the principal organizing force throughout the history of English settlement in New England, until the early 1800s. It’s legacy still informs who we are today as New Englanders, and especially as their heirs, the Congregationalists.

Boston, for example, was often imagined of as a “City on a Hill”, a beacon of light to guide the whole world toward God. And although Boston isn’t as religious as it once was, Boston sports fans will be happy to tell you that it is still, indeed, the center of the universe.

Our congregationalist forebears were of course, not the only theocratic experiments in Christian history.  There were cities in Germany that were ruled by Roman Catholic Bishops until the 1800s.  The novel idea that our theological ancestors had that set these experiments in Godly living apart was that they would form, a nation of priests, not a nation for the priests.

Because if every baptized Christian was a priest, shouldn’t they also be responsible for governance and leadership, as the Israelite priests were? Of course, there would be leaders, but each man (at this point, only men, sorry ladies), would have a voice in decision making. This is the theological background for our annual meetings, open to all members of the congregation.  Each and every one of us is a priest.

This is the base for the town hall meeting, that staple of local New England democracy and our major contribution to the political culture of the United States, especially as settlers from New England brought our churches and values out to the Midwest, the Great Plains, and from Sea to Shining Sea in California.

And although the experiment in Democratic theocratic government would end with the establishment of the United States, our theological ancestors left a strong legacy of activists, and reformers, fighting against slavery and for reformed mental health, who believed that as a nation of priests, we have a duty to make our local communities, and the country as a whole a guiding light for the nations.

At 12: 30, our congregation will have its annual meeting.  This is an experiment in democracy that is still ongoing.

I hope our annual meeting reminds all of us that through our baptisms and membership in the church, we have the power and authority of the priests.  Even though I am your pastor, what I say does not necessarily go.  I advise, consent, and serve, but ultimately, this is not my church.  This is your church. It is governed by you at the annual meeting, and throughout the year by officers you elect.

Over the next year or two, no bishop or higher authority in the church will be deciding who your next pastor is. That power belongs to you, as delegated to your search committee.  In the next month, they will be beginning their prayerful work and discernment, but ultimately, you will be voting on whether or not to except the candidate they bring forward as the next pastor. 

I urge you to be grateful for this opportunity.  This opportunity to govern, to shape how faith is expressed in the church, a gift from generation to generation. What a gift that is.