The Priesthood of All Believers There are several images that Christians have adopted in their leadership styles

. A popular image in recent years is that of the leader as CEO, the Chief Executive Officer. This approach to leadership supports the image of a savvy businessperson with strong organizational and managerial skills. Certainly the skills of organization and management are great gifts that can be offered in leadership. The question we would need to ask ourselves is the extent to which such an image should be adopted by the church. Is there any danger in modeling our leadership after market-driven corporations? Another approach to leadership models itself after the image of “Buddy Jesus” portrayed in the film Dogma. In the movie Cardinal Glick attempts to revitalize the image of the Catholic Church by introducing the up-beat image of “buddy Jesus” who is giving both a thumb’s up and wink-and-a-gun. Here leadership becomes smiling and passive. In our attempts to be positive and inclusive we become paralyzed with the fear of saying or doing anything that may possibly offend. There is often an attractiveness to this approach but also a difficulty with reconciling it to our historical account of Jesus. These are just two images of Christian leadership that our contemporary culture has offered. There are of course several biblical images for leadership. There is the leader as shepherd. This image emphasizes care and guidance. There is the leader as prophet. This image focuses on the rigorous discernment of values and actions within both the church and the world. And there is of course the leader as servant which at the best times informs any model of leadership we attempt to adopt.

In the Protestant and Anabaptist traditions there is another image of leadership that comes from a doctrine called the Priesthood of All Believers. This doctrine stems from both the Old and the New Testament. During the Reformation period this doctrine attempted to erase some of the lines the church had drawn between church leaders and lay people. Prior to the Reformation the church had established a model of leadership in which the


priest himself stood as the mediator between the sin of another human being and the forgiveness of God. The calling and responsibility for God’s work lay solely in church leadership. Christians were at the mercy of what church leaders demanded for the forgiveness of their sins. Many in the Reformation saw this type of leadership as attempting to stand in the position that Christ alone had claimed in the New Testament. And so reformers claimed that in fact all believers have access to the forgiveness of God through Christ. This doctrine had a dramatic impact on how believers understood themselves to be in relationship with God. Now what this doctrine means for practical leadership in the church has not always been clear. One thing that this belief has meant to Anabaptists is that in addition to having a personal relationship with God we also all share in the interpreting of God’s word as given in the Bible. God’s Spirit of discernment and insight is believed to be best shared and experienced in a community of readers. Perhaps, not quite as helpfully, the Priesthood of All Believers has also come to mean for some that all the members of the church can do all tasks equally. This approach can tend to downplay the value and uniqueness of each person’s calling. The doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers is a wonderful and challenging view of faith. In this doctrine we can encourage and celebrate that all those who have taken leadership roles in the church are able and equipped for the task because we all share in the same Spirit and we are each in a personal relationship with same God. In addition the doctrine reminds us that all of us in our daily lives carry with us in a very real way the office of priesthood. So among the other biblical images of leadership what does it mean to be a “priest”? At this point it might be helpful to take a quick mental inventory of the images and memories that you associate with word “priest” either from the Bible or in the church. . . . And for the rest of the morning I will ask if you to put these images aside and reconsider the role of the priest.


This morning I will ask us to consider that priests are the ones who offer a form for the holiness of God. To understand what that statement means we need to dust off the pages of books like Leviticus and Numbers, those literary archenemies of our noble attempts to read through the entire Bible. Of course there is no real wonder that these books are so neglected. Leviticus strikes us a mess of obscure laws and rituals obsessed with anything from menstruation to mold. And in the more honest Bible translations we even find little footnotes from scholars who confess that the meaning of certain Hebrew words in these passages still remain obscure and uncertain. However, what we cannot deny is that for the Israelites these books constituted a formative expression of their life and faith. And when God called for a kingdom of priests In Exodus 19 what he gave them was Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. So how can we interpret texts that for centuries have confounded some of the greatest modern biblical scholars? One response to this is that modern interpreters of the Israelite priesthood have used modern methods of the interpretation. One of the hallmarks distinguishing modern interpretation is the belief that each individual law could explained rationally. For instance some would interpret the dietary laws according to hygiene. They don’t eat certain foods because they are unsanitary. Or perhaps that sheep are clean because they remind us of being a shepherd. Others suggested that women were asked to be separated after childbirth to rekindle marital romance. While some of these interpretations can be helpful the sheer volume and complexity of the laws always thwarted any systematic interpretation of these books. In response to this type of approach there are an increasing number of commentators who are convinced that we do not understand the Old Testament priesthood because we are no longer conscious of how our actions reflect and also create our belief about the world. For the priest every aspect of life, every space, every relationship, every object was somehow related to the reality of God’s holiness and therefore needed to be accounted for.


It is perhaps children who implicitly understand how our actions shape our beliefs. Take for example the priestly concern for discerning what is clean and unclean. This concern comes from an understanding that contact with what is holy or what is profane affects or own state of being. Maybe the kids can help me out here but I am wondering if the threat of “cooties” remains as large a concern in the classroom and on the playground as it was when I was in school. This was a major concern for us as we tried to figure out how to relate with one another and respond to distinct differences such as gender. To cope with this epidemic we formulated elaborate rituals and practices to safeguard ourselves from the threat and also to cleanse ourselves once infected. These practices may appear absurd to the outside viewer but they made perfect sense within the developing worldview of the child. Another example of how children model the role of priest is the issue of the holy spaces. For the priests the ultimate holy space was given expression in the construction of the Tabernacle. For most of us it will take little effort to recall some sort of special place that we had as a child (indeed many of us are still looking for our “happy place”). Because I grew up on a farm images of bale forts and tree houses immediately come to mind. However, closets, cushions, and fridge boxes were also readily transformed into spectacular and exotic locales. Even the simple act of a child pulling him or herself under the covers of a blanket could suffice to transport them into another realm. There are three interrelated elements in a child’s construction of “special space”. Most often these spaces will be special, safe, and symbolic. It is common for a child to pull the covers over their head when they are scared in bed. This simple act exhibits all three elements of space referred to above. The created space is special in that it is set apart. The child knows without a doubt that the space on one side of the blanket is entirely different than the space on the other side. It goes without saying that the child believes this space is safe if it were not the space as the child understands it would cease to exist. Finally, the space is symbolic. The child likely


knows that any “real life” threat could penetrate his or her blanket force field with little resistance. The act, however, remains, meaningful and so the blanket retains its strength infused by the power of the child’s belief. When I was a kid my sister and cousin were “playing house”. They constructed their house from loose hay which they arranged to make the basic floor plan including an entrance, a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living room. This space was clearly symbolic in its basic structural representation. And these symbolic walls functioned to keep the space special and safe. The proof in this was how I responded to their space. In order for their space to remain special (that is uniquely their own) it needed to be kept safe and at that time one way of achieving this safety was to keep me outside of their house. Now I could see everything that went on inside the house (the hay walls were only a couple of inches high) and I could have easily stepped over the walls should I have so wanted to. However, I intuitively understood the significance of their refusal backed by the power of their symbolic walls and so recognizing the power of the boundary they established I decided that desperate times called for desperate measures. I went to find the small tractor my dad had recently taught me to drive. I attached it to a small plough and headed towards their house. When they saw me coming they ran out of the way and remained at a safe distance. I drove over their house dragged apart their hay walls. On the surface all I really did was mess up some hay. However, this was not the reality of what happened as I recall the look of fear and terror in their eyes. There was more going on than just the arrangement of hay. Their trust in the walls (symbols) had been broken, their house was broken into (becoming unsafe) and all that remained was a pile of hay (with no special meaning). As a child we knew that the world around us offered more than what appeared on the surface. We could sense that there was something deeper, something more was being offered. Like these hay walls priests in the Old Testament knew that God has established boundaries in the world. At creation there was boundary between the dry land and the


sea between the day and the night. God gave boundaries for the land of Israel and for the city of Jerusalem. God gave boundaries for the relationship between neighbours. Priests understand that humans were made with boundaries. These boundaries included the physical, the ethical, and the social. When a child was born or when some was bleeding the natural boundaries of the body were crossed and this meant that something happened and needed to be brought into understand of the individual’s and community’s state of relationship to a holy God. We tend to understand the word boundary as communicating things like limits, restrictions, or walls and as such we tend to cast it in a negative light. This was certainly not so with the priests. Their task of creating and maintaining boundaries was for the express purpose of establishing meaningful and healthy relationships between God and humans and between humans themselves. Their understanding of boundary was more artistic in the sense that art is recognized by its form and form is given shape by certain types of boundaries. In this way priests were taught to recognize the form, or the rhythm that God began at creation. This type of work leaves the priest at the boundaries of the world, or perhaps more appropriately “in the breach”. And the Temple we minister in includes all of God’s creation. As I mentioned earlier priests offer a form for the holiness of God. We attempt to stand at the breach where the holiness of God enters our world and in that place we offer the creative and creational work of holiness. This is not legalistic adherence but inspired responses to what God is already or what is being done against God.

Samuel Balentine, who has been a great inspiration to my thinking, speaks about the priestly task of standing in the breach this way, At this vital juncture, the priests are called both to uphold the foundational boundaries that sustain the world according to God’s design, and to restore those boundaries when they are violated.


The objective of the priestly ministry, however is not only to guard against the collapse of the sacred into the common. It is also to extend the claims of the holy onto the everyday so that the realm of God’s presence on earth is enlarged and advanced. Ballentine goes on to notice that in Leviticus the priests were actually called to stand quite literally at the breach or the threshold of the sacred and secular. He writes, In the Torah’s vision, the ministry of priesthood cannot be fulfilled only by marking boundaries and facilitating acts of celebration and correction. Priests are themselves specially commissioned to live and work between the boundaries: between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. They are therefore summoned to a threshold existence. In the founding ritual for ordination that is preserved in Leviticus 89, the one charge given to the priests at the conclusion of their consecration is that they remain at the door of the Tabernacle for seven days. Priests are to live and minister within the dangerous zone that divides and joins the things of God and the things of the world. Priests serve to both insulate from and connect us to the holiness of God. So what does this mean for those of us who may still feel a little uncomfortable associating ourselves with this slightly bizarre group of people? What are our contemporary images of priests? Who are the people standing in the breach of God’s holiness? Who are still like the little children who understand the power of creating special places?

I think that it is often artists who often give us the clearest image of what it means to live on the threshold that has been described here. Exploring the relationship between art and theology Rowan Williams describes the artist as one for whom perception is always incomplete. There is always something more to be seen or evoked. Like children who create the world around them artists work with symbols understanding that symbols, images, and rhythms can reach deeper into us than laws or systems. He writes that in


approaching the world “the artist first listens and looks for the pulse or rhythm that is not evident.” The implication of this is the belief that the “world is not yet as it ‘really’ is.” Towards the end of his book, having never made any reference of allusion to priests Williams offers his reflection on the artist this way, The artist, as we have been reminded many times, does not need to be a saint; the point is rather that without art we should not fully see what sanctity is about. A holiness, a fullness of virtue, that was seen simply as a static mirroring of God’s perfection would in fact no be real holiness; God’s life exercises its own perfection in the imagining of a world into life, so that the exercise of the artist’s imagination fills out what must be the heart of holy life for human creatures. Williams continues, The artist imagines a world that is both new and secretly inscribed in the all that is already seen. . . . In this bestowing of life on self and world, the artist uncovers the generative love that is at the centre of holiness. The priest stands in this breach. James Joyce, the Irish novelist, wrote a story reflecting his early childhood formation. His account offers a striking imagine of a young man named Stephen Dedalus who is wrestling with something that he cannot see or understand but remains a deep presence in his life that demands some type of attention or response. As a young man Stephen associates this presence in a more of a sexual context and so relates to the elusive image of a woman named Mercedes.

He writes that, as he brooded upon her image, a strange unrest crept into his blood. Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. . . . He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a


premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other . . . perhaps at the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured. Stephen was unsure how to name this presence that was seeking him. Remembering Williams comment about this reality being new but also already inscribed Stephen looks forward to transforming encounter but that it would be “as if they had know each other”. Stephen senses that he is seeking something that already in someway knows. What is interesting in the story is that Stephen first pursues these feelings by actually having relationships with various women, accepting the surface understanding of his feeling, but he soon comes to realize that will not find this elusive presence in these encounters. This too is the work of the priest who wrestles with things that are happening to us or to others but will not readily be identified. And as with Stephen we need to be careful and courageous that we do not try to offer substitutes for the holiness that is seeking to emerge. But artists are not the only image of priests. Images fill our community and fill this congregation. The business person who sees that commerce does rest in the world economy is called to priesthood in their vocation. She is called to wrestle with the appropriate Sabbath boundaries that God has called us to. The parent who sees that their child is ashamed of themselves is called to priesthood. They are called to create a space in which the child can grow in confidence and identity. The friend is called to priesthood when they see someone whose personal boundaries have been violated. He is called to help that person cleanse their body, mind, and emotions from that experience. The youth and young adults are called to priesthood as they have not yet been shaped fully be the adult world. They are called to help share a vision of new spaces and new expressions of God’s holiness. The more senior members of our congregation are called to priesthood by helping us to see the implications of our actions and connect us the larger story of God’s holiness.


We are called to the Priesthood of All Believers. We are called to see a world in which everything is somehow related to God’s holiness. And as we sense things and see things happening around us we are called to give form and shape to them so that God’s presence might become incarnate among us.