Friday, April 18, 2008

The Priesthood of All Believers: "What Can I Bring Him?"

Homily for Easter 5, Year A, 2008
Sunday, April 20th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Peter 2:2-10

“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee. And although we are unworthy yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences.”

-Post Communion Prayer, Book of Common Prayer, p 85-6.

We have often heard the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers,” and although we set certain individuals apart for a vocation as “priests in the Church of God,” this calling is simply an extension of a calling that we all share as the priestly people of God. St. Peter writes: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” As such we all share in a priestly calling. But what is this calling? What does it mean for each of us to be part of a royal priesthood? For that matter, what is it to be a priest?

In our simplest, most ancient understanding of the term, a priest is one who offers up a sacrifice to God. In the ancient world, in both the pagan world and in Jewish society, the sacrifice was often an animal, slaughtered and burnt. As Christians appropriated the term we came to understand our priests as offering up a different sort of sacrifice, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – a sacrifice offered in loving response to the one who offered up the ultimate sacrifice, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To this day, when a priest stands at the altar, presiding in worship, at the sacred liturgy, his or her role is to “offer up” to God something of value of the community. And in our praise and thanksgiving, what is it that we offer? It is nothing less than our selves, in the entirety of our being. We offer up our triumphs and achievements, our failures and our losses. We offer to God our riches and our emptiness, our spirits and our bodies.

That is why I love that old post-communion prayer from the Book of Common Prayer so much. Those who were Anglicans prior to 1962 will remember that it was originally part of the Eucharistic prayer itself, so that as the priest was offering up the prayer of thanksgiving, what was actually being offered up was the very people who were gathered in prayer. In 1962, this prayer was moved to the “post-communion” position, that is, we had opportunity to say it together after we had received the sacrament. Both positions have merit, the former in that the sacrifice of ourselves, as the people of God, is placed at the nexus of the priestly prayer; the latter position in that it is only after we are strengthened in receiving our Lord’s body and blood that we can even begin to offer the sacrifice of ourselves – after all, it was his sacrifice that makes our adoration and praise possible and the offering of ourselves possible.

I suppose I favour the post-communion position of this prayer in the 1962 Prayer Book because it serves to sum up the entire liturgy and expresses what St. Peter spoke of in today’s epistle: “Once you were not a people, but now you’re are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” We come before the altar of our Lord as a disparate people, sinners of all walks of life, rich or poor, male or female, slave or free (it matters not), but we come, and from whatever baggage by which we are burdened, we are set free. We come and in the recalling of his death and passion (and this is no mere remembrance, but a summoning forth into our time the timeless sacrifice our of our Lord), we meet him at the altar and we are made new. Whatever we bring, whoever we are, we offer it up to God: Our selves, our souls, and bodies, as a priestly people.

When I bring Communion to the sick and those shut-in, I almost always use this prayer to conclude the liturgy. I use it because it reminds each of us, no matter our health, estate, or age, that the offering of our selves, our souls, and bodies is indeed a reasonable and holy sacrifice. As long is there is life and breath in us, we live to praise the one who gave us that life in the first place. Even when the body is withered or broken, we still offer it to God as a reasonable and holy sacrifice – a precious sacrifice in the heart of God. Even, and especially, in our brokenness the sacrifice we make is holy. Many of the older people that I visit feel that in their seclusion, their incapacity, their age, they have nothing to offer. But nothing is farther from the truth! Whatever we have, no matter our condition or age or health, we offer it to God and God is well-pleased. The offering of one’s self, no matter our condition, is always a reasonable sacrifice in the sight of God, and it is most holy. We always have something to offer to God, and to each other in Christian community.

The offering that we make is always an offering back to God of what God has first given us, namely, the offering of our lives. It may fill us with great pride to think that we are “self-made” people, but to believe this is only to delude ourselves. We had no say in our creation. The mere reality that we are here in the first place is because God gave us life through our parents. We had absolutely nothing to do with this miracle. And I suspect that the more that we examine the triumphs we have known and experienced in our lives, perhaps, just perhaps, we will see the hand of another at work. We rarely get anywhere in this life without the help and encouragement of others. It may be fashionable as modern people to think of ourselves as independent individuals who work hard to get the good things in life, but take the magnifying glass in hand and look closely for the signs of our families, friends and community bearing us along with them, and look closely for the hand of God.

We cannot do it alone. This is why the prayer goes on to say, “and although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.” There are many who would strike this line from the prayer suggesting that having received the forgiveness of God that we are indeed worthy. But this is the point of the prayer! We offer up to God all that God has given us, not because we are able under our own power, but because God has made us able! All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee! Remember the words spoken in response to each question of our Baptismal covenant, “I will, with God’s help… I will, with God’s help… I will, with God’s help!” Why will I, because God has loved me so much that I can do no other; because it is not me, but Christ in me. That is the mystery of our faith and that is the mystery of Holy Communion! We leave this place nourished by Christ, bearing Christ in us, feeding on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving, that we might offer the entirety of our lives to back to God, moving forward through the week and into the reality of our lives. We become a living sacrifice, or to put it as St. Peter suggests, we are becoming living stones with which the Kingdom of God is built.

The priesthood of all believers is the offering of our whole lives to God – our selves, our souls and bodies. We need not be ashamed of what we offer, for whoever we are, whatever we are, wherever we are, our living sacrifice is reasonable and holy, precious in the sight of God. We need not be ashamed because it is Christ in us, the great high priest of our souls, that offers the sacrifice through us, as we dwell in him and he in us. The priesthood of all believers is about offering yourself to God. Only you can know what the way will be. What will you offer; how will you be a sacred minister in the royal priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ?

Consider the words of the Christina Rosetti, a nineteenth century poet, who a friend of mine suggests was priest through the offering of her poetry:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what can I give him – give my heart.

Sermon text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This text may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

[1] Christina Rosetti, In the Bleak Midwinter, final stanza.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Eating is Believing

Sermon for Easter III, Year A
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: St. Luke 24:13-35

“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”
--St. Luke 24:31

On a sad and lonely road walked two disciples. Their journey took them away from the Holy City, away from the festival that had come and gone, and away from the hope they had for a better life and a better world. They had followed the man about the countryside and into the city and had been amongst those who had proclaimed him king. And yet, as that fateful week unfolded their dreams began to dissipate and they stood at a distance watching the whole enterprise come crashing down. In the defeat of their leader and their whole movement, their hopes and dreams were crushed. So, they quietly slipped away along a sad and lonely road, presuming that that in the brokenness of their dreams they would quietly slip back into the broken world – unnoticed, anonymous.

One suspects that the last thing these two solitary figures wanted was company. Yet, they found themselves walking alongside a stranger – something of an intrusive stranger who inquired about the nature of their conversation. To their shock and surprise, this man seemed to know nothing about the events of the previous week. How true it is that what is often monumental and catastrophic to one may go completely unnoticed by another. Nonetheless, in a spirit of friendship, they opened up to him and told him their story. They chose not to remain silent in the midst of this unknown stranger, but shared with him the story of their shattered hopes and broken dreams. They poured open their broken hearts to him over the loss of their treasured friend and master.

They also shared the rumours – rumours that they could not believe; that he walked again. Oh, they had not seen it themselves; they could not, dare not, believe it. Hope once dashed is only cautiously rekindled. They had risked so much to follow him. They would not so easily and freely risk again. Then strangely, this mysterious fellow traveler began to speak about the prophets and the Scriptures, and about their fulfillment in this man – a man unknown to him. How odd this must have seemed to them, and yet it strangely comforted them. But did they yet believe? Alas, they did not.

But something strange was kindled within them. As the day pressed on and night began to fall, they welcomed him into their lodging, no longer as a stranger but as a guest, as a friend. As they sat around the table to eat their meal, a strange thing happened: In a gesture that evoked another meal, less than a week before, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. And then, in an instant, in this simple drama, they knew that they had not been left alone, they knew that the hope that seemed lost was yet found. They finally came to understand and believe that the dream that they thought dead and buried with their master was now, no longer a dream, but a reality. Thy kingdom come.

He vanished from their eyes. But they no longer had any need to see him to believe. As they had walked along the road, sharing stories of the women in Jerusalem who had claimed he was alive, they refused to believe. They had not seen him themselves. For them, like Thomas, “seeing was believing.” But oh, how often do we see and yet not believe? How often does our Lord walk with us and we choose to see him not? How often do we choose pain over healing, sadness over joy, despair over hope, when healing, hope and joy walk with us? Understand this: Seeing is overrated!

We think that seeing and touching, getting the tangible proof, will answer all our questions and cast all our doubt away. Like Thomas, and like those disciples along the Emmaus road, we think that “seeing is believing.” One only need to look at the world around us. Does seeing poverty, global warming, war, or injustice make any of these things more difficult to deny or ignore? Alas, it does not. Sometimes, seeing makes it even more difficult to cope, more difficult to believe, more difficult to understand. Had the disciples on this road seen the Risen Lord, would they have believed? God chose another way – the way he offers to you and me.

The miracle of Emmaus is that the Lord came to the disciples in a completely different way. He came to them in their experience of pain, loss, hopelessness, and despair. He came to them as they chose to walk together with him and with each other despite the worst the world could throw at them, despite the reality of their deep disappointment and brokenness. He came to them as they shared in a broken piece of bread. He came to those who were broken as one who was broken, in the breaking of the bread. And the minute they recognized him, he disappeared. But was he gone? By no means! Although removed from their eyes, they believed. St. Luke never says, that they “saw” him, only that their eyes were opened and they recognized him.

What did they recognize? They recognized that he was with them in their brokenness as they walked along the road, even though at first, they knew it not. They recognized him in the opening of the Scriptures. They recognized that as they broke bread that they did this in memory of him – and what is more, that in that their Lord was more than remembered, he was truly alive and present with them. They recognized that wherever two or three are gathered, “there I am in the midst of you.”

This is the story of our faith. This is our Easter acclamation. We meet our Lord along the road on which we walk to escape our darkest pain and disappointment. We meet our Lord every time the Scriptures are opened. We meet our Lord when bread is broken in community. Seeing is not believing; oh, if it were so simple. Believing is something more profound. Believing is finding love in the arms of another when we feel unworthy of love. Believing is finding forgiveness at the hand of another when we feel we have done something unforgivable. Believing is finding joy in the laughter of another when we feel we may never laugh again. Believing is finding compassion in the gentle touch of another when we feel words cannot express the depth of our pain. And believing is offering all these things back to another when they cannot stand on their own. Believing is knowing that it is neither you nor I that makes any of these miracles possible, but the loving, Risen one, whose brokenness is our brokenness, whose healing is our healing, whose life is our life. Believing is sharing the fullness and depth of our humanity together in this shared common life, around this common table, and in the breaking open of the bread of our hearts, we believe him to be alive in our midst receiving him into our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

Copyright 2008, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.