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.

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