Text: Ephesians 4:1-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it is said,
"When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people."
(When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
I am a priest.
There are many ministers in the Church, especially those in non-episcopal denominations, who would not feel comfortable with such a definition of themselves, but I’m happy with it. There are many ways you can define the priesthood. The way I define it for myself is very simple. To me, a priest is somebody who offers a sacrifice at an altar. For a Christian this is the sacrifice of thanksgiving offered at the altar during the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The history of the Christian priesthood goes back through Judaism to the time of Moses when priests were appointed, under the leadership of Aaron, to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the tribes of Israel.
I suggest that the same is still true, the only task particular to the priesthood is to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving on behalf of the congregation at the altar during the service of holy communion. I would further suggest that the only task a priest performs that cannot be performed by members of the laity is this sacrificial task, and the only reason why a lay person cannot offer the sacrifice is a semantic one. As soon as a lay person becomes the celebrant at the altar he or she becomes a priest, because the word priest describes a person who celebrates at the altar. In the same way a bus driver is someone who drives a bus. That person may not be qualified or employed to drive a bus, but if they are driving the bus then they are a bus driver. In the Church of England we protect the sacrament of communion by insisting that our priests are ordained, that they are chosen by the Church to be celebrants at the Eucharist, that they are given permission to celebrate. However, this is the way we do it and other denominations have different systems.
I would point out that I am talking about the word, “priest”, I am not talking about words such as “minister, cleric, vicar or curate”. As far as I know all vicars in this country are priests. But being a priest, under my definition of priesthood, is only part of their vocation. However, the parts of any minister’s task that are not priestly are not their property alone they are tasks that belong to all believers. You do not have to be a priest to have a vocation to these other tasks, you do not even have to be a minister or church official.
The problem is that the Church of England, and for that matter most other churches, have officially added to the priest’s role in such a way that they have given the laity a false impression. In our ordinal the new priest is given a whole list of duties that he or she must carry out, and, of course, he or she must, because that is the job. However, many members of the laity see the minister carrying out these tasks and come to the conclusion that these tasks are the province of the minister alone. When this happens the laity become dependent on their clergy for everything religious and also become passive members of the Church when they should be active members, and I am not talking about just making the coffee after the service on Sunday.
If we look at the tasks given to priests at their ordination we see that, to a greater or lesser extent, they are tasks that should be embraced by all members of the Church. The ordinal states that the priest must proclaim the word of God and the priest must preach the gospel. Of course, this is the prime duty of every Christian, even those not specifically called to be evangelists. If the Church, throughout its history, had only relied on its clergy to tell other people about Jesus, then we would have a very small church indeed.
Secondly, the priest is instructed to call people to repentance and to declare forgiveness to the penitent. But, again, this is the job of all Christians. We are to change the world, we are to tell the people of the world where they are going wrong. For example, members of the Christian Aid organisation are calling the powers of the world to repentance far more forcefully than the Anglican clergy are.
Priests are called upon to baptise new believers. In the Church of England it is normative for the priest to do this, and that’s fine, it’s what Anglicans seem to prefer. However, in an emergency, a member of the laity may be called upon to baptise someone. Theologically there is no reason why they should not. But in any case, the laity should be active in the preparation of candidates and their sponsors for both baptism and confirmation.
There are other jobs given to priests in the ordination service that are equally the province of the laity. We are supposed to lead people in prayer and worship. We are to intercede for people. We are to bless people. We are to teach and encourage people by word and by our example. We are to visit the sick and prepare the dying for death. We are to care for the members of our congregation and be witnesses to God in the world.
There is nothing in that long list that is just the job of a priest. Far from it, they are all duties that should be carried out, when the occasion arises, by every member of the Church. In fact the laity’s job is much harder than the clergyman’s. Most priests do these tasks of discipleship within the safety of their churches. The laity have to go out into the big, bad world and do them. They have to do them where they work, where they play, where people know nothing about Jesus, where people will be antagonistic towards them. A person who takes his or her role as a lay member of the church seriously are going to have a much harder time of it than the vast majority of priests and other church ministers.
Members of the clergy are a bit like those generals in the First World War who stayed well back from the action. The laity, are in the trenches and it is the priest’s job to try and persuade them to go over the top and run towards the enemy lines.
It has always been the case. In our New Testament reading this evening we heard how Saint Paul grappled with the same issue. Paul knew that if the Church was to grow, all Christians, not just himself and the other apostles, had to work for this growth. Paul had a system. He went into a town. He preached the gospel. He planted a church community. He taught that community about God then he left that church as a witness to God in that town, whilst he moved on to another missionary field. Paul knew that if that fledgling church was to survive the members of that church had to let go of their reliance on him and they had to discover their own gifts as the people of God.
No doubt the members of Paul’s young churches believed that they did not have the qualifications to carry out the job that Paul had left them with, and, of course, they were right, they didn’t. Nor did Paul originally. The thing is, the thing that Paul had to persuade his people to accept as true, is that God gives his people the power and ability to do those things that he has chosen them to do. Paul says, “...each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
It is the same for us all these years later. We will not all be given the same gifts. We all have different gifts. Even ministers have different gifts and it’s good for the Church that that is so. In our epistle reading today Paul mentions the different tasks of being witnesses, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Elsewhere in his writings he gives us fuller lists of the Christian gifts. His main aim is to persuade Christians that they are all active members of Christ’s mission and that they are all equipped by God for their part in that mission.
Of course, nobody is compelled to join in with God’s great project. If you want you can creep into church and sit at the back every Sunday of your life without ever making any commitment, without ever giving anything of yourself to the church. You really are welcome to do that if that is what you want. But if we all did that there would be no church within a generation.
No. If a church is to remain healthy then the members of that church must discover their vocations and they must live those vocations. They must ask God for the gift of his grace to enable them to be members of the royal priesthood, the priesthood of all believers, charged with the evangelisation of and care for the people and creatures of God’s creation and creation itself.