"The (Reluctant) Priesthood of All Believers" – Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Today we continue the Reformation-themed sermon series by by focusing on priesthood of all believers. This is an idea rooted in scripture and fleshed out by reformation theologians such as Martin Luther, who asserts that
I suppose it can sound terribly presumptuous of me to tell you that it is good news that you too are a priest or pastor. Some of you might find this news as exciting as receiving socks as a Christmas present.
Now, if someone would come up to you and say, “Good news, you’re a millionaire”, perhaps that’s something you’d get excited about; but, instead, you’re all priests.
In order to get to why the priesthood of all believers is good news, let’s briefly explore the medieval theological landscape where this idea gained momentum.
One of the things reformers of the church were most worried about was the amount of power that the Christian church had amassed. The church in Rome had acquired so much power and wealth that it viewed itself as independent from, and more powerful than, the political and cultural powers of the world. And in the church, all the power was confined to the clerical hierarchy–the Pope, bishops, and priests (what you could call the top 1% of the church).
Once Martin Luther started exploring scripture on his own, he realized that little of how the institutional church operated could be supported by scripture. The church was maintaining its power and influence not by encouraging the message of grace, but by financial and legal policies of self-preservation, smoke and mirrors, and outright oppression that would make even today’s Wall Street bigwigs blush.
The church was producing priests whose call was contingent on uphold the corrupt system. The priests, in turn, held enough power and privilege that they had no incentive to change policies. So you can imagine, then, why it was so radical when Luther would cite scripture such as 1 Corinthians 12 (“Weare all one body, yet each member hath his own work for serving others”) and 1 Peter 2 (“You are a royal priesthood and a realm of priests”) in his assertion that there was nothing that made the faith or works of ordained priests different or better than the faith or works of a farmer, merchant, king, beggar, or any other common man.
The concept of the priesthood of all believers took rescued power from a select few and redistributed it among the masses. This movement produced a revolution.
Which makes me wonder if the idea of the priesthood of all believers doesn’t motivate believers today because we’re content with things just the way they are. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves. We look at systems that oppress people who are different from us and say, “I do feel badly for them, but it’s not like I can do anything about it…after all, what power do I have to change anything?”
We look at broken relationships in our lives and refuse to engage in any meaningful confession or forgiveness. After all, continuing to think of ourselves or others as unworthy of forgiveness is so much easier than saying “I’m sorry” and risking rejection or saying “I forgive you” and risking being injured again.
We fail to utilize the incredible power at our fingertips because deep down we don’t actually want anything to change. Even when we’re miserable we find it’s just easier to keep things the way they are. Some of us don’t want to endure the personal or financial expense revolution would take. Some of us like refusing to bear our share of the blame for the injustice suffered by others; and instead we place blame squarely on those we refuse to help.
We are people who have power in our society, which is unfortunate because that is never the position Christ desired for his followers.
Recall the context of today’s Gospel text where James and John maneuver in front of the other disciples and make the first power play, asking for the seats of glory on the either side of Jesus.
James and John are both operating under the culturally-accepted, yet mistaken understanding that the Messiah would rescue them from political, racial, and religious persecution and usher in a new age of power, prestige, and wealth for the followers of God. With their priority seating request, it’s likely James and John were imagining solid gold thrones bedazzled with jewels, with each carrying a scepter of power.
And, of course, there would be opportunities to be on Jesus’ right hand and left; not in a throne room, but rather the execution yard at Golgatha. The thrones would end up being wooden crosses. And the places at Jesus’ right hand and left would end up being occupied by criminals.
To their question, Jesus responds, “You do not know what you are asking.”
Life isn’t all about winning, getting rich, keeping up with the Joneses, getting ahead, or having the last laugh. As it turns out, life is about seeking the benefit of others. That’s a job that is only suited for a priesthood of all believers–a revolutionary force made up of baptized Christians who understand that their call above all else is to preach and embody the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
This year as we gear up for a celebration of our Reformation heritage, the question we must ask is “For a church that had its genesis in the chaos of revolution, have we accomplished anything other than the creation of a new oppressive, closed system that preserves its own sense of power at all cost? Have we reanimated the monster that Luther spent his life fighting against?
If it’s true that the cultural opinion of American Christians is trending negative, as research seems to indicate, perhaps this is an indictment on the fact that we sold out our calling as a priesthood of all believers and replaced it with the same oppressive and insular institutions and barriers that Martin Luther railed against in the first place. Are our goals for security and prosperity and influence any different than James and John?
My friends, I do believe we are in the throws of another great period of reformation in the church–what writer Phyllis Tickle calls the “every 500 year garage sale of the church.” The days ahead are most uncertain and perhaps treacherous. Yet, our calling remains–to be the priesthood of all believers, proclaiming and embodying the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Be bold to let the truth of God’s love and forgiveness of you sink in; let it agitate your goals, biases, and hardened hearts. And get ready to engage in some amazing work of justice and reconciliation in God’s name, because being a priesthood of all believers is the revolution this world has been waiting for.