A Priestly Calling

Scriptures: Gospel Mark 10:35-45; Hebrews 5:1-10

God in the whirlwind, inspire the hearts of all gathered here this day with your presence and your wisdom; may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Two weeks ago the lectionary cycle began looking at several passages from the letter to the Hebrews. This letter is deeply rich. It flows almost like a continual sermon on major themes in Christian theology. Today’s section is about the doctrine of atonement.

I use the term “doctrine” intentionally here but also lightly. John P. Burgess writes,

“The great church councils that formulated precise language for the Trinity and the person and natures of Christ never specified one view of the atonement as doctrinally true and exclusive of others. Although the atonement is at the heart of the Christian faith, it is so deep in meaning and mystery that no one theory can exhaust it.”[1]

As I was thinking how to preach “atonement,” it occurred to me that it might sound like some sort of theology paper to be turned in at seminary, right? What does atonement have to do with real life in the fields, on the street, or in retirement? Central to our text – and to the ramification of Christ’s atonement for us – are three realities each of us face as Christians: vocation (not occupation, but what God calls us to be), humility, and obedience.[2]

Let’s begin with vocation. Protestants have made a big deal out of the fact that we are the priesthood of all believers. That is our primary vocation as Christians. No, I’m not asking you to step up and all be pastors, although, if you would like to preach now and again, you’d be more than welcome!

1 Peter 2:5 tells us “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Since Christ made atonement for us, we are all priests, that is our primary calling as Christians. The author of First Peter goes on and tells us, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Go, live by example, offer spiritual sacrifices, and proclaim.

Hmmm, that does sound like a minister after all, doesn’t it? I should point out to you when I first started submitting bulletins for our worship times together, I intentionally put: “Ministers: All the people” at the top. I also choose to sit with the congregation for most of the service for a deeply personal theological reason. This gets at the second point, humility.

This is it: I’m not perfect; none of us are. My personal stance on ordained clergy is that we are not ordained to be lifted up on high, set apart or set up as monarchs over a congregation’s life together. For me, and at least for my sense of call to the ministry, we are called into an office that renders a specific service to the whole. Each of us participates in a vocational calling that, if not acted out, leaves a missing link in the ministry of the whole. Before I address the third point, obedience, I’d like to dig a little deeper into what atonement actually means.

Hebrews draws heavily from the ritual life of the Jewish Temple, something we may not always fully grasp. With that lens in place, atonement means Jesus is the high priest who offers sacrifices on behalf of all and intercedes with God for us. Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions have been profoundly influenced by this perspective.

Historically, Western Christian Protestantism hasn’t really embraced this, even though we are all empowered to be God’s priests; as in, we are the priesthood of all believers. I suspect we haven’t really embraced this mostly because in the Reformation we were reacting against what we saw as incredible corruption within the Roman Catholic experience; so, consequently along with rejecting the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, we also ended up initially throwing out the seasonally rhythmic rituals of temple life.

John P. Burgess sees three levels of atonement in today’s passage. In the first level, God and humanity are players in a drama between human weakness and divine grace. Christ makes sacrifice for us, suffers for us, and becomes our source of eternal salvation.

The second level sees the priesthood/sacrifice drama being played out within the Trinity itself. God appoints Jesus to be the high priest while at the same time Jesus, being God, retains divine power and might. In his dual role, he offers up prayers and supplications on our behalf.

Burgess sees the third level being a drama within the Son himself. Jesus, God incarnate, enters fully into our human condition so we may in tern be lifted up fully into a new way of life.

Classically, theological writings addressing the atonement have been broken down into three views: the classic view, the objective view, and the subjective view. Again, using Burgess’ careful research,

The classic view, articulated most fully by church fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, focuses on the paradoxical quality of Christ’s death: the immortal Son of God subjects himself to mortality, yet his death defeats death and its hold on humanity. The crucifixion of Jesus is simultaneously his glorification as the resurrected Christ.

The objective view, usually associated with Anselm (eleventh century), became the dominant theory of the atonement in the Christian West. Anselm argues that in sinning, humans have offended God’s honor and owe God satisfaction beyond the trust and obedience that God originally required of us. Because of our sin, however, humans can neither return to their original condition nor make this satisfaction. Only a God-human can rescue us from our predicament. The savior has to be human because only humans owe God satisfaction, and has to be God because only God can make this satisfaction.

The subjective view has been associated with Abelard, a contemporary of Anselm. A minority view for much of Christian history, versions of Abelard’s position have became more influential in nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberal Protestantism. The principal meaning of the cross was its moral impact. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross demonstrates a complete, self-giving love that inspires us to live likewise.[3]

And that brings me to the third point: Obedience. Jesus has set himself up as our model. He has become our high priest and the high priest of all. We, as a priesthood of all believers, are commanded to go and do likewise, serving others sometimes even at the sacrifice of ourselves. Remember the words of our sacred tradition:

“What does the Lord require of you? … to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” And again, “‘… Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

So when we come to our point in salvation history when we realize Jesus died for us, then we begin to understand that now is the acceptable time. We too must choose, as Elisha took up that mantle of Elijah, as Moses took up the mantle of Israel, as Mary took on the mantle of motherhood so that God could take on the mantle of humanity and Jesus could take on the mantle of sin, we – even we – might choose to take on the mantle of Christ and follow our Lord’s calling: Go, love, serve, and live. May all glory and power be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ.  Amen? May it be so.

[1] Burgess, John P. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[2] Andrews, Susan R. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[3] Burgess, John P. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).


About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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