Priests at Every Elbow

I Thessalonians 2:1-8

Indeed, the appeal we make never springs from error or base motive; there is no attempt to deceive; but God has approved us as fit to be entrusted with the Gospel, and on those terms we speak… With such yearning love we chose to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves, so dear had you become to us. (I Thessalonians 2: 3-4, 8).

Unbelievable! Paul it seems identifies himself, his very person, with the Gospel.‘God has approved us as fit to be entrusted with the Gospel,’ so that we have imparted ‘to you not only the gospel of God but our very selves.’ These are not exactly expressions of humility. What would you think if Kyle said that of himself? ‘God has entrusted me with the Gospel so that my very self makes present God to you. Indeed, if I fail in the ministry then all our salvation is in doubt.’ I suspect you would think if Kyle expressed such views, he would have gone around the bend. But I am telling you not only is that exactly what Kyle should think about his ministry but also it’s what you should hold him to. For if the Kyles do not exist and churches like Austin Heights Baptist do not exist to make Kyle’s ministry possible, then we are indeed lost.

So said Stanley Hauerwas, preaching on the I Thessalonians lectionary text, in the worship service that was part of my tenth anniversary celebration as pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church.

These were strong words in Stanley’s provocative sermon. These were words that made all of us in the congregation sit up and pay attention to what the Apostle Paul was saying about ministry to the small, struggling congregation in Thessalonica. For me, they were uncomfortable words.

In listening to Stanley’s high view of pastoral ministry, I squirmed. I was not so sure I agreed with such an elevated perspective of ministry. I mean, I know pastors! I also knew then and know now that when anyone is put up on a pedestal they will eventually fall off or get knocked off. It is much safer to never be on the pedestal in the first place.

I also know churches. At least, I know something about American mainline Protestant churches. Churches cut ministers down to size a long time ago. We say, “We do not need anyone standing over us representing God. We can go to God for ourselves, thank you. We believe in the priesthood of the believers, after all. We do not need priests,” we say. “I am my own priest and I don’t need some preacher getting in the way. We’ve seen too many ministers who try to act like God and it does not matter if it is the pope or fundamentalist Southern Baptist pastors,” and everyone in the congregation nods their heads and say, “Yeah, that’s right!”

So no wonder that Hauerwas’ assertion that pastors make God present to the congregation is outrageous and makes us feel uncomfortable.

But the discomfort of the pastor being lifted up as the one who makes God present to the congregation raises an interesting question. What if Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians also is about the ministry of every member of the body of Christ, the church? Paul is specifically seeking to encourage and strengthen the small Thessalonian congregation but perhaps we can look through the communal lens of being the body of Christ and say that it is the responsibility of all of us in the church to minister and encourage and strengthen. In other words, for our purposes here, we are all priests – priests to each other.

Hear Baptist theologian James McClendon on this:

Here, then, is the challenge of radical reformation in ministry: not a set-apart ministry of those who work for God while others work for themselves, and not a flock of secular ‘callings’ (doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief) tended by a shepherd with a religious calling (priest or preacher, pope or pastor), but a people set apart, earning their daily bread in honest toil, to be sure, but living to become for others the bread of life … Every member is called to discipleship; baptism … is commissioning for this ministry … on this view every Christian is a cleric. True Christian leadership is not affected by exalting (or by denigrating) the gifts of the few, but by discovering that the Spirit has a gift for each. Every member is a minister.

What often happens in our congregations is that we are uncomfortable with exalting the pastor above the laity so we devalue (Hauerwas’ word) or denigrate (McClendon’s word) the role and office of the pastor. The mistake is that we pull the pastor down to our level. Instead we are to see ourselves exalted as ministers of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we all are lifted up to become priests, priests of the living Christ to each other. This was what the great preacher Carlyle Marney called a “proper priesthood.” Priesthood of the believers is not “I’m my own priest and do not need anyone else” but “We are priests at each other’s elbows.” In Jesus Christ we are all lifted up to embody the Way of Christ and be a part of the ministry of encouragement of the church.

Perhaps Hauerwas, McClendon, Marney and the Apostle Paul are challenging all of us, those of us in the pulpit and serving at the altar but also those sitting in the pews of our priestly vocation to each other and to a hurting world.

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