May 22, 2011

A Royal Priesthood

Passage: 1 Peter 2:9

But 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 marvellous light.

“We are born naked, wet, and hungry”, said one pundit about life, “and then things get worse”.  This has the sound of a rather pessimistic view of life—though some might say realistic.  The famous cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking said, in a recent interview, "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Most people aren’t quite so pessimistic—or should I say bleak—about life.  We do experience moments of happiness or euphoria when we even dare to think this is what life really is all about—in a couple of weeks an NHL team will win the Stanley Cup and doubtless a player in championship euphoria will utter sports euphemisms including “ this is what it is all about.”  Moments of euphoria, though, don’t last; there is the inevitable come down after a great achievement or high point.

There are these moments of exhilaration; these times when we know that human life is so much more than Dr. Hawking’s vision of “a computer which will one day stop working when its components fail”; putting our finger, however, on a satisfying meaning that settles the heart once and for all is elusive.  There is the unsettled angst of heart that never seems to quite go away; when we think this is “it” too soon we wonder if “it” is all there is.

In a recent study lead by Dr. Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick (England) he found that countries that report the greatest number of satisfied inhabitants also reported the highest suicide rates—it included Canada, the United States, Iceland, Ireland, and Switzerland as nations showing this trend.  "Deep down we are creatures of comparison, even though we may not always realize that," explained Dr.  Oswald, so living in a place where there are lots of satisfied people may make depressed people feel even more desolate.

Some take solace in thinking that because the most successful among us struggle to find purpose then I don’t have to feel so bad about my own angst.  In an article about Oprah leaving her talk show a columnist wrote: “If a billionaire who picks presidents, makes movies, anoints TV celebrities and singlehandedly drives books to the top of the chart is still in search of her own purpose, it makes the day-to-day angst we mere mortals feel all that much easier to bear”.

I have learned in our politically correct days not to pontificate on how females experience life.  Of men I would venture to say that many try to find satisfaction for this angst in what they do; in occupation; in achievement.  I learned this week that on May 11th a cousin of mine—his name is Bill Borger—reached the summit of Mt. Everest; an impressive achievement indeed.

We often remark on the hectic pace of life in this part of the world; in as much as we long for a slower pace, to have nothing to do is, for most, way too frightening.  I wonder if our incessant coming and going, our need to always be occupied with sight or sound, is really at bottom an attempt to mask the angst and emptiness we feel. Silence is much too frightening.  One pundit wondered; “When you can’t see the bright side of life, is it possible to polish the dull side?”  Is this the best we can hope for—to somehow polish the dull side?  Is this what all of our striving amounts too—an attempt to polish what is inherently dull?

Doubtless you have heard the saying that if you like what you do you will never have to work another day in your life.  Is this true?  I like what I do; I love to preach.  You would think that a minister—fulfilling a calling—who loves to preach the gospel would be in the place of living a completely satisfying life; who could say that this is what life is all about.  I confess to you that getting to do what you like to do every day in and of itself does not make the satisfaction angst go away.  There is only One who can really satisfy; his name is Jesus Christ.

1.  I wonder sometimes if the reason we feel angst about satisfaction in life is because we look to things for satisfaction that cannot satisfy the human heart; in the experience of a person striving to excel in their chosen career—like the minister who ever strives to improve preaching skills—this would be to say that career excellence cannot ever fully satisfy the human heart because it was never designed to provide such fullness.  The human heart was made for something bigger.

Sometimes in this pursuit we blame others or circumstances for never being able to fully realize heart satisfaction.  We say all kinds of things; the economy is in downturn, my spouse never really supported me, I didn’t get the opportunity to study, my boss never understood my potential, there were no jobs in my field, I got sick, no one helped me, I just ran out of runway because I got too old.  Is it possible that this frustration is because we are caught up in the pursuit of things too small; things that in their design cannot fill the human heart?

Marriage, for example, is a wonderful human institution given by God.  Is it the entire meaning of our existence?  While there is much that can be satisfying in the relationship with our spouse can it fill the whole of the human heart?  I think that to expect this of your relationship with a spouse is to expect the impossible.

Thomas Merton was a 20th Century Trappist Monk—a religious order of contemplative monks who follow the rule of St. Benedict.  His writings on spiritual life have become influential.  At one point in his life his declared "creed" was "I believe in nothing."  Eight years later he entered as a novice into the monastic order.  Merton wrote: “It is not that someone else is preventing you from living happily; you yourself do not know what you want. Rather than admit this [and ask for God's help], you pretend that someone (and I would add “or something”) else is keeping you from exercising your liberty.”

My reading of Thomas Merton is that he is a Christian mystic; I would point out to you that mystical practices alone will not satisfy the human heart—or necessarily lead us to Christ.  I would say that the Merton has put his finger on the human problem: “you do not know what you want”.  We think we do and that is why we are charging hard after all these things.  Our sin blinds us to what the human heart really wants—this is why, the gospel declares, that satisfaction is so elusive.

The Protestant Reformers described this darkness as resulting from the Fall in which the image of God in the human was defaced; they were careful to point out that while defaced it was never effaced, marred, but never obliterated.  John Wesley wrote: “in the Fall the human had “by breaking this glorious law wellnigh effaced it out of his heart; 'the eyes of his understanding' being darkened.”  The salvation that is in Jesus Christ is the very restoration of the image of God.  When Jesus calls the weary and heavy laden to himself for “rest” we hear the word “rest” as holiday, doing nothing, respite from responsibility.  The word Jesus used is “rest” as in “restoration.”

I think that one of the things we suffer from is a lack of comprehension for the magnitude of the project Jesus undertakes in our salvation; a restoration project so massive that it includes the entire cosmos—a project to restore humanity to their God ordained role in the universe.  In the bright light of Jesus raised from the dead he is exalted to the place of authority over everything—including the universe.

It must have been life changing for Peter that day when he, along with James and John, witnessed Jesus transfigured; they caught a glimpse of his glory.  Sometimes it is while singing the line of a hymn or hearing it sung in anthem; other occasions have been profound utterance from hearing a stimulating sermon or theology lecture; at times in the reading scripture—I have experienced glimpses of my Saviour’s glory when the wonder and magnitude of the salvation he undertook and has in mind for us has completely captured my heart as if it would burst—filled to a point that it seemed it couldn’t contain anything more. Satisfaction is not the right word; my heart has been gathered up into a wonder that has filled it to overflowing; it is to realize that my expectations were way too small—indeed the human heart has not imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.

2.  When Peter said to the church “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” he was describing aspects of the wonder of participating in God’s restoration project in Jesus Christ.  Each of these descriptors was lifted from older testament texts and were predicated of Israel’s purpose in God redemptive plan—they could now be said of the church because of Israel’s greater son Jesus Christ.  I invite you to reflect with me for a few moments on one of these—a royal priesthood.  It was at the foot of Mt. Sinai just prior to the giving of the law that God said to Israel—if you keep my commandments ... you shall be for me a priestly kingdom.

Possibly when we hear the Apostle Peter’s descriptor for our congregation as “a royal priesthood” we feel ambivalent; in our modern context it does not inspire excitement.  We can hear that Peter is excited because of how he says it—we may be uneasy.  The idea of “priesthood” is not one we readily warm up to given the modern controversies surrounding priests of other churches.  We may substitute the word “minister” or “pastor” in our denominational setting; not many aspire to be ministers.  From time to time I remind our congregation in sermon that God does call some from among us to the pastoral ministry and invite any sensing a call to come talk with me; there has been no line up at my door.

The Biblical concept of “a royal priesthood” is really quiet exhilarating. To get some idea of what God has in mind we need to go way back—back to the day of creation and what God has in mind in creating humans in the first place.

We have recently witnessed a royal wedding and our ideas of royalty and priesthood are shaped by these experiences—I invite you to set those aside for a moment to consider a thread that is woven throughout the Bible’s story of humanity. In the Genesis account of creation the human was given dominion over the creation and was the only creature with whom God speaks.

We typically consider “dominion” or “subduing the earth” as negative concepts; not so in the Genesis creation story.  In Genesis 1 and 2 humans are not envisaged as terrorizing creation; rather there is a fruitful and richly varied landscape that humans were to look after and make fruitful, and to give names to the animals. Humans are to enable the garden to flourish, and to speak words which bring articulate order to the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

Creation was not a static scene; it was designed as a project; the Creator had a future in mind for it.  The human created in the image of God is the means by which the creator is going to take his project forward.  The garden and all the living creatures, plants and animals, within it, are designed to become what they were meant to be through the work of God’s image-bearing creatures in their midst.  The point of the project is that the garden be extended; the human is the creature put in charge of that plan.  The human is thus a kind of midway creature; reflecting God into the world, and reflecting the world back to God.

It is easy to see the “royal” function of humanity imbedded in the creation story of dominion; so also is the priestly function.  The human was simultaneously the bearer of God’s wise rule over creation and also the creature who would bring the loyalty and praise of that creation for its creator into love, speech, and conscious obedience.  The royal and priestly vocation of all human beings, it seems, consists in this: to stand at the interface between God and his creation, bringing God’s wise and generous order to the world and giving articulate voice to creation’s glad and grateful praise to its maker.

Indeed the image of God has been defaced; we have turned our place of benevolent dominion for the creation into a tyrannous rule for our own sake; rather that worship the creator we worship anything except God.  But God is moving all things to restoration in Jesus Christ who is king and priest forever; in whom the royal priesthood of humanity is fulfilled; his resurrection to life affirms that this is so.

This was anticipated in the history of the nation Israel who were called to be God’s kingdom of priests; it is the mission of the church who are to be his “royal priesthood” anticipating the great day of consummation when this present order will give way to God’s eternal order.  The vision of the book of Revelation is precisely this; humanity restored to the place God intended in the new heaven and the new earth. (NT Wright develops this theme in detail in his book After you Believe).

I want to make clear to you that the New Testament says nothing of the priesthood of the individual believer. Instead it speaks of the priesthood of the congregation, the royal priesthood of believers together, the royal priesthood of the Christian fellowship; in a word, the corporate priesthood of the body of Christ.  One implication is enormous. Since all Christians share in the one royal priesthood, the royal priesthood of the congregation, all Christians have a ministry.

What is your ministry? It all depends on your talents or abilities or gifts. To have a gift or talent or ability is not to own it and merely enjoy it privately. It's to be a steward of it under God—as God’s image-bearer—and to exercise it publicly on behalf of his people. In other words, to have a gift or a talent is to know that a task awaits us as well as a commission to do it.

3. We have gathered this morning here at Central United Church for worship; in doing so we are giving articulate voice to creation’s glad and grateful praise to our Saviour and Maker—we ever remember that we have come to know God as our maker because we first met him as our Saviour.  We are exercising our Christ ordained role as a royal priesthood as we proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.  Church could be compared to a border crossing where the two worlds of heaven and earth overlap; this is so because the resurrected Jesus stands among us as we gather in his name.

It seems to me that to live life in relationship with the One who is restoring all things in himself is filled with wonder; the word “satisfying life” seems a mediocre descriptor.  Somehow the angst of making my life count is forgotten as it is taken up in the wonder of serving him.

But 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 marvellous light.