We took a detour from the original list of Lutheran trump cards to look at grace and judgment in the life of Christians, in the aftermath of the Aurora shootings. This week we return to the original list and take on another piece of the puzzle – one that was a clear focus of the Reformation. But 500 years later almost all Christian movements still struggle to actually embody this milestone in thinking: the Reformation, at least theologically, cracked open the glass tower around clergy, and acknowledged that no one has a corner on God. All people of faith have both access to God and a responsibility to connect with God in meaningful and purposeful ways.
So our next trump card is:
The priesthood of all believers – Because God has come to us in Christ and is present and accessible to all who have faith, all Christians have the ability and the calling to serve as priests for their neighbors. Luther’s commentary on 1 Peter 2:4-10 is especially helpful here where Luther states, “Consequently, since He (Jesus) is the Priest and we are His brothers (and sisters), all Christians have the authority, the command, and the obligation to preach, to come before God to pray for one another, and to offer themselves as a sacrifice to God.” This calling to proclaim (share the message of the gospel with others), pray (intercede with God on behalf of the other), and to sacrifice (to offer one’s self for the benefit of others) defines the content of the Christian life and is not unique to the ordained – but an essential aspect of what it means to belong to Christ. It is the basis for the content for vocation (we’ll look at this topic next time) but its own unique contribution.
This ability to serve as a mediating presence between God and other people is one of the most powerful innovations of the Reformation. It knocks clergy off the pedestal (at least in theory) and levels the field for ministry for and by everyone. Baptism becomes a time that we are put “on notice” about the power that we all have to minister to others and God’s commitment to work through the abiding presence of Christ who is promised to all who believe.
At St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany is an altar painted by Lucas Cranach and commissioned by Martin Luther. It is the featured picture for this post. The lower panel shows Luther preaching and the crucified Christ appearing in the midst of the congregation. Above this panel are three smaller ones – on the top right is one with the priest of St. Mary’s Church administering confession and forgiveness. But the other two panels are remarkable in their focus. But the top left panel shows a baptism with Philip Melancthon officiating – only Melancthon was never ordained! And the top center panel shows Lucas Cranach’s son leading communion and giving the bread to Luther – and Cranach’s son was a soldier and never ordained either! Imagine a church like that – where laity and clergy all share leadership and are priests to each other.
It is also true that this reality is still more theory than practice. In the modus operandi for many of us, ministry still belongs more to the ordained than to the whole people of God as it is lived out. But the possibility of new ways of being church are now wide open for us. Since all of us can manifest and mediate God’s work among us, it is in our DNA, only our imagination limits the many ways that this can and will be lived out.