A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Offices of the Church, Part III
July 26, 2018
Two weeks ago I introduced this series on the offices of the church, noting that the church, as the earthly body of Christ continuing his mission in the world, bears the offices that are ascribed to him: Prophet, Priest, and King. Last week we took a look at the church’s prophetic office, and today we consider what it means to say that the church is called to priestly ministry.
The heart of priestly ministry is the work of mediation. The church is called to the work of mediation between God and humanity. Paul calls this its ministry of “reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18) Jesus tells his disciples that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they have the power to administer forgiveness of sins. (John 20:23) In so doing, they are following the pattern he set by declaring divine forgiveness of sins, much to the consternation of religious authorities. (Luke 5:20-24)
The apostles teach both that Jesus is the only mediator between God and humanity, and that the church has been granted this mediatorship as his body on earth. The Reformers rejected the church’s exclusive delegation of this mediatorial role to the bishops and priests. The ministry of mediation is not an institutional function dependent on hierarchical authorization, but a charism empowered by the Holy Spirit. In place of the church’s institutionally controlled priestly mediation, the Reformers advocated for the “priesthood of all believers.”
This has sometimes been mistaken to mean that nobody needs a priest at all, that we all have direct access to our Lord, so “Jesus and me” is all we need. The church has no priestly role whatsoever in such a case. But the point of the Reformers was not that there is no need of priests, but that all its members are priests. All of us can be confessors to each other. Mediation with God still matters, but it is not under official ecclesiastical control. It is in this spirit that James urges us to confess our sins to each other, that we may be healed. (James 5:16)
Another word signifying the church’s mediatorial role is “intercession.” Jesus intercedes with God on our behalf, and the church continues this ministry of intercession with God for one another and for the world. This can be personal or corporate. It can be expressed in spoken prayer, or in enacted prayer through advocacy. Wherever the church seeks to intervene between those who are broken or marginalized and those who hold the power to make them whole, it is exercising its priestly office.
The church’s priestly office is both an internal and external vocation. It is likewise both a vertical and a horizontal ministry, mediating both between God and sinners, and between people alienated from each other.
As an internal ministry, the church’s priestly office is to administer forgiveness and reconciliation between its members. When the church fails in its priestly office of internal reconciliation, division and schism ensue, and the church’s testimony to Christ’s reconciling work on the cross loses its force and credibility in the world. Presbytery is often looked to as a primary agent of ecclesial dispute reconciliation. There is a distinctly priestly character to the ministry of presbytery.
Moreover, the church’s internal priestly ministry is expressed in the work of members seeking together to embody and extend Christ’s peace and forgiveness to those among us who have been tripped up by sin. This is what Paul has in mind when he urges us to restore one another when we fall into sin. (Galatians 6:1-2) And who among us is not in need of this?
Externally, the church inhabits the space between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. We are charged to reconcile the world to God through the proclamation of forgiveness and new life through faith in Jesus. This is the heart of our missionary vocation. It is the ministry of welcome to the outcast, feeding to the hungry, and relief to the oppressed that Jesus describes as ministry unto Jesus himself. (Matthew 25:31-46)
Here lies one of the most profound privileges of the church’s priestly ministry: In reaching out to bridge the chasms of injustice to the oppressed, we are in fact reaching out to Jesus. Our priestly ministry has Jesus both as its warrant and its object. This is ministry from Jesus and ministry to Jesus at one and the same time.
The church’s priestly ministry always faces simultaneously in two directions – toward God and a sinful world, toward neighbor and alien, toward friend and foe, toward the downtrodden and the privileged. Amid these who are separated, we acknowledge only one power that can bridge the chasm: the love of God that gives heaven’s best to save the world’s worst. Only when we humbly acknowledge that we ourselves are “foremost of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) are we ready to don the priestly robe for the sake of others.
Yours in Jesus’ reconciling work,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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