Fifth Sunday of Easter
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Who are we? If we think about it that might seem to be a relatively odd question or at least one that we rarely consider. The more popular question in our age of self-fulfillment and self-discovery is “who am I?” This is a central question for modernity on our fool-hardy quest to know ourselves better. Yet it is the question that drives our age and at least has a central place within each age group we find ourselves in. As children we wish to know who we are apart from the other kids on the play ground. As we grow older kids segment themselves into groups. They identify as jocks, nerds, artsy or theater types. They look for an identity that they can cling to and yet can share with a common group of those like them. In college those groups become majors and we likely have heard kids say, “I’m pre-med” or I’m a music major.” Out of college those majors become the companies or industries that we work for more often than not unrelated to our college degrees. As some get married and have a family they take up new answers to the question, “I’m a mother.” “I’m a grandfather.” Though even as adults some of us of a certain generation still find an answer to the question in the play of our youth, with depend voice and lowered brow we announce, “I’m Batman.”
As Christians, we have another set of answers to that question that identifies us not from within ourselves, but from without. As Luther once said that when the devil tempts you proclaim with all boldness, “I’m baptized.” Each of us washed in the water of the font are proclaimed by God as His baptized sons and daughters. Each of us who confess Christ, who believe in Him are called Christians, washed by His saving sacrifice. His death and His resurrection from the dead give us the hope and faith to believe and confess “I am a Christian.” I am saved. I am redeemed. I am forgiven by the One who can forgive sins. Each of us have a strong sense of our individual identity in Christ. We know who we are as individuals in relation to Him. I am His.
Yet that is not the question with which I began. I asked who are WE, because I wonder at times if we know who WE are. We often over look the very communal nature of the Christian faith. We overlook that the life of faith is not simply a me and Jesus alone sort of a thing. Yes we are individually baptized into His name, but we are also baptized into His body, His bride, His Church. The Apostle Peter has a rather definite answer to this question, an answer that I’m not sure many of us would acknowledge or accept, yet one that is biblically true. As you come to him…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. A holy and royal priesthood, a holy nation, a chosen race, this is God’s answer to the question of who we are as the body that gathers together in His name.
We gather on every Lord’s Day as the Church to be a holy and royal priesthood and to offer to God through Jesus Christ our spiritual sacrifices. Borrowing from Exodus, the apostle, brings forth this imagery that was to be the destiny of Israel. The Lord proclaims in Ex 19 that she would “be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” For Peter what has been done by Christ in giving new and everlasting life to His sons and daughters and calling forth His body the Church, God has now fulfilled what He promised long ago. That we together are now His royal and holy priesthood.
We fulfill this very word of God to Moses in the Exodus and the very identity that St. Peter describes for us when we worship God in Christ and offer up to Him our spiritual sacrifices. For that is what priests do, but these offerings are not for the forgiveness of sin. They do not win us God’s favor or by them do we gain brownie points in the Kingdom. For there is only one sacrifice that restores man to communion with God, the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone could offer to the Father the one and only sacrifice to restore humanity from the pit of death and to forgive sins. Christ’s life-giving sacrifice is the once-for-all, true, complete, and eternal offering of Himself to the Father on our behalf. Dying in our place, so that we might rise with Him in His. There is nothing, not one thing, that we can add to what Christ has done for us. We can not save ourselves, but only trust in the mercy of Christ and His salvation that He freely gives to us. For there is nothing that we can offer to God that is without the taint of our sin. As the line from the Eucharistic Prayer makes abundantly clear, “we give thanks, not as we ought, but as we are able.” We can only give thanks and offer up our spiritual sacrifices to God through the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ who redeems our brokenness, who lifts up our prayers with His own to the Father in the heavenly temple.
So what are these spiritual sacrifices that Peter urges us to give? The liturgy is filled with these moments where we as act as priests, chiefly we see that in the offering. There we give to God, as the ordinary prayer says, “what He has first given us ourselves, our time, and our possessions signs of His gracious love.” The offering plate is not big enough to contain all of what is meant by our offering. It is not to be the check alone that we put into the plate, but it is ourselves, our gifts and talents, our hearts, our very lives that we offer to Him. It is rather easy to cut a check and be done, but God calls us to more than that. He calls us to live with Him in His kingdom in all innocence, righteousness, and blessedness.
As a kingdom of priests, then we live each day and especially on the Lord’s day offering to Him what He is due, not just what is in our wallets, but our very selves in lives, songs, and hearts of thanksgiving and praise for all that He has done. This is why the communion part of the liturgy is called the Great Thanksgiving, the Great Eucharistia, as we lift our hearts to the Lord and give thanks for all that He has done.
Not only then do we serve as priests offering up our thanks and praise for what God has done, but there is also another dimension to our priesthood that we rarely think about. We also serve as priests to the world. When we pray the Kyrie, we pray for the peace of the whole world, because we have come from the world and live in the world. We come to worship God, carrying the world with us and what we have gone through in the past week. We bring with us the brokenness of the world and all that has transpired in these last days, the wildfires, the kidnapping of 276 girls from Nigeria, the death sentence of a Christian woman, the loss of a job, the diagnosis received, the heart broken, the family in need, the poor and suffering. We carry all of these things from the world into the temple of God and through Christ offer up our prayers for the world. We come to the place, in the words of Alexander Schmeman, “where the world is done right,”—where life, peace, love, and joy reign in the Kingdom of God—to intercede for a world not done right, broken by sin. In this we act as the priests of the world, bringing into God’s house the very problems of the world to be healed and redeemed by God.
One of the complaints that people often make about coming to Church is that “they don’t get anything out of it.” To which I usually have two responses: First, is to ask them whether or not they heard that their sins were forgiven and whether they received Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. If the answer is yes to both of those questions, then I ask to make sure they want to stay with their original complaint. For if having received the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, and Jesus Christ the Lord and God of the universe is not “getting anything out of it”, I’m not sure what exactly could please them. Second, is to ask what did they bring or offer in worship to God in Christ. If they don’t participate in the liturgy, sing the hymns, offer the prayers and add their loud “amens” (which is something we need to work on), but just rather sit there and wait to be entertained, well there are many many better places to do that then at Church. Because to be at church and to be the Church is to come, be active and engaged in that very task of offering prayers and spiritual sacrifices to the God who has given us everything. Who has freely called and chosen us to be His royal priesthood, His holy nation, and His chosen people in the world.
Having received everything from God, He then sends you back as priests out into the world, to be in it, but not of it and to proclaim that He alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He sends us to declare His wonderful deeds. Luther talked about this in His preaching and teaching as the priesthood of all believers. You are made by God to be little Christ’s in the world, no matter your station, no matter your vocation, because you carry Him with you. His word Has been spoken upon your lives, that you are His forever, and His very live, His body and blood is in you in Holy Communion, you are now called and made by the Spirit’s power to be His witnesses to the ends of the world. To offer up prayers for others at work or at home. To walk with someone in need and offer up our the spiritual sacrifice of ourselves, our time, and our possessions for them. Because that is what God in Christ is making RLC to be, for we are His, people His Church, His Spiritual House, His Holy and Royal Priesthood all by complete grace to live and serve with our Great-High Priest Jesus Christ in His Kingdom.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!