A Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, November 2, 2003, All Saints Sunday, Pentecost 21, dedicated to all the saints who have shed this earthly skin and entered a place where all the saints in glory rejoice with the Creator, with the Spirit, and with their Risen Savior and always to the glory of God!
(Part I of IV in the Sermon Series: "Reformed and Reforming: Speaking the Truth in Love in Every Generation"
I Peter 2: 4-11; Mark 12: 28-34
Today I begin a four-part sermon series which will bring to close preaching in this season of Pentecost. On November 30, we begin the season of Advent. We come from the Reformed theological tradition growing out the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. As such, we are all reformed Catholics. We have many gifts in our rich and beautiful theological heritage. On this All Saints Sunday, I look at one of these gifts - the priesthood of all believers.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
"On a sultry day in July of the year 1505 a lonely traveler was trudging over a parched road on the outskirts of the Saxson village of Stotternheim. He was a young man, short, but sturdy, and wore the dress of a university student. As he approached the village, the sky became overcast. Suddenly there was a shower and a crashing storm. A bolt of lightening shot through the gloom and knocked the man to the ground. Struggling to rise, he cried out in terror, "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk."
This man who rose from the mud of a Saxony thunderstorm and called upon a saint was later to repudiate the cult of the saints. He who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism and celibacy. A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism. A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes as the Antichrist. This man was Martin Luther. (Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton, Abington Press, Nashville, 1980, p. 15).
Luther's cry to St. Anne changed the course of Christian history. Within 12 years, this man Luther would pound his way into history by posting no less than 95 Theses - on All Hallow's Eve, 1517 - challenging much that wrong in the Catholic Church. He called into question the building of St. Peter's basilica in Rome shouldered by the poor of Saxony and other regions of Europe, the sales of indulgences to do so, the power of the pope over purgatory, and consideration of the welfare and salvation of the sinner.
Luther called out to the lost soul of the Christian church. After several centuries of sporadic prophetic writings, vocalized (and subsequently silenced) dissent and periodic challenge to papal authority, this 34-year-old parish priest and theologian at the eight-year-old Wittenberg University, took a stand against the injustice of the Western Catholic Church. What followed was a firestorm of reformation which has changed the face of Christianity until this present day. (Sermon note: At the 9:00 a.m. service I shared that I felt the genius of Luther was that he was a parish pastor. His theological reflections grew out of his pastoral heart. In the film "Luther," there is a wonderful scene in which he buries a young boy whom committed suicide in the cemetery along side the righteous dead. This was unheard of in his times, because it was believed suicidals had gone to hell. As the peasants of his parish watched, he said a prayer and spoke aloud, "Certainly God shows mercy on this innocent soul." Luther had the heart of pastor and the mind of genius!)
We, and all Christianity with us - Orthodox, Roman Catholic and all of Protestantism - should celebrate the protestant reformation for good reason. The change brought about was so sweeping that never again would the Catholic Church be known as such. From the middle of the 16th Century on it would be called The Roman Catholic Church.
Among other things, this reformation was revolution of language which brought the printed and spoken Word of God to the forefront of our faith. Preaching and writing in the native language of each of the reforming nations became the hallmark of Protestantism. It was also a liturgical revolution in which people approached the altar, which became the Lord's Table, hymnody and worship music sang from the Psalms and the Word of God to the glory of God! In this reformation, liturgy, which means "the work of the people," became just that.
The Reformation was more than protest and negative reflection on the times. It was a Holy Spirit led revolution which brought resounding resolution to correct the sins of present and past generations. We should take pride in having ties to a movement which saved the Christian church. The question is: How will we learn from it, so that we might be part of saving the church in our times? Although Luther's 95 theses remain on the gates of the castle church at Wittenberg until this day - the Latin words and the Greek letters cast in bronze - the question is, will we embrace their meaning for the church of Jesus Christ in this day?
In the coming weeks, I will look a number of pillars of the Protestant Reformation: The Priesthood of All Believers; Word Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone; Just Action through social transformation; and Responsible Freedom. To tell you that these pillars will form a substantive structure with which to support all of our faith and labor would be false and thinly veiled as fable. However, the issues I lift up are significant for us if we are stand for justice and righteousness in our times.
On this Communion Sunday, this All Saints Sunday, in which (ironically) preaching is muted and the Table of our Lord is lifted-up, I begin today with The Priesthood of All Believers is a cornerstone of Martin Luther and John Calvin's writings. Although it is a corollary to the Doctrine of Justification by Faith and the liberty of the Christian Believer (which I will address later in this series), the Priesthood of All Believers is a critical Protestant affirmation. It has positive and negative meaning. Positively, it means that just as every Christian has an "inner liberty of conscience" that makes that person a "Lord over all," so too is each Christian a priest or "Servant of all."
By this Luther mean not simply that every man (and woman) has his (or her) direct access to Christ but that all Christians are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another the things of God. Negatively, this means not only a rejection of the medieval tradition that practically identified priesthood with the administration of the Sacraments (so much so that only the priest took communion because its supposed magical powers would kill the laity), but also constituted an attack on the conception of the priesthood as a special class of men in the eyes of God with special power and special morality (a medieval perception which, to a great extent, still exists in the Roman Catholic Church of our times).
Luther insisted that the public ministry was simply a matter of practical function or vocational call. It was not a higher or more religious form of life with special standing in the eyes of God. Luther insisted that each one of us has a vocational purpose in the eyes of God. All of our work is blessed by God, not one piece of work more highly valued than other. While my vocation, The Office of the Priest (or Pastor as the Reformers preferred to call my position), was one which celebrated the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, preached God's Word, and taught the faith of Christ and the freedom of believers, God did not make it better than your vocation. Rather, it was a vocation or calling, just as (hopefully) your celebrations in work, your teaching, your freedom of commerce and expression are for you, a calling, a vocation.
As a corollary to this, I would add that as you are called, your work is blessed by God, but not "more" blessed or "less" blessed. It is highly valued for the ways in which it serves God's people! I like how Andrew Young refers to this. Dr. Young says that it matters not what letters are in front of your name or behind your name. All that matters is that you are a baptized child of our living and loving God!
In his 1520 pamphlet, The Freedom of a Christian, Luther writes:
You will ask, "If all who are in the church are priests, how do these whom we now call priests differ from laymen? I answer: Injustice is done those words, "priest," "cleric," "spiritual," "ecclesiastic," when they are transferred from all Christians to those few who are now by mischievous usage called "ecclesiastics." Holy Scripture makes no distinction between them, although it gives the name "ministers," "servants," "stewards," to those who are now proudly called popes, bishops, and lords . . . Paul writes accordingly in I Cor. 4, "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." (From The Freedom of a Christian found in The Living Theological Heritage, Vol. 2, The Pilgrim Press, 1997, p. 109).
We are stewards of the mysteries of God, not owners of sacred rights and controllers of the church. This was and remains a cornerstone of the Protestant reformation. With the rise of modern technology and mass production, in the 18th and 19th Centuries it became increasingly difficult to see how the average laborer could regard routinized work as in the service of God, especially when and where the laborer was being exploited by his or her boss. Karl Marx's argument that labor was simply an expendable means of production by employers brought a tremendous challenge to Protestant ethicists and theologians.
One who became a huge advocate for the laborers in the late 19th Century was our own Dr. Washington Gladden. Gladden and others in the social gospel movement took Luther and Calvin's work on the humanization of vocation to heart. They stepped in to defend the common man and woman in the workforce. Interestingly, Gladden believed that his personal efforts in resolving labor strife and his preaching on this topic of humanizing labor and bringing justice to work would bring workers to worship. It didn't happen that way. But, he is remembered and celebrated to this day in the labor movement as one who defended workers' rights, something you and I should also be about in our day and age - based on our deeply rooted beliefs in the sanctity of human work and vocation.
As we come to the table, I add a corrective to one misconception among too many Protestant Christians through the ages. Because the laity in the church of the 16th Century were not allowed to touch the elements of Holy Communion (Still you see in many Roman Catholic Churches today that the elements are placed in the mouths of people, not touched), people of that time feared that they would die if given communion. They feared that its power was so great that it would kill them if taken in. Luther told them that they although they should receive Holy Communion regularly, (Calvin said in each service of worship!), they should receive it at least four times a year (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saints Day). Somehow that became reinterpreted as ONLY four times a year in many Protestant Churches.
Come to the table, today and as often as you are able. Come, you of the royal priesthood! Come just as you are - called and consecrated, a baptized believer in Christ our Lord. Come and celebrate this simple and splendid feast, this holy meal, set for each one of us. Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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