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Sermon (Joel Driedger)

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Author: Joel Driedger
Source: Merk 2018
Source language: Dutch

Do you all know what priests or pastors are? They are people who work for and in the Church. They have a special position being responsible for the holy things they pass on. Pastors and priests pay attention to the link between heaven and earth.
You probably also know what bad pastors or priests are! They are people who think first and foremost about themselves. Responsible in holy things, they do not transmit the heavenly message to humans. They speak with people hurt by life without reconciling them with God. Bad pastors like to make fragile beings dependent on them. They deprive them of the freedom of God, require passive and blind obedience to better exploit them. Examples of bad pastors exist in all the churches of the world.
It was so five hundred years ago, at the time of the Reformation. Criticism of the clergy marks the beginning of the Reformation and the Anabaptist movement. Our ancestors in the faith have observed the priests of the medieval church. And they found that these priests knew very little about the mysteries of faith and about what life in Christ is like. Priests were ignorant of holy things and did not convey the biblical message. Their primary concern was pecuniary and they were involved in various businesses in the Church, such as indulgences. They who were spiritual guides, did not serve men, women and children, but benefited from their fear of dying and their desire for God.

The Anabaptists, like all Protestants, have found that the clergy charged with announcing salvation did not give much thought to it. So our ancestors in the faith said they would take care of it because the priests failed here.
It is mostly one biblical text that encouraged Protestants to dissent. It is almost at the end of the Bible, in the first letter of Peter. It is a text that speaks of the universal priesthood, the priesthood of all. This text is essential today to understand our Christian vocation. The text affirms that all, as much as we are here, are part of the universal priesthood. Listen to the passage from the Epistle of Peter (1 Peter 2,4-10, NBS):
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

“The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and,

“A stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy


"You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" - these great words are addressed to the Christians of Palestine, Asia Minor (which is Turkey today), Greece, and Italy. At the time, there were small Christian communities in the big cities around the Mediterranean that sometimes only included a handful of people or little more. Two thousand years ago, when Peter's letter was written, Christianity was not a world religion, but rather a Jewish sect despised by philosophers, ignored by the powerful, uninteresting for the economy. Christians were therefore a tiny minority.
Belonging to a minority or a small community can generate feelings of timidity and insignificance. Feelings that I know. For example, on Sunday morning, when in my Mennonite community, only a handful of people go to worship. In addition, most of them approach an age that is said to be that of wisdom. Our small group is a little frustrated, feels insignificant, even obsolete. Inevitably, they ask themselves questions, self-doubt: Do we have something to give? Do we make a difference in our city?

In a situation of uncertainty like the one I have just described, it is common for the tempter to be heard. When the devil went to find Jesus in the desert to distract him from his vocation, he wanted to take advantage of the physical weakening of Jesus after 40 days of fasting. Three times he tempted Jesus using theological arguments and biblical motives. With us the tempter probably does the same. It could, for example, use biblical expressions to destabilize us. In what follows, I make myself the devil's advocate and let the tempter express himself three times using keywords taken from the passage just read. Warning: The devil is intelligent and knows the Bible well. What he mentions, is entirely correct. But he never says the whole truth. In each sentence, he omits important aspects that make it a true statement.


First the devil whispers: "You are a chosen people. Clearly, it means that the Christian community does not include everyone. The devil is right when he says that faith is also a personal choice. It is a choice that some make and others do not. Indeed, we know that God opens ways outside our Church and we believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the whole creation. It is true that the Christian communities do not gather and will never include all the inhabitants of the earth. And yet - and this is precisely what is missing in the devil's phrase - the kingdom of God is open to all.

Why is that ? Because Jesus promised the kingdom of God to everyone. Our capabilities are small, but our mission is universal. Sometimes we are frustrated, conscious of being insignificant and out of date, yet we have a spiritual obligation to those around us.
Jesus did not only open the doors of the kingdom, he set out to bring the kingdom to those who needed it. He went to the sinners and the marginalized, to those who are badly seen, to the excluded ones of the society. The kingdom of God is for everyone - it's true and it's true even though our community is limited in every respect.


Secondly the devil says, "You are a royal priesthood; you are totally accepted, you must not change anything. The devil has understood a very important thing: to be part of the new royal priesthood, one must not be of noble origin or have a special talent or pass an entrance exam. To be part of the new royal priesthood is of divine vocation, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we participate. There is nothing to change - you do not even have to be blameless.
In the fourth century, in North Africa, Christians were cruelly persecuted. To avoid martyrdom, some, including bishops, have denied their faith. After these hostilities, the Church reorganized itself and questioned the validity of the baptism administered by the unfaithful bishops. If they had renounced their faith, did that mean that was wrong? From then on, did one have to rebaptise the people they had baptized?

This caused a great dispute; the Church finally decided that no; no, a second baptism is not necessary. The Church affirmed that once administered, baptism is and remains effective even if it has been by a renegade. Baptism and the other sacraments are effective by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit and not by the perfection of the people who administer them.
For me, the decision of the Old Church also concerns our vocation to the universal priesthood. This story illustrates that an act like baptism is and remains effective regardless of who is administering it. The Holy Spirit dispenses divine grace and power. The grace of God works through us despite the spots and wrinkles of the community. The devil is right: we are accepted as we are, our vocation does not depend on a contribution from us. But for all that, and it must be added, let us not forget our duty. On the contrary. A priesthood is meant to serve and bless. As part of the universal priesthood, we turn to others and do not remain closed on ourselves.
The word "priesthood" in our biblical text evokes the old priestly system. Being all called to be part of the "priesthood" is a question of transposing in our context the old priestly tasks. In ancient times, people expressed their gratitude, fear or prayer by bringing to the temple an animal to sacrifice. The priests made the sacrifice and thus ensured the contact between the faithful and God, they were at the service of God and men. This is the first task of the priesthood to "serve".

Priests once served people by facilitating contact with God. Another priestly function is that of blessing. In ancient times, priests blessed the people. Even today, priests and pastors bless the congregation at the end of mass or worship. To bless is something other than to wish good luck to someone. To bless is to call God's protection on one or more people. Priestly transmission consists in particular of serving and blessing. To serve and to bless is part of Christian mission and duty, today as it has been throughout Christianity.
Of course, I can not say what serving and blessing mean concretely in your community, in your context. It is clear that for you and those around you, the sacrifice of animals is not the preferred "way" to address God. So, we must look for another "means" to serve our needs and those of our neighbors. What should be done to bring the peace of God to the earth and its inhabitants, to the poor and needy, to our friends, to our city? The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "To bless is to lay your hands on someone and say to them: Yet (despite everything), you belong to God. This is how we act in the world that causes us such suffering. We do not reject it, do not despise it, do not condemn it, but give it to God, let us breathe hope and pray for its protection: 'God be kind to you and bless you!' "
Let's find out what "transmitting" means in our context.

Because if we do not transmit, if we are not a link between heaven and earth, we neglect our priestly vocation.


The third and final statement of the devil brings us to the heart of our own Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition when he declares, "You are a holy nation, so do not burden yourself with others, but keep your own holiness. There are Christian traditions, including the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, that strongly emphasize the difference between the Church and the world. For them, to be holy means to be different, in the world but not of the world. And there are moments in history when the Church can only withdraw from society to make this difference visible. At all times and in all places, the Church must be such as to reveal the nature of the kingdom of God different from the character of contemporary society. The devil is right: we must watch over our holiness.
But we must always complete what the devil says. So, it must be said that holiness is not for ourselves. It is a sign to others, a sign that shows the despair of this world that they can hope for another world, God's. Holiness is not a merit bestowed on the best human beings, but pure grace conceded to the living. To live according to Christ is a grace for us and for others.
At the time of the Reformation, the Anabaptists took the love of the enemies seriously, which made them accused of basing their ethics on merit alone and not on grace alone. This reproach is wrong.

In truth, they stumbled on the stone that the builders rejected and became the cornerstone. They stumbled against it, met Jesus, relied on him, and changed their ethics. Other motives also played out - it is not a question of idealizing or diminishing the merits of our predecessors in the faith. They have taken the path of 'following' even though Jesus is a stumbling block, a rock that causes the fall. Holiness is not a condition but rather a process. We are on our way and along the way, we will stop again and again until the way is done.
Indeed, danger lurks when we no longer hit the cornerstone. When in life everything seems obvious to us, when the meaning of faith seems to us too clear, when the rules of a life conforming to Christ are too well laid down, when we distinguish precisely what are the characteristics of belonging or not to the holy nation: in all these cases, we are in danger of losing the radicality of the kingdom. The Scripture says: you who once were not a people, you are now the people of God; you who had not obtained compassion, you have now gained compassion. This sentence does not speak only of the past, but also of the present. It is difficult and delicate to discern those who are or are not part of the holy nation. God is always picking His people between peoples.
Sometimes we find stones rejected by the builders. Sometimes it feels like you're ending up in the dumpster.

God takes exactly those repulsed stones, in fact living stones with which he forms a spiritual house - a house or community, open to all, alive and animated. It is moving like Jesus once, who set out to bring the kingdom to those who needed it. The house of God is built, the house of God lives, we are invited to participate in his life by serving our neighbors and blessing them. We are chosen to participate in a divine work, to serve the earth and its inhabitants and to bless them as God once blessed Sara and Abraham. God blesses us, and we become a blessing for all, relaying His blessing to all.
Amen

For the translation the original quote from Bonhoeffer:
"Segnen, das heißt die Hand auf etwas legen und sagen: from the German gehörst trotz Gott. So do you know what you are doing, die soles Leiden zufügt. Wir verlassen sie nicht, wir verwerfen, verachten, verdammen sie nicht, sondern wir rufen sie zu Gott, wir geben ihr Hoffnung, wir legen die Hand auf sie und sagen: Gottes Segen komme über dich "(DBW 8, 675).

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