The Priesthood and SacrificeSermon Preached at the Ordination of John Mason Lock
At All Soul’s Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City
May 9, 2009
In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
I’m Fr. Leander Harding, and I’m very grateful to be here today. I was one of John’s teachers at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge. I am very grateful to the bishop, and to Father Bright, and to John for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful day today, this day that comes after a long period of preparation. I want to talk this morning about an aspect of the priesthood; I want to talk about how it is that the priest offers sacrifice.
This is a controversy that is in the church. Should we even have priests in the church? Should we call them priests? This is something that is disputed in the church. There has been a tremendous ambivalence about the priesthood the whole time that I’ve been ordained. It’s understandable that there should be somewhat of an ambivalence and a hostility towards the priesthood outside of the church, but the whole time that I’ve been ordained, there’s been a kind of crisis of identity and ambivalence about the priesthood within the church. And sometimes that masquerades as a concern for Reformation theology, and sometimes it masquerades as a concern for egalitarianism: we don’t want to have something that isn’t democratic enough. I think mostly it’s just a camouflage for an allergy to the supernatural.
So, I want to make a case, if I can today, for the priesthood, the sacrificing priesthood of the ordained priest within the church of God. Now, first of all, what is a sacrifice? What was it that those Old Testament priests did, those levitical priests when they went into the temple? What they did was they took the blood of an animal, and they poured the blood out upon the altar. So, a sacrifice is a pouring out, and it’s a pouring out of life. In the Old Testament, people understood that the life of the animal, the life of the person resided in the blood. And so, what the priest did was to pour out this life, and it was felt that this pouring out of this life made an atonement, that it made amends for man’s offense to God and that in some way, in some mysterious way that it cleansed or purified. In the Old Testament, blood is a very interesting thing: on the one hand, it makes people dirty; on the other hand, it makes them clean. And what was the purpose of all that? The purpose of all that was the reconsecrating of the people.
God had a plan to bring his wayward children home, and his plan was to have a people that would live towards him in such a way and live towards each other in such a way that all the other peoples of the earth would look to that people, his people, and say, “surely your God is the true God; tell us about him that we might also know him and love him and serve him.” And when they wandered away from the way of life that they were given, God gave them a system, this sacrificial system, the tabernacle and then the temple in Jerusalem, that involved blood sacrifice. And the purpose of the blood sacrifice, the purpose of the pouring out the lives of these animals on the altar was that the people should be cleansed and reconsecrated, made new, made again into God’s holy and righteous people. They were called to be that; they had wandered away from that; they needed to be gathered into that; they needed to be reconsecrated, set apart again, and they needed to be made clean. That was what they were trying to do. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that the blood of the goats and the bulls availeth nothing. It was all a kind of education, it was all a kind of pointing forward to the priest who is to come. Now this is the first thing that I think we can say about this, then maybe we’ll do a little bit to get rid of some of the misunderstanding anyway.
When it is being said that the ordained priest in the church is indeed a priest who offers sacrifice, it is not being said that the priest does something above, beyond, apart from the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In the Christian church anything that is done is done by Jesus Christ. If there is teaching, he is the one who teaches. If there is forgiveness which is on offer, he is the one who is offering the forgiveness. If there is healing, it is his touch that is the healing touch. If enemies are reconciled, he is the one who reconciles. If peace is given, it is his peace. So, whether it is lay ministry or ordained ministry or any other kind of ministry, there is nothing that is done in the church that Jesus doesn’t do; by the power of the Spirit in his body, he does those things. He continues to do those things which he did when he walked among us. So, there is no question of the priest adding in any way, the ordained priest adding in any way, to the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice of the Saviour, that the Saviour offers. That’s not what is happening in this.
We have been waiting; the people of God have been waiting for the priest to come who can really reconcile us to the Father, who can really make us clean. This old song, you know, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” What is this? It’s this life of his that is poured out in praise and adoration towards the Father and towards us in love and service. This pouring out of this life, it is this sacrifice that renews us and consecrates us and makes us clean. Titus says it this way–you know, we hear this every Christmas–to make for himself, to consecrate for himself a holy people zealous of good works. The purpose of the priest is to do that work, is to reconcile and return God’s lost children to the Father and to consecrate them as a holy people zealous for good works. The whole Old Testament system was pointing towards that until he who is the priest, really the one and only priest, until he should come. He is the Light of the world. He is the bread of life. He is living water. He is the Good Shepherd. He is the priest, and he is also that Lamb of God that was slain. As Charles Wesley says, “priest and victim in the Eucharistic feast.” So, when we are saying that the ordained priest offers sacrifice, we’re not saying that something is being offered in addition to what Jesus did and we’re not really saying that something is being offered other than what Jesus is doing.
But, the personal God is not content that the sacrifice of his Son–that what he has done by the pouring out of his life to bring men and women back to their Father, to make them again clean and holy, and to give them a witness in the world which shall cause the rest of God’s alienated children to come home–the personal God is not content that that should be a story that’s in a book somewhere. The personal God wants that sacrifice to become real; he wants it to become personal; he wants it to become something that people can see, and they can touch, that is put in front of people in such a way that they can respond to it, that their hearts can be broken and made warm and that they can be reconciled to their Father and give their lives anew to God in Christ and receive the power of the Holy Spirit and be witnesses in his Name to the ends of the earth. And so, God calls, the Lord calls in his church. You know, he comes to his church with the marks of the crucifixion upon him, this crucified and risen one, and he breathes into his church, he breathes into them. He says, “My peace I give you; as the Father sent me, so I send you.” And so, what the Lord wants is he wants in this time and in this place, this person to come and give himself so that the sacrifice of his Son might be re-presented in front of his people in such a way as it is real for them and provokes their response. That’s what the ordained priesthood is all about.
And it is the way of the Bible: God always calls the many through the one. We should be very surprised if all of a sudden the system were changed in the New Testament. People not only need to hear about what God has done, but they need to have someone take them by the hand and put their hand in the hand of the master. That is what the ordained priesthood is all about. And so, in certain times, in certain places, amongst a certain set of God’s people, God calls this person and that person. You know there is this old word, the parson–have you heard that?–it just means the person. This is the person that God has called; this one that he might call many through this one. This is his plan, and that the sacrifice of his Son might be re-presented. So, I think it is quite entirely accurate to say that the ordained priesthood is a priesthood that offers sacrifice, but when we’re saying that we’re not saying anything that our evangelical brothers should take offense at because we’re saying that Jesus Christ is the only priest. And he is the one who does everything that is to be done, and we are but instruments in his hands.
Now when the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is presented, re-presented–it is going to be re-presented for us in a moment at the Eucharist–when the sacrifice is re-presented for us, it evokes the challenge of response for us: we’ve got to respond. And this is another strange thing, you know, we can’t do anything of our own, we can’t do anything for our own salvation, but whatever we do, the faith we have, the good works that we do, all of our response to God is not us but Christ who worketh in us; it’s the gift of the Holy Spirit. And yet, we have to give ourselves to this. And the ordained priest has a particular shape to the way in which the ordained priest must respond to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ with his own sacrifice. And so, I just want to talk about three elements of that response.
First of all, the ordained priest re-presents. Austin Farrar, the great Anglican theologian, says that the clergy are “walking sacraments.” So, the ordained priest re-presents as a walking sacrament, the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice of the Lord. And then, he responds with his own sacrifice, and it has a shape. And the first element of the shape of that sacrifice is that it is a sacrifice of poverty of spirit. Now, I think, in a way all Christians are called to this, but the ordained have it in a particularly intense way. They cannot get away from it; they are tied to it. This is what is happening to today: this man is tying himself by irrevocable promises to this thing–he can never get away from it after this. He can be a good priest, he can be a bad priest, he can be a failed priest, but he can never get away from it. It’s an awesome thing. And poverty of spirit is a sacrifice that is demanded of the priest. When you enter into the ordained ministry, you become very, very aware, as St. Paul says, that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, and that nothing that you are and that nothing you can do amounts to anything. And that the call is to be nobody and nothing and to come and die.
We had a had a rather wealthy man who came to the school–we’re very interested in wealthy men coming to the school, or wealthy women too for that matter; we encourage this in every way–we were really hoping that he might help us with our work. He was saying to me, “Do the brightest and the best and the most accomplished come to your school?” And I didn’t know how to answer; I really didn’t know how to answer. John is certainly one of the most academically gifted people we’ve ever had at the school. We get incredible people at the school. I’ve had a retired state department official; I’ve had a professor of finance; I’ve had people that could do anything in any graduate school in the country. And I’ve had people who have found school very, very difficult. And they were all called by God. And they all were giving themselves away to Jesus Christ. And I didn’t know how to explain to this man that this ministry is really not about accomplishment. If you do anything, it is not you who do it. And the most essential part of what you are called to do is nothing that is possible in the flesh; it’s not humanly possible.
This is a call to be a failure; this is a call to know your own unworthiness, to plumb the depths of it. This is a call to plumb the depths of your own inadequacy. This is a call to be nobody and nothing. And the flesh chafes against this; the flesh–you know the Bible says the flesh it means humanly–humanly we chafe against this: we want to be somebody and something. So, you know, being human, every once in a while, a priest will kind of wake up and say, “Today, I am going to be somebody and something.” And, of course, everybody sees that you’re a complete and utter contradiction because Jesus Christ did not grasp equality with God but humbled himself. And they see that you are a complete contradiction, and Christ is glorified, even by contradiction. You are his witness, and you re-present his sacrifice; willingly or unwillingly, you cannot get away from it. So this is a sacrifice, this poverty of spirit, this one aspect of the sacrifice.
Another aspect of the sacrifice is it is a sacrifice of intercession. Jesus Christ was an interceder–he intercedes for us yet. We’re approaching the feast of the Ascension. One of the things we may lose track of in the church because we don’t celebrate the Ascension enough is we may lose track of the heavenly session where he yet intercedes for us. And one of the things that happens to the ordained is that they see more than they can ever possibly do anything about. Now at the seminary we try to teach people to be good counselors; we try to teach them about how grief works, and to be a good companion to people as they are going through grief; we try to teach them how to be crisis counselors and to have a kind of minimum competency. But, it will never be enough. It’s not possible that it will ever be enough. A priest will see every day, day in and day out, so many things that the priest can do nothing about other than to hold up Christ and to pray and to intercede. And after you’ve been doing it for a while, you see the train wreck coming. You know, you see what’s going on in this family now, and you know what’s going to happen with the teenagers down the road. You see what’s going on with this couple now, and you know what’s going to happen in five or six years. You see how the parents are treating their children, and you know they are going to die alone and unhappy. So many things you see, you can’t do a thing about it. But, what is the priest in the Old Testament? He stands before the people with God on his heart, and he stands before God with the people in his heart. To be ordained is to be tied to intercession in a way that is irrevocable and unavoidable, and to see things over and over again, day in and day out. It is a persistent formation that brings you again and again to the place of intercession. And this is a sacrifice; there is a sacrifice here, a sacrifice of intercession.
And finally, there is this dimension to the priesthood, and I’m not sure what to call this. Maybe call this a sacrifice of surrender. There was a particular form of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ: he put himself completely and totally in his Father’s hands in that night in the garden in Gethsemane. He put himself completely and totally in his Father’s hands, and the way that he did that was to put himself completely and totally in the hands of his people. What is the passion of Jesus Christ? The passion of Jesus Christ is that he came to his own and his own knew him not; he was despised and rejected. There is a vulnerability of the priest to the people that is irrevocable and that is very awesome and very frightening. The priest is at the mercy of the people. You will be loved–there will be people who love you–but you’re not going to be able to do it for one hour: tomorrow, perhaps tomorrow you will have your first service, there will be somebody who will be unhappy, there will be somebody who will be angry. And the psychologist says we shouldn’t pay too much attention to that; we should pay attention to the positive, take in more the positive. Well yes, there could be a psychological unhealth that is here, but look, this is the passion of the Good Shepherd who came to his own and his own knew him not and who persevered towards us with love, though we despised and rejected him and drove him out of our lives and onto the cross.
The priesthood demands a kind of complete surrender of our lives into the hands of the people we serve. We are at their mercy, as the Lord put himself at our mercy. Now, one of the things that happens at the seminary about January of the last year of seminary, students begin to intuit this, and it’s the cause of a lot of cold feet. A lot of people start thinking that, “gee, a couple more years of graduate education appears very attractive at this point” or “maybe I could go into a kind of chaplaincy work” or “maybe I could work in the world and work in the church part time.” Is there just something that I can do to make this something that the human heart can bear? And the answer is no. The answer is no. There is no escape, once these promises have been made, once these prayers have been said, once the bishop lays on hands–no, there is no going back. So there is a sacrifice that is required, a sacrifice of poverty of spirit; there is a sacrifice of intercession, there is a sacrifice of surrender.
So, John–I think you’re supposed to stand up now–this is my charge to you. Be a man who offers sacrifice, who presents before the people the one full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice of the Master, and present it before them in such a way as it is real to them and that it breaks their hearts and makes them new. Give yourself whole-heartedly to the sacrifices of poverty of spirit and of intercession and of surrender. And carry about in your body the marks of the suffering and death of Christ, that his risen life might also appear in you. And be his faithful witness until the day you die. Amen.
© Leander Harding, 2009.