The Path to Renewal: Be a Priest! (John 2:13-22)

Let me suspend my Lenten hiatus just long enough to share the text of the sermon I delivered yesterday at Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, Minnesota. It was the fourth in a “Path to Renewal” series inspired by The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity, with my co-author — and Salem’s senior pastor — Mark Pattie delivering the first three. The series continues this Sunday with Pastor Jonna Fantz preaching on the irenic spirit. You can listen to this and the earlier sermons at Salem’s website.

Last month, like many of you, I had the chance to spend an hour praying in Salem’s chapel. Thanks to everyone who shaped the Seven Days of Prayer experience. As always, it was marvelous! If you didn’t get a chance to participate…

The chapel was set up to evoke the Temple in Jerusalem, with some explanation of what each space would have looked and sounded like in Jesus’ day. We engaged in activities that connected that past to our present. In the Court of the Women, for example, we dropped a small coin in the treasury — and thought about what our version of the widow’s mite could be.

The Court of Gentiles, the Court of the Women, the Court of the Men, the Court of the Priests… further and further we moved into the core of the Temple, until we came to the Holy of Holies, into the very presence of God, and took Communion.

It was a sacred time in a sacred place. And I’m sure that’s how 1st century Jews felt about visiting the actual Temple… but I’m also sure it’s not the only thing they felt.

Every time they came there, wouldn’t they have thought of the vastly more brilliant temple of Solomon that had been destroyed, or of the exile that left their ancestors weeping by Babylon’s rivers as they remembered their Zion (Ps 137)?

Eventually the Jewish people began to return from their exile and rebuild the Temple, but it was not what it should be. The prophet Malachi looked around its courts and saw priests shirking their duties and profaning the covenant: “Oh, that someone among you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not kindle fire on my altar in vain!” (Mal 1:10)

Malachi promised that salvation would one day come, that God would send someone to purify the temple. But century came and century went, and no messiah arrived.

Instead, Jerusalem passed from one empire to the next, until far-off Rome forced the Jews to accept a new ruler: a puppet with the absurd title of Herod the Great. And he decided to rebuild the temple to honor himself.

So imagine it: Jews must worship in a place that is a monument to foreign control and injustice. Before they enter a temple built to glorify a petty tyrant, they must exchange their unclean Roman coins just to have the opportunity to pay inflated prices for the animals required for ritual sacrifices. Every visit to the Temple is both holy and humiliating, a reminder that there is but one true God… but his kingdom has not yet returned.

And then, Jesus arrives. “The Lord whom you seek,” Malachi had promised, “will suddenly come to his temple… But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal 3:1). That Lord appears in our gospel lesson for today, from the Gospel of John:

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:13-22)

Scarsellino's painting of the cleansing of the Temple
Scarsellino, “Driving of the Merchants from the Temple” (ca. 1585) – Google Arts & Culture

Jesus comes to a place of worship and finds that it is not as it should be. Again and again, he will encounter religious leaders and find that they are not who they should be.

Two thousand years later, how often have the followers of Jesus felt the same? How often have we been disappointed in our places of worship, in our religious leaders and religious communities, or in our failure to improve ourselves or our society?

For example, in 1666 a young pastor named Philipp Spener arrived in the German city of Frankfurt, a 31-year old wunderkind appointed as the city’s leading Lutheran preacher. It was supposed to be the launch to a brilliant career… except that he found nothing but what he called “dead orthodoxy.” The right words were being said, but there was no life behind them. Sermons were being preached, but no hearts were being turned back to Jesus. Bibles were everywhere — and everywhere unread. Churches were wealthy and powerful… and more concerned with battling each other and cultivating political connections than with caring for those on the margins of a war-torn society. “[Even if] we limit ourselves to our Evangelical church,” Spener lamented in 1675, “we cannot turn our eyes upon it without having quickly to cast them down again in shame and distress.”

Sound familiar? Do you ever catch yourself thinking about the Christian church today — about the Evangelical church today — the way Spener thought of his church, the way people in Jesus’ time thought of their Temple: a superficially holy monument to power and privilege, and good intentions gone awry; a reminder that things are not as they should be?

Do you ever dream that the church could be renewed?

Spener knew that it could. He knew that we have hope for better times: “If we consult the Holy Scriptures we can have no doubt that God promised his church here on earth a better state than this.” This was the impulse, the hope, behind what we call Pietism.

Icon of Haggai
18th century Russian icon of the prophet Haggai – Wikimedia

Perhaps Spener had been reading Haggai. That prophet asked the people overseeing the reconstruction of the temple, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Hag 2:3) The new Temple was not as it should have been. And yet Haggai continued, “take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” (Hag 2:4-5).

Take courage, do not fear. (How badly do we need to hear those words today!) In fact, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts” (v 9).

Surely he doesn’t mean the unclean temple of Herod. “Destroy [that] temple,” Jesus told the Jewish leaders, “and in three days I will raise it up.” The splendor of God’s house is not that it is a building crafted from wood, stone, or brick, but that it is the risen body of Jesus Christ himself.

Our gospel lesson says that Jesus’ disciples remembered these words when they witnessed his resurrection from the dead. So when the apostle Peter writes that we have been given “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3), I think he has that temple scene in his memory. He goes on:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 2:4-5)

Peter is playing with the image of rebuilding the Temple to explain the ongoing renewal of the Church. It starts with the “living stone” of Christ, who raises up the true Temple in the resurrection of his body. But it continues with us — the people that Paul says are “the Body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27) — being “built into a spiritual house.”

It continues with us: “a holy priesthood.”

Miss that phrase the first time? Peter repeats it in verse 9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

The Temple had a priestly class. But you, church, the Body of Christ, you all are a holy and royal priesthood. In the words of the Letter to Hebrews, you are “holy partners in a heavenly calling” with Christ the high priest, “and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope” (Heb 3:1, 6). You all are the priests that Malachi prophesied would “present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (Mal 3:3b).

You all are a holy and royal priesthood. You. Not just our pastors.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I married into a family of pastors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of our kids grows up to be a pastor! I love our pastors at Salem, and it’s an enormous honor to preach from a pulpit inaugurated by E.A. Skogsbergh and held by Paul Stohlberg, Glen Wiberg, Don Johnson, and now Mark Pattie and Jonna Fantz. And I’m happy that so many other pastors and missionaries choose to worship here — in fact, almost everyone serving you Communion today will be an active or retired member of the clergy. (Collectively, they account for 246 years of service to the church of Christ.) They are devoted women and men of God who have been faithful to their calling and continue to serve the church.

But pastor is just a calling, no holier than any other.

Five hundred years ago, that’s what Martin Luther had tried to teach at the beginning of the Reformation: the church, he said, wasn’t a rigid hierarchy in which those with more power were closer to God; the church was a “common priesthood,” or a “priesthood of all believers.” Everyone served actively, as they were called and gifted.

But in the decades that followed, even Lutheran churches lost sight of this. Their bishops and pastors focused on maintaining authority and influence, while ordinary Lutherans were reduced to passive onlookers. Philipp Spener lamented that people in his time had forgotten that “not only ministers but all Christians are made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual priestly acts.” All Christians, he said, are priests: whether old or young, rich or poor, and (yes) female or male.

Does that describe us the church in America today? I’m not so sure.

I’m not going to flip any tables this morning, but let me be so bold as to paraphrase Jesus on this one point: the biggest threat to the common priesthood is that we’ve made our Father’s (spiritual) house resemble the marketplace.

We need to stop pretending that our churches would work better if they were run like businesses, judged by metrics of growth and efficiency. We need to stop thinking of what we do as a product or service being offered to customers. We need to stop treating other congregations as competitors for market share.

But that’s only going to happen if we ordinary laypeople stop thinking of ourselves as consumers — shopping around for the right church, or combination of churches, that best meets our needs, wants, preferences, and schedule. We need to stop coming to this place like ticket-buying spectators, as if we were called to do no more than listen to music and sermons and throw some money in a plate. We need to stop expecting the same handful of staff and exhausted volunteers to do the work of mission and ministry!

We are a holy and royal priesthood — and nothing else we talk about in our book, or in this sermon series, will bring about genuine renewal unless we all of us take up that priesthood with whatever gifts and energy and commitment we possess.

So how do we do that? It’s pretty simple. Spener said priests have three basic jobs.

My daughter's drawing of me preaching
Visual evidence that I delivered this sermon – and have been growing a beard – courtesy of my daughter (who was sitting in one of the front pews on the pulpit side of the sanctuary)

First, we “pray for and bless others.” I think of something as simple as bedtime with my kids. Every night, as they go to sleep, Lena and Isaiah pray for the needs of others. “Dear God,” they start, “thank you for my family and friends, and help them to be safe.” Then they name one or two people or groups who need healing or rest, or peace or justice. Sometimes we then talk about how we can bless those people, how we can be the answers to the prayers we just prayed. If eight-year olds can be priests, so can the rest of us.

Second, priests “let the Word of God dwell richly among them,” reading the Holy Scriptures prayerfully and obediently under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. You heard this last week, so I won’t dwell on it. But if you are to be a priest, you must come to the Bible as what our denomination calls “an altar where one meets the living God.” Not as a selection of proof texts that reinforce whatever you already thought; that’s just another way of kindling fire on God’s altar in vain. But as a profoundly sacred place where you give up your illusions of control and allow God to work anew through his Spirit.

Finally, Spener taught that priests must “sacrifice themselves with all that they are, so that they may no longer desire to serve themselves, but him who has bought and redeemed them.”

Think again of the prophet Malachi, so angry with the priests in his day. Why? Because they were sacrificing the least desirable animals: the sick and infirm. They were holding back what was most valuable and giving God second best. They did not sacrifice with all that they were.

Are you holding back what’s best and giving God the leftovers? I don’t just mean how you behave here on Sunday morning, or Wednesday night, or when you pray or read the Bible. I mean how you live all of your life. This is why the common priesthood is hard. It’s easier to think that God’s work is done primarily by salaried professionals who can treat it as a full-time career. But it belongs to all of us, even though we’re not paid and have so many other things grasping for our time and energy.

If we are all to be priests, we must learn how to sacrifice ourselves with all that we are, so that the very best of who we are is given not to our employer or our country or ourselves, but to God for the sake of his mission in this world.

It’s the only way that we can proceed on the path to renewal.

So commit yourself to the ongoing work of the priesthood: pray for others and bless them; dwell richly in God’s Word; and sacrifice with all that you are, to the glory of God and the good of your neighbors.

Safstrom (ed. and trans.), The Swedish PietistsAnd if you doubt that practicing a priesthood this simple can lead to renewal… The Covenant Church came into being through a pietistic renewal in 19th century Sweden, a movement of ordinary Christians like us: workers, farmers, mothers… what Glen called “those few and poor.” Its first and greatest leader was Carl Olof Rosenius — and he wasn’t a pastor, but a writer. Now, Rosenius was actually a gifted lay preacher, but in one of his many sermons, he preached on the common priesthood and concluded that “everyone must preach with their lives.”

Everyone must preach with their lives.

So as this lay preacher ends this sermon, let me charge you: take courage, have no fear; but work, as members of a royal priesthood, “[proclaiming] the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Go, and preach with your lives.