The Priesthood of All Believers

Today’s text is drawn from the first and second chapters of First Peter. Peter was martyred during the persecution of Nero between 64 and 67 AD. It is thought that he wrote this letter shortly before his death. He is writing to the Gentile Christian communities – in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. These are five provinces of Asia Minor which had been evangelized by Paul. These communities are located in the area south of the Black Sea and North of the Mediterranean Sea. To the east of where Constantinople would later be founded. 

In this letter, Peter address regular citizens, slaves, husbands and wives. In other words, regular members of the Christian community, people like us. The letter is not addressed to monks, not ordained priests, or bishops. Just regular lay people, recently converted to the Christian faith. People who are trying to live out their faith in the midst of a world that is opposed to its values.

We take up the passage from chapter 1:23 – 2:9. 

You have received a new birth, Peter says. You have been born, not from a perishable seed, but from an imperishable seed. That seed is the word of the living and abiding God.

He contrasts this imperishable seed with that which is merely human. All that is flesh is like grass, he says. The glory of flesh is like the glory of the flower of the fields. It’s beautiful for a time but ultimately withers. The grass withers and the flower wilts. The things of the world are perishable.

But the seed of the word is imperishable. “The word of the Lord remains forever,” he says. “This is the word that has been proclaimed to you.”

So Peter’s message to these communities is that the Gospel message they have heard, likely by Paul’s preaching, is an imperishable seed. It is the word of God. It remains forever. It has the power to impart the gift of life to the hearer. 

This is an incredible statement. These Gentile converts have received the word of the living God. This word has the power to give life. And this gift is permanent, imperishable; it remains forever.

What happens when a member of the Christian community takes up this word? Verse 4 of the Chapter 2 tells us. The Christian soul becomes a member of the spiritual house Jesus is building. They become like a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God. 

Given life by the word, they are like living stones assembled into a spiritual house. These living stones become a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Peter is painting a vision of the Temple. A new Temple with a new priesthood.

So to receive the word is to receive an imperishable seed. This seed gives life to the soul. The soul becomes a living stone, built up by Jesus into a spiritual house. Those in this house act like a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.

Peter continues. The cornerstone of the house is Jesus himself. He is the stone which the builders have rejected but which has become the cornerstone of this holy edifice.

Christian souls, Peter says, animated, given life by the word, are members of the chosen people.  This applies to all people, not just Jewish people. Peter, remember, is talking to Gentiles in Asia Minor. He is talking to regular citizens, husbands and wives, even slaves. In other words: he is talking to all of us. We who are born of the word, he says, we who draw close to Jesus the cornerstone, we are members of the chosen people, we are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people called to announce the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wondrous light.

We need to pause here and let this sink in. We can call this the heart of the passage. We should hold onto it.

“You have been born anew, not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed, the word of the living and abiding God. Come to him, a living stone … 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 . . . You are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 P 1-2.

Remember Peter is addressing husbands, wives, ordinary citizens, even slaves here. He is calling them all members of a holy priesthood. What does that mean for us?

We turn now to the Meditation part of our Divine Reading. Two questions arise: What is the nature of this imperishable, life-giving word Peter describes? And what are the spiritual sacrifices that a priest offers in the spiritual house that Peter describes?

First, how we can better understand what Peter means by the word? I think of one key exchange that occurs between Judas (not the Iscariot) and Jesus.  It takes place at the Last Supper. Judas asks why it is that Jesus reveals himself to his disciples but not to the world. Jesus responds with a phrase we should all take closely to heart:

He answers: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” Jn 14:23

In other words, Jesus’ word mediates the presence of the Father and the Son to the Christian soul. His word kept and guarded in the heart is like the fulfillment of the Mosaic tent of encounter. Like the ark of the covenant. Like the ancient Temple. Within the soul, the Word becomes a place where God dwells, where God dwells among men. No longer just dwelling in the ark or in the Temple. He dwells in the human heart. The one who holds Jesus’ word in the heart, holds also the Father and the Son. That’s what Jesus is saying. And if the Father and the Son are present, there also will be present the Spirit who proceeds from the Father to the Son. The spirit of love who is exchanged from Father to Son. So the very life of the Trinity comes to dwell in the soul that keeps Jesus’ word in faith.

Thus Jesus’ word mediates the divine presence to the soul. It is in this sense that it gives life to the soul. It imparts the life of the Trinity to the soul; it makes present in the heart the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That’s what Peter means when he says the disciple can be born anew from the word. One is ever born anew when the presence of the Trinity dwells in their heart. God is constantly revealing more of himself to the soul who holds the word in his heart. And one who has discovered this presence of God in the soul can give expression to that presence, as a priest, in the Temple, the great Temple which has no walls and is not limited to a particular place.

There is another text which echoes this point. In the book of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the Churches. He says: 

“‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” Rev. 3:20.

If anyone hears my voice, my word, I will enter his house and dine with him. What a wonder. What a mystery. 

This is another instance of Jesus’ word giving rise to an internal communion between the soul and God. Where there is the word, there is the living and abiding God hidden in the word. So we can see that at the heart of the common priesthood, to which we are all called, is the habit of listening to and guarding the word of Jesus. 

What is this word of Jesus? How can we understand it. I suggest we think of the word as the recorded words of Jesus,’ the law of Moses, the prophets, the psalms and the reflections on Jesus’ words by the early Apostles. 

But now a second questions arises: what about spiritual sacrifices – these acts that give expression to the holy priesthood Peter describes? What is a spiritual sacrifice?

I think there are several types: 

Prayer is a type of spiritual sacrifice. In his vision of heaven, John saw that the elders around the throne “were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” Rev 5:8. Hence when we pray, it is as though we participate in this action that is always going on in heaven. Prayer is a kind of incense that rises from our hearts and voice and ascends to heaven.

Praise is another spiritual sacrifice. As Paul writes in Hebrews, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15). God created us to praise Him, and we offer a “sacrifice of praise” when we turn toward God rather than away from Him in the midst of suffering. Praise is easy when all is right with our world. But when we resist the urge to turn away from God because of our misfortune and offer praises instead, that becomes a spiritual sacrifice.

Another spiritual sacrifice is the surrender of the will. Just as Jesus surrendered His will to the Father’s (Lk 24:22), so do we have these opportunities in the midst of our life to surrender our will to God’s. The surrender of our will to God’s is an ongoing struggle and, when it happens, it’s a spiritual sacrifice.

Our bodies can be another way we make spiritual sacrifices. Consider this verse from the book of Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Rom 12:1). This can most obviously be done through fasting or by keeping one’s eyes and mind pure.

Finally, acts of kindness and mercy are spiritual sacrifices. Even the least of these will be seen by Jesus. “For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. Mk 9:41

We close by recalling the heart of this passage and conclude with a prayer: 

“You have been born anew, not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed, the word of the living and abiding God. Come to him, a living stone … 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 . . . You are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 P 1:23, 1 P 2: 4-5,9.

Jesus, you are the Christ, the son of the Living God, you draw me into the life of the Trinity through your word. You call me to be a priest, to offer spiritual sacrifices of prayer, of praise, of love, of trust and of mercy. Amen. Have mercy on me a sinner. Teach me what it means to be a priest in your Temple.

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