Who is our Priest?
This coming Wednesday will once again be a day for children to dress up in various costumes and visit homes and businesses in our communities to gather candies and treats. The evening is usually passed in relative quiet and peace except for the boisterous shouts of those seeking treats. And while we have become accustomed to celebrating the eve of All Saints in the more traditional way for our culture, many within the Christian church universal will mark the time with prayers for the departed and to celebrate the lives of those they know and those they do not know whose lives were lived in faithfulness to God.
Martin Luther – in the 16th century – was keenly aware of All Hallows Eve and that it was the start of a major feast day in the life of the church in his time. Luther saw it as the perfect time to challenge what he viewed as errors and misinterpretations of the Bible and the faith. He had begun to question the validity of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church – as had many others. On October 31,1517, as the church universal prepared to celebrate once again the festival of All Saints, Luther posted his theses challenging practices condoned by and encouraged by the leadership of the church that he believed went against the truth of the Gospel as revealed by Jesus Christ.
Luther became convinced that forgiveness of sins could not be paid for with money or goods and he was also convinced that no one human being could be given the power to forgive sins and ultimately stop anyone from experiencing the grace and mercy of God.
True, Jesus had said to Peter – the rock upon which the new church was to be established – that he had the right to forgive sins and the right to not forgive sins, but that right was couched in such a way that it could not be used in a frivolous way. Withholding forgiveness was reserved for those times when a person could not be convinced to repent and where their unwillingness to do so would have a negative effect on the life of others of the faith. Unfortunately, those in leadership came to believe that they held the fate of the people in their hands and came to exercise that power in a way that not only denied people the opportunity to repent but effectively blocked them from the opportunity to even know forgiveness. But then the leadership found a way to overcome this and offered – for a price – the chance to receive forgiveness by the buying of indulgences. Those who could afford to could receive not only forgiveness but absolution for their sins and those who could not lost their connection to the community and ultimately – in the eyes of the leadership – their connection to God.
As much as Luther wanted to believe that the leadership was acting faithfully according to the will of God, he began to doubt the path they were taking. He became convinced that it was not in the power of any one individual to deny anyone access to the forgiveness, grace and mercy of God. In his mind it was the responsibility of those in leadership to encourage confession of sins, encourage repentance for those sins and seek to restore the faithful to a wholeness of mind, body and spirit.
Luther must have read the letter to the Hebrews. He would have been struck by the fact that this was a people who had been ruled and directed by priests and high priests. He would have been aware of the role and responsibility of the high priest to make atonement not only for his own sins but for the sins of the people and to seek a clean slate with God. But he would also have been keenly aware that this system of priests and high priests belonged to a covenant that the people had made with God prior to the coming of God in the person of Jesus. They were seeking to maintain a covenant based on law – a system of positive and negative prescriptions designed to direct the communal life of the people in a way that revealed the true intention for life of the God who had met their ancestors and shaped their world.
God’s coming in Jesus changed all that. A new covenant was revealed – one in which the people of God could not just hope for forgiveness of sin because the high priest offered sacrifices to God but one in which the people of God could know forgiveness because God himself had offered himself as the sacrifice for all their sins. Luther saw that no human priest could have the power to forgive sin because eventually each one of them would pass away; but Jesus could not only have the power to forgive sin in the present he could always be counted on to forgive sin because he was alive eternally.
The author of the Hebrews declares that the priesthood of Jesus is a perpetual priesthood. No human can claim to be a perpetual priest – a priest for ever and ever. For Luther there was no question that to put faith in the ability or willingness of an earthly priest to forgive sins was to deny the ability or willingness of God to grant an ultimate forgiveness. In a real sense, it was belittling the sacrifice of God in Jesus Christ by transferring the power to grant forgiveness from God who had paid an ultimate price to humans who may never make any sacrifice of consequence and could not be counted upon to be totally fair and unbiased in their judgment.
Luther believed that it certainly was the responsibility of priests within the church to encourage people to turn away from sin and to seek to reform their lives to bring their lives in line with the will of God, but he did not believe that they had the right to deny people access to God nor to allow people to believe that God’s forgiveness and salvation could be bought for a price. If God himself paid the ultimate price on the cross – a holy, innocent and undefiled person – how could anything we offer come close to covering the price of sin.
Remember how upset Jesus was when he saw that sacrifices in the temple were being sold to people based on the sin they had committed. There was no sense that forgiveness for sins was a spiritual blessing intended to bring wholeness and restoration to people but rather it was a commodity intended not to trigger a change in behaviour and attitude but simply to bring momentary peace and a sense that God was more interested in the scent of money and goods than the people themselves.
Blind Bartimaeus asks Jesus to heal his blindness. Jesus does not ask him for money nor does he ask him what his sin is – as so often it was believed that illness was the result of sin. He sees a person whose life is less than what it could be, and he heals him.
Now I am not suggesting that the church does not need leaders and neither did Luther, but the church needs leaders who recognize that they are not in a position to deny the grace and mercy of God to anyone. Leaders are to encourage believers to be conscious of how they live their lives and encourage believers to seek forgiveness of their sins from God and to offer forgiveness to one another.
My place is to teach, to encourage, to help direct our path in life to God and with God. My hope is that such encouragement and help will lead each of us to that place where we call upon our Lord Jesus Christ and seek forgiveness for our sins and a spirit within us willing to repent and make amends for where we go astray.