St. Peter writes to the church today: “Come to him,” that is, to Jesus, who is “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.”
This week I was part of a webcast with some local colleagues discussing the plans of Dallas-area churches to reopen for worship. And one of the pastors said something that stuck with me. She said that she and her church are having to think about what it means to be church, and to do worship, without the four walls of the sanctuary. We are so accustomed to a place and a setting for our work and these last two months have forced us to expand ourselves, in a way.
And it’s important to remember that when Peter and Paul write these words, there are no church buildings yet. There won’t be any dedicated Christian structures for a long time. The people really were the building, the temple, the house. Pagans had their shrines and Israel had her temple in Jerusalem (where the Christians of Jerusalem were always worshiping). But the church scattered throughout the world moved from place to place, home to home, graveside to graveside.
This, Peter says, is us: a spiritual building, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God. Wherever you are, the church is. Wherever you are, there is the priesthood of Christ. There your sacrifice may be offered.
So I want to share just a few words today on this idea of the church as a priesthood and on the idea of sacrifice.
During the Reformation, the doctrine of priesthood was fiercely debated. Luther famously proposed the idea, drawing from passages like the one we just heard, that the baptized people made up a “priesthood of all believers.” This phrase has lingered in the church and has been interpreted in some ways Luther didn’t intend. It has sometimes been taken to mean that everyone can do every role. Anyone can preach, anyone can teach, anyone can celebrate the sacraments. Or that everyone is by definition a sort of expert on Christianity.
But that wasn’t Luther’s idea. Luther was talking about the role of the priest in the Mass. The idea at the time was that the priests of the church offered a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins in the Mass, and they could do this on behalf of absent people--for the dead, or for the people who just weren’t there. Luther insisted that there was no sacrifice that a priest could make that any baptized person couldn’t make. We’re all a priesthood in the sense that each of us can offer sacrifices to God.
All of us are consecrated to offer sacrifices in our daily lives. And together we offer our prayers and thanksgiving along with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, which we remember every time we celebrate Holy Communion. I don’t do--I can’t do that--in anyone’s place. We all must make the offering of ourselves however we can.
But what is a Christian sacrifice anyway?
We hear a lot of talk about sacrifice in the wider culture, often without much clarity on what we mean when we say it. We hear it a lot in connection with the victims of the Covid-19 outbreak. For example it is said that senior citizens would be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the wider economy (you will never hear me claim this). One writer, a very good devout Christian writer, said we are faced with the question of whether to sacrifice potentially hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens to disease or potentially millions more to poverty.
This language always raises my hackles. In human affairs, there is no such thing as sacrifice. In our civil order, as fellow human beings on planet earth, there are only choices that harm some people and benefit others. To take one example: the question of wearing masks in indoor public spaces. This is not a “sacrifice,” this is a choice that we make for the benefit of one another. Or not. If I am wearing a mask, especially a homemade cloth mask as many people are wearing, it does not protect me from getting infected, at least not very well. But it does protect the people around me if I happen to be infected. So if I go to the grocery story and insist on talking to the cashier without a mask on, I am exposing that person to a greater risk for the sake of my own comfort or my own sense of freedom.
And if I do wear a mask, I am not making a sacrifice of my own freedom. I am choosing to value the safety of the people around me more highly than I value my own desire not to look or feel foolish.
Human communities talk about sacrifice at best to make those harms seem sacred. At worst we talk about sacrifice to cover our own cruelty.
Only a god can demand sacrifice. Everyone else has to accept cash.
Christians confess that Christ suffered once for all. God doesn’t need anyone else’s pain and deprivation to make the world right.
So what is our sacrifice?
It starts here, with our praise and thanksgiving. Every time we open our mouths to read, pray, sing, or confess our faith we are making an offering. If you’ve watched morning prayer on facebook you’ve probably seen me looking pretty raggedy and not especially sanctified. And there are times when I am not feeling it. But when we gather in morning prayer we are making an offering. We aren’t trying to make ourselves feel a certain way. We are dedicating our words and our thoughts and our lives to God for that day, making a sacrifice of that day. Not to our suffering or our harm or punishment, but to the glory of God.
And when we make that dedication, we are part of that spiritual house. Part of that royal priesthood Peter talks about. Wherever we are and whenever we do it.
But our sacrifice doesn’t end with worship. It continues in our actions in the world. The sacrifice of a Christian is always something other than the “sacrifices” the world tries to impose on us. And it may require that we reject the false choice that some must suffer and perhaps die to benefit others. It may mean making a sacrifice of our actions, so that they show forth the goodness of a God who does require harm to some, who does not require any to die or to fall into poverty. We make that offering not to appease God or to bear our sins, but to give thanks to the God who has already shown mercy and generosity to us. Amen.