“So what should I call you?” That’s usually one of the first questions I’m asked when I start working with a new congregation. I get it—Ryan seems informal and there’s a whole host of titles that you could choose from. There’s ‘Pastor,’ but I haven’t yet earned enough respect or trust to be called your Pastor, which means shepherd. I look too young to be called “Father,” even though I did have one parishioner call me ‘Padre.’ He was neither Mexican nor Hispanic, but he had the deepest southern accent: “Paw-Dray.” Then, there’s Reverend. I programmed my iPhone to call me that, which means revered—holy, honorable (I’m not sure what that says about me). Most congregants decide that Preacher or Minister is the safest, and I’m wondering why people don’t just call me Ryan. I am glad that no one calls me, “Brother Ryan.” Doesn’t that sound so Baptist? The name that you give me says something about the work that you expect me to do: a preacher preaches, a minister serves, a reverend practices holiness, a pastor shepherds the flock. This is to say that I’ve noticed that there is one nomination that I’ve never been given: priest. It’s not in a Methodist’s vocabulary.
Most protestants have shied away from priestly language, maybe because it sounds suspiciously Catholic—like sitting in a booth and spilling out your guts to the only person who can mediate your forgiveness. I was sitting at the barbershop and my barber, a proud Protestant and ex-Catholic (they oftentimes go together), told me that he doesn’t need anyone to talk to God on his behalf. I politely agreed—he wielded the scissors and I quite like my hair the way it is now. But don’t we need each other? What do we do when we have no idea what to say to God? We know that we can talk to God ourselves, but sometimes there are no words—you’ve become too lazy, or forgetful, or broken to do it yourself.
God decided to give us priests—I think partly because there will come a time in your life when you’ll need someone to speak, act, and offer deliverance on your behalf. There’ll come a time when it feels like God has gone an extended vacation to the Bahamas and he won’t pick up the phone. There will come a point in your life when you’ll run out of words. What do we say to God when life completely falls apart or when life is completely undone? The threat will be too large or the pit too deep or the situation too hopeless and you will realize that you can’t save yourself. You’ll need a priest.
In a secular way, we have priest-figures everywhere. Danielle and I recently met with our birth doula who is helping us prepare for Eden’s brother. A doula is a birth assistant who is a nurse, sage, spiritual counselor, and massage therapist like wrapped in one person. The word doula is actually just the Greek word for ‘servant;’ by the way, this is the only time that my two years of Greek studies has paid off in the ‘real world.’ It turns out that doulas aren’t just for hippy, Asheville dwelling, meditating yogis. A doula is a bit like a birth priest. There’s a life in a mother’s body, but she can’t deliver the life without help. The doula promises to assume our anxieties, emotions, questions and then calmly remind us to breath. She’ll take the cursing, anger, frustration (and more cursing) and channel it somewhere more helpful. She’ll speak the medical language with the doctor and then translate it back to me. There is so much stress and emotional overload that we could use a mediator—someone to remind us how to get into the hospital or show me how to put the right pressure on Danielle’s lower back when she’s been laboring for twelve hours and screaming in my face. We need mediators in life.
In Scripture, priests are the ‘doulas’ (advocates, mediators) between God and humanity. We have this life that we need to deliver, but can’t always seem to get it out without help. Or, we have this pain, but it holds the potential for new life. God gives us a priest. A preacher I admire says that a pastor/priest is the person who says, “Oh, screw it. I’ll go first.” She also has a filthy mouth. It’s partly what is meant by priest—the person who takes the first leap of faith. Or maybe, more so, ‘I’ll go in your place.’ A priest preaches the Word on behalf of God; stands behind this altar and breaks the bread for you. They sit by hospital beds and read the Psalms or guide the people through the prayer of confession. It’s not that priests have special powers; it’s just that sometimes it’s helpful to designate one person to become the face of God. I love the way that Rowan Williams puts it, “A priest is somebody who builds bridges between God and humanity when that relationship has been wrecked.”
This is what Jesus does, right? The point of Jesus is that can’t save ourselves. We need someone to intercede on our behalf, once and for all. It’s Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection—that creates this bridge between humanity and God. God gets inside our skin mediating the holy and the profane; mortal and immortal. He is the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and he is also flesh and blood. He restores the separation caused by sin. When he’s lifted up on the cross, he draws the world to God. And when Jesus ascends to heaven, human nature is spliced with the life of God. This is what it means to be a priest.
Hebrews says that Jesus is not just a priest, but he’s a priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness. He was able to understand people from the inside out. He noticed the woman crying in the market or saw the leper’s glance from a distance—he had compassion. Jesus was attentive to other people; he listened and paid attention and felt the pain of his people. The most beautiful part about Christianity, the central reason why I remain a Christian, is that God didn’t remain aloof in heaven, but God came down as a baby who wore diapers. It’s stunning. He’s walked where we walk. Jesus can relate to your deepest pains and your greatest joys. God knows how we feel. Isn’t it so therapeutic to know that someone can sympathize with us?
Life can be so lonely. If only someone could understand. Try as we might, but we can never understand another person completely. That’s marriage 101—you’ve been married fifty-five years and still don’t know why she loads the dish washer that way. I see this a lot—well meaning Christians trying to comfort broken people and we go to them and say, “I know how you feel.” The problem is that we don’t. We never know how someone feels. That is a different person than you, with a different personality, with different scars, and different forms of support. Her grief is different than yours, because she’s losing a different person than you lost. He spent six months receiving chemotherapy fighting a different disease. You never know what someone else feels. The best we can offer is listen and try to understand the pain. The other day, we received some news and a good friend of ours said, “How does that make you feel?” She chose to listen.
Now, what’s amazing is that Hebrews says that Jesus is the only one who knows how we feel. He knows us perfectly—inside and out. He carries us to God. There’s a constant intercession by Jesus to God through the Holy Spirit. You saw this also in our Gospel reading. Your life, your deepest need, is part of the prayer life of God. Even right now, Jesus is interceding for you—praying and defending you. This is why we pray in Jesus’ name—Jesus is the one interceding on our behalf. I think this is the question for you this morning: I wonder what prayer you need Jesus to carry into God’s heart? What is it that’s weighing you down, that you can’t find the words to voice? Where do you need a priest?
There’s one more part to this: at the end of the Gospels, Jesus ascends, or goes to be with the Father. But, when he leaves he makes us his body. He makes us a priesthood for the world and priests for each other. You are Christ’s presence and a bridge to God. This is why the early church practiced binding and loosing, prayed for each other, and heard each other’s confessions. Not always—but sometimes—when I see you, I can see the face of God. When I touch your hands, I can feel the touch of God. When I see your tears, I can see the tears of God. Together, in the church, we are a priesthood of all believers. We belong to each other and we carry each other to God’s feet.
If that’s true, then there’s a challenge here: the challenge, is to be a priest—at your work, to your family, in your neighborhood. To go back to where we started: you don’t need to call me a priest. I’m not a priest. We are priesthood. All of us. Each of us can mediate the very presence of God to each other. When a friend is in a crisis, you may say to them, “Let me pray for you.” Throw a block party and break the bread of joy and life (or of Christ’s presence) for the community. Be the shoulder for the shut-in or the gentle touch at the hospital that tells the hurting, ‘it’s going to be alright.’ Show up at a neighbor’s house with communion that is disguised as a casserole. Be a priest. Take the broken, take the joy, take the pain, take the thanksgiving, and place it on the altar. God will receive it through Jesus and make it new. Amen