The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Christian maturity

Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ, the only priest of his church, in whose priesthood all believers participate

Most mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church, affirm the concept of the “priesthood of all believers,” which simply means that all Christians are ministers of the gospel, not just those who have been ordained. The concept is rooted in Christian scripture: “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.” (1 Peter 2.9) It underscores yet again, but in another way, the fundamental significance of the community for Christian life and faith: I can not be a Christian by myself. I can not reach any sense of spiritual maturity in Christian faith without the Body of Christ, the church. In sharing the life of faith with my sisters and brothers in Christ, I discover my true self, discern the call of God to ministry and grow to maturity, to the full stature of Christ.

A note on “priesthood”: There is no priesthood in Christianity comparable to the Jewish levitical priesthood, which oversaw sacrificial worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. We Anglicans commonly refer to ordained ministers as “priests,” but that’s a corruption of the biblical term, “presbyter,” which from the Greek literally means “white-haired one” or “elder.” In typically English fashion, “presbyter” was shortened over time to “prester” in common parlance and then to “prest” or “priest.” The term is in such common usage today that there’s no sense in trying to change the habit of centuries; however, we must remember that, theologically, there is only one priest in Christianity who offers sacrifice, Jesus Christ our Lord, our great High Priest, who offered himself in death on the cross to make manifest the utter boundlessness of God’s love for us. As members of Christ’s Body the church, we participate in his sacrifice by giving of ourselves in love to ministry in the world in Jesus’ name. All Christians, then, share in Christ’s priesthood. Our presbyters are priests to that extent but they’re not ordained to make sacrifices on behalf of the church; rather, they lead us in Eucharistic liturgy, “the work of the people,” and minister in those a few other ways for which they’re set aside by the laying on of hands – pronouncing God’s blessing upon the gathered community, including themselves; anointing the sick on behalf of the community of faith; and absolving the sinful in obedience to Christ’s command (John 20.21-23).

Christian maturity comes through the fulfilling of my vocation in ministry to serve God in Christ in the church and in evangelical service to the world. More than a lifestyle, it’s a lifetime. We have been given the time of our lives to live into the meaning of our true selves, something traditionally called the fullness of life.

Dore: The Widow's Mite

Mark 12.41-44: The widow gave all that she had
From the Dore Bible by Gustav Dore

Christian maturity deepens one’s appreciation for and participation in Christian stewardship. We become more and more aware of our gifts and giftedness, and we grow in our awareness of how we may be led to put them at God’s disposal for the good of the church and the world. Stewardship is often cast in terms of presence, talents, gifts and service. Presence implies much more than mere attendance for Sunday worship, but it does mean at least that. Liturgically, Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection. It is figuratively called the “Eighth Day of Creation” on which the world’s relationship with God was renewed in Christ Jesus. It is the first day of the week, a day of celebration and holy joy. It is the day on which the Body of Christ is most depleted by the absence of any member, for it is the day among all days of the week that we are most engaged as a community participating in the life of the Trinity – Father, Mother and Christ our Brother.

Presence also means participation in the life of the church as one is led in formation; and, as one grows in maturity, in ministry and leadership of various kinds. Presence means taking advantage of opportunities for fellowship, the “just being together” with the church as extended family, for meals, for “family camp” and the like. Presence may mean participation in diocesan or national church ministry and fellowship. The more we grow toward the full stature of Christ, the more we are called to the ministry of presence.

We bring who we are to our spiritual growth in the church, but we also bring what we can do, our God-given talents, training and education: artists, musicians, physicians, lawyers, carpenters, mechanics, teachers – the list is as long as there are occupations, and all of them work in concert to build up the Body of Christ. I’m reminded of the medieval story of a street performer who joined a monastery just as it was preparing for a great festival in honor of Mary. The monks were busy making extravagant gifts for the Virgin, but the clown had no skills for making gifts, and he was very sad. Early on festival day, however, the sacristan entered the church to prepare for Matins and Lauds and found the new monk juggling as he danced and sang before the Lady shrine. The sacristan later swore he saw the Virgin smiling for sheer joy at the clown’s dexterity and humor.

Christian stewardship also means financial support of the local congregation, the diocese and the national church. How much one contributes is strictly a matter between one’s self and God. Contributing a tithe is often held up as an ideal, but in truth Jesus never talked about tithing (giving 10 percent). Jesus clearly spoke of giving one’s whole self to discipleship in his name. One compelling image of this is that of the widow who gave “everything she had” to the Temple treasury, even though it amounted to almost nothing compared with gifts of the wealthy. (Mark 12.41-44) The point of the story is that while some gave out of their abundance, she gave sacrificially despite her poverty. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus told his disciples, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” The message seems to be that it’s not enough to dispense with one’s relationship with God by kicking in a tithe, no matter how great the gift. Jesus calls for total commitment – sacrificial self-giving, which can take many shapes, from financial support to time and talent.

Mature giving is a growth area for most people, and the key question is not whether I’m tithing but whether I’m giving out of abundance – “God tipping,” so to speak – or out of my poverty, my deep need to be responsive to God who knit me together in my mother’s womb, who knew all my bones “when as yet there was none of them,” who searches me out, knows my heart and my restless thoughts, who leads me in the way that is everlasting. (See Psalm 139.) I may feel myself yearning to do more but constrained by financial circumstances to do less than I want. Coming to terms with this issue is a profound opportunity for spiritual growth, not least because it cuts so close to the bone, to the very fiber of our being in the world but not of it. It’s one thing to decide where one “goes to church” on Sunday but quite another to live into a mature, lifelong commitment to spiritual growth into the full stature of Christ. Financial stewardship is intimately bound up with spiritual maturity. As with most things worthwhile, it takes a lifetime.

The nature of Christian commitment, as understood by Anglicans, is that of loyalty to Christ and the community of faithful people gathered in his name, the church. It is not about loyalty to particular congregations, although finding a church that feels like home is an important spiritual value; and it’s not about loyalty to a particular pastor, although we certainly may find some pastors more appealing than others for a variety of reasons. We Anglicans try to avoid mistaking sizzle for steak. We’re focused on what is essential rather than what is ephemeral: Pastors come and go, congregations wax and wane; but, large or small, the Body of Christ is most healthy when its members seek Christ in one another and seek the Kingdom of God, here and now, on earth as it is in heaven. Anglicans are God-seekers not church-shoppers. To paraphrase a popular poster, we tend to want to grow where we’re planted.

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