It was a Wednesday night in August of 2008. With an untucked polo, wrinkled slacks, and messy hair, an almost-18 year old kid took to the pulpit at a small, country church. Little did he know that that was the first of somewhere around 1000 (!?!) sermons that he would deliver over the next 10 years.
I know that he could have never predicted that, because that kid was me. And Lord knows, I never expected to have preached 100 sermons by now, much less 1000. I had a plan: go to college, get a physics degree, make some money, and sometime in my 30’s maybe I’d ease into ministry. Well, as I’m about to finish this, I’m sitting in a hospital for a church member’s surgery, and as of today, I’m still two years from 30. So much for easing in, huh?
Just shy of my 18th birthday, my pastor asked me to fill in for him at our Wednesday Evening service. Earlier in 2008, I had made it known to my church that I felt that God was calling me into ministry. I really didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that God wasn’t going to leave me alone until I gave Him an answer. After I told Him, “Yes”, He still wouldn’t leave me alone, and I decided I would tell my church to see if that would help. Pastor Larry was and still is a man that cuts to the chase. He always preached and taught me that if God is willing something, now is the time to move. He approached me about my calling, and helped me sort thru the conviction and sense of purpose which God had laid on my heart. I wasn’t sure about where it would take me, but Pastor Larry insisted on starting at a pulpit near me.
I don’t remember my nerves or emotions that day, but I was pretty convinced that there had never been a better prepared sermon and a more apt message for God’s people. Whew, was I off base a little bit.
I preached from Hebrews 9, about how Jesus is enough. I remember saying some things that I’m not even sure if I knew what I meant. But I made it thru the service alive and not totally humiliated.
One thing led to another, and here I am, at age 28, a pastor of a local church. I have never reused my notes from that night, but some mental notes were impressed on me that night that speak louder and louder as time passes.
I’m sure the folks in my home church wondered if I’d ever make it as a preacher. I seriously doubt that any of them left that service too inspired. Earlier this year, I ran into someone that had been visiting our church back then and he confessed to having placed zero confidence in my future as a pastor. Gee, glad he didn’t tell me that back then.
But honestly, with each passing year, I have less and less confidence in my ability to preach well and accomplish great things. Because as I preached way back then, Jesus is more than enough. I’d be silly to think that I’ve got anything world-changing to add to what has already left a sizable impact on the universe, a trillion times over.
When I think back to that night, I can see the 30 or so people who were assembled in their normal spots. I don’t remember most of what I said. I can guarantee you that the folks in attendance don’t remember anything that I said. But… but I can absolutely remember that there I stood before a local body of believers, who gave me… ME!?… their attention because they supposed that God might have something to say.
As I’ve grown up, and as I’ve pastored, it’s become extraordinary clear to me: I need the local Church. I need my brothers and sisters in Christ, who God has called into community at one of His local gatherings. Without them, I’m left unaccountable, without support, and vulnerable to heresies on either side of the theological spectrum. My memory of that first sermon has never cemented my calling to preach, as much as it does my calling to the Church. I used to think that Christianity was just about me and my Jesus, but thankfully that’s not the case.
All for One
Growing up Baptist, and studying Reformed Theology in College, the notion of the “priesthood of all believers” is something I’m well versed in. The idea is based on how a New Testament spin on the most important job of Ancient Judaism. In the Old Testament only a very selective group of people got to encounter and experience God. God had called Israel to be His own nation, out of all the nations of the world. But even more exclusive, He had called a single tribe of Israel to enter into His presence, and share in His presence on behalf of the whole nation. The tribe of Levi was given privileged access to God, and were tasked with leading the rest of the nation in worship, and building a platform on which the rest could catch a glimpse of God. Yet true fellowship with God was even further walled off. Out of Levi, God anointed an elite group of men as priests. The priesthood would feature the best and the brightest, the most holy and devout of Levi, and these men would be granted entrance to the Holy place of the House of Worship. Out of all the priests, one would be enlisted as High Priest, and this man would be charged to step into the Holy of Holies, where he would mediate to God on behalf of the whole nation, even the world at times.
If you want to know more about that riveting routine and gymnastics of encountering God, go read Leviticus. But know this, unless you’re a Jew, who’s also a Levite, who’s also a priest, you really can’t enjoy the bliss promised in that text.
Thankfully, the Redemption story and God’s Revelation didn’t end with Leviticus. According to the Gospel of John and the letter to the Hebrews, we can rejoice to know that this system has come to an end. Jesus is our High Priest, and He has torn down the separation between God and people. Sin is forgiven. Our debt is paid. The Holy Spirit has left holy places, and is looking instead for humble people, who have surrendered to Jesus. If you have done that, He lives in you. You have the access to God that Leviticus and the Old Covenant only teases. No one and nothing can gate that from you. “Nothing in our hands we bring, simply to the Cross we cling”, and we can enter into the presence of God, and He into us.
This is the essence of the Priesthood of All Believers. This is what Peter meant when he wrote to both Jew and Gentile in 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Martin Luther raised this banner of truth high during the Reformation, and Evangelicals rest on this reminder that in Christ, we have a personal relationship with God. Come to think of it, this notion colored most of what I had to say in my first sermon a decade ago. I’d love to say that I was able to articulate it as clearly back then, but I’m sure I didn’t. We have direct access to God thru Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). His death pardoned our sin. His resurrection empowers us with new life. In Christ, we can come directly before the throne of God (Hebrews 4:16). But when we come to Christ, we join a bevy of others who have also come to Jesus. While “He walks with us, and talks with us, and tells us that we are His own, each and every day, He longs for us to be together, and He especially makes Himself known when we are (Matthew 18:20).
Jesus called His followers together on one famous occasion and asked them what people were saying about Him (Matthew 16:13-20). Don’t try that at work, because most of the time, the only person thinking about us and talking about us, is us. But that wasn’t the case with Jesus. Everyone had an opinion about Jesus, and many believed He was the long awaited Messiah. Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Price is Right jingle started playing from Heaven’s windows, and Jesus told Peter to come on down and spin the wheel!
Jesus turned Peter back towards the others however, and told him that this wasn’t just about one confession and one believer. It was much, much bigger than that. Jesus said that day, on the dusty hillside of Caesarea, that He had set out to build a gathering, a household: The Church. Jesus said that even Hell wouldn’t be able to stop this movement.
Sometimes I suppose that Hell doesn’t have to try to stop it, when we Christians have convinced ourselves that we don’t need it.
Jesus talked about His Father’s House, where there was room for all of us (John 14:2). We often imagine that Heaven is divided into subdivisions, but according to Jesus there's just one big house. Jesus didn’t preach of a kingdom where every priest has their own living quarters, on their own private resort. He taught of a family that would come together on earth, and stay together in Heaven. As the local bodies began to form on earth, and more and more popped up throughout the Roman Empire, the New Testament paints a picture of Eternity.
The priesthood of all believers by no means counters the New Testament trajectory of the local Church. We may not need anyone but Jesus to be saved, but if we have been saved, we know that Jesus calls us into His Church. If we have believed in a version of Jesus that has not directed us into His Father’s House here on earth, we probably shouldn’t trust that version to lead us into the Kingdom to come.
The New Testament chronicles the literal construction of the local Church, but it also details the spiritual formation and structuring as well. Ephesians refers to the Church as having sprouted from the bedrock of Christ, and from the foundation of the NT Apostles, and even the OT Prophets (Ephesians 2:20). Beyond the Apostles who built and kickstarted the movement, the Bible tells us that God is still raising up leaders in this movement. Ephesians 4:1-16 tells us that God is still giving gifts to men and women, to the priesthood of believers, so that they can contribute to the ever-expanding Body of Christ. We are called to yearn for these gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31). As we walk with God personally, as priests with unfettered access to Him, we should seek after gifts and opportunities that can benefit the Body of Christ (1 Peter 4:7-11).
God grants the gift of prophesy, or preaching, not to see or hear new things, but to understand, proclaim, and apply His revealed Word to the local bodies scattered abroad. He gives the gift of teaching so that the theological and practical truths of Scripture can be learned. He uses evangelists to reach outsiders, for the purpose of bringing them into a church community. He gives the passion of shepherding to his church leaders so that His flock will be tended to and cared for always.
These gifts aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do speak to the blessing and power that God has poured out on the leadership of His local Churches. As a priest, we all have access to God, and as a church member, we can experience Him in awesome ways. As a priest, you can step into His presence anytime. As a church member you can be further enlightened, filled, and engaged for His glory. As you seek Him and serve others, you too can be equipped with His gifts so that you can reach the world, one friend (or enemy) at a time.
Ten years ago, I thought it was all about me. I thought that I didn’t need anyone else. I preached about Jesus, but I knew so little about Him and His passion. I’ve learned that Jesus is all about the world, gatherings of people, from north to south, east to west, small or big. What keeps me going each and every week isn’t my sermons or the responses to them, but it’s simply being together with God’s people. When I’m with God’s people, I get a glimpse of what God is really like and experience His full presence. Jesus loves seeing his houses full because it’s a preview of when we all will gather in His Father’s House. As a preacher I am nothing without Jesus and His Church. I love pouring out my life for others, because it’s then that I see how awesome the Church is. I don’t take joy in being a pastor because of what is poured out into me, but I find my joy and purpose in reaching out to all of you. As a Christian I am just one piece of a much larger puzzle. It’s only when I come together with the other puzzle pieces that I begin to see the picture taking shape:
The Kingdom of God.