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On Being A First Baptist:
Servants First Baptists
Preached by Robert B. Setzer, Jr.
Pastor, First Baptist Church of Christ
Macon, Georgia 31201
August 24, 2003
Exodus 19:1-6; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Revelation 1:4-6
Years ago, at the age of six or seven, Bob Sanders became old enough to leave the nursery and start attending “Big Church.” Bob, ever precocious, listened intently, hanging on the preacher’s every word. Soon, he decided he wanted to join the church, as the preacher implored folks to do, Sunday after Sunday. But to his great dismay, he was told he was too young to join.
“Well if I’m too young to join,” he decided, “I’m too young to go. I wanna go back to the nursery!” And he did. You’ve got to give little Bobbie Sanders credit. He wasn’t about to give up the freedom and fun of the nursery for the highly structured experience of “Big Church” unless he could belong!
That experience suggests something of what is meant by the phrase “The Priesthood of Believers.” The “priesthood of believers” means every Christian is competent to make his or her own judgements in matters of the spirit. So when the church decreed Bob too young to join, he refused to take it quietly in stride. Instead, he became a 7-year-old conscientious objector.
Now Baptists like us, make a great deal of the “priesthood of believers.” But despite making all the noise, we were not the first to reclaim this lost biblical treasure. That distinction belongs to Martin Luther whose spirited defense of the doctrine launched the Protestant Reformation. Luther saw clearly what a medieval priesthood kept out of sight, namely, that in the New Testament, all believers are “priests.” Christ abolished the priesthood of the privileged few in his death and resurrection. Now, he alone is the believer’s high priest, a spiritual inheritance so stunning, the New Testament book of Hebrews can’t quite get over it. Or as 1 Timothy 2:5, exults and sings, “There is one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus.”
But much to Luther’s chagrin, his reforms spawned folks much more radical than he. Baptists belonged to that radical edge of the Reformation. Along with others, they one upped Luther on several fronts. In effect, they said to him, “Why don’t you take your doctrine of salvation and apply it to the church? If one is saved through faith alone, shouldn’t the church be composed of those who freely choose Christ instead of those born into the church?” They knew the church was not a country club for everybody but a dedicated cell movement of believers.
Thus, Baptists and other radicals of the Reformation carried the priesthood of all believers to its logical extreme. For them, the stained glass divide separating clergy and laity was forever shattered. Every believer is free, and every church is free to know, love, and follow Christ as his spirit leads them. As J. D. Freeman said in a stirring address to the 1905 meeting of the Baptist World Alliance,
The undelegated sovereignty of Christ renders it forever impossible that his saving grace should be manipulated by any system of man. . . . Salvation is not by magic. It is by the direct impact of the Christlife upon the human soul. . . . In the light of the mediatorial Lordship of Christ, all doctrines of . . . priestly absolution (are) not merely meaningless fictions, but unconscious defamations of the crown rights of the son of God.
When a true Baptist gets his hackles up, be he Bob Sanders at seven or J. D. Freeman at the height of his powers, religious elitists better run for cover!
So then, if Baptists are radicals about the priesthood of believers, what does that mean for us at the top of Poplar? Well, it means first of all that we can be priests to ourselves. That’s what most Baptists mean when they use the phrase, the “priesthood of believers.” They mean that through Christ, a believer can enter into God’s vital, life-giving presence without permission or help from anyone else. The phrase means more than that, but it surely doesn’t mean less.
During our sanctuary renovation, I’ve often walked around the building, watching the progress. Much of that work took place atop scaffolding that reached dizzying heights. Indeed, some of that work required a state-of-the-art crane that strained to reach the pinnacle of the church’s spire. Often, during those strolls down the sidewalk, I would come upon a sign that said, “Men Working Above.” Then I would look up, squint into the sun, and see a tiny figure the size of a gnat, crawling up the spine of this massive edifice.
Well, the New Testament proclaims that is a larger, cosmic sense, believers have a “Man Working Above,” the man Christ Jesus. He is the believer’s high priest in heaven where he lives and reigns at the right hand of God the Father. And it is Christ’s privilege, won in his death and resurrection, to take the shy believer by the hand and usher him or her into the very presence of God: “Let us therefore come approach the throne of grace with boldness,” Hebrews implores us, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Imagine! Through faith in Jesus Christ, we can have an intimate, personal relationship with the God of all creation. And this God is no longer the “unmoved mover” of sublime philosophy or the detached clockmaker of Enlightenment rationalism. No, in that most precious of words, bequeathed to us by Jesus and branded upon our hearts by the Holy Spirit, this God is now our “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
The ardent individualism at the core of the Baptist spirit arises from this heady confidence: that Christ won the believer’s access to God, so no other priest is needed. When we speak of the priesthood of believers, we speak in awed and hushed tones first of all of this.
But there is more, much more to the priesthood of believers. For the phrase, both in the Bible and in Baptist thought, doesn’t just mean we can priest ourselves. It means we priest one another. Indeed, for all Baptist’s proud talk about “soul competency” and “individualism in religion,” that doesn’t mean an unrestrained individualism. The only individualism the New Testament knows is individualism-in-community, like cells in a body. Cells separated from the body and placed in a petri dish are destined to die.
Look at it this way. A while back, I heard a PBS radio interview of a major league hitter. Much to the horror of you avid Braves fans, I don’t remember the slugger’s name. But I do remember he described baseball as “a team sport played by individuals.”
“When you're up against the pitcher,” he said, “no one else can help you. It's just you and him.” On the other hand, he went on to add, the success of both batter and pitcher is largely dependent on the quality of the team in the field.
To me, that’s a pretty good definition of a Baptist church: “It’s a team sport played by individuals.” One’s relationship to God is an intensely personal matter. We are first of all priests to ourselves. But that intensely personal relationship with God is not long for this world apart from the support and guidance of the Christian community. To win the game, it’s not enough to square off with God in the batter’s box. We also need a right fielder on our team who can snag a fly and a short stop who can handle white hot grounders.
There is no such thing as a solitary Christian in the New Testament. From creating Israel in the Old Testament to creating the church in the New, God is always in the business of creating a people: “For you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9).
Thus, the priesthood of believers is not just about me, myself, and I. It’s about us, individuals in community, the Body of Christ. To “priest” one another means being church to one another. It means speaking and being God’s word of grace and healing to one another, especially when we cannot speak, or hear, or believe that word by ourselves. Priesting one another means loving someone in Jesus’ name who is in no shape to love him or herself. As Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, "Our brother (or sister) breaks the circle of self-deception; (one) who confesses his sins in the presence of a (fellow believer) knows that he is no longer alone with himself."
This week, we lost one of my favorite people to the nearer presence of God. Her name was Elon Scott and she priested me every Sunday with her hugs, kisses, and encouragement. The New Testament sometimes enjoins Christians to greet one another with a “holy kiss.” I used to wonder what that was. Then God sent Miss Elon and her sister Ann into my life. And now I know. A “holy kiss” is when one of your mothers or grandmothers in the faith takes you in their arms, and loves on you in Jesus’ name.
Who are the people who speak and embody the love of Christ to you when you’re in no shape to priest yourself? Breathe their names in thanksgiving to God, because I assure you: you and I couldn’t be fit Christians without them.
Incidentally, the fact that all believers are, or can be, priests to one another means the pastor is but first among equals. He or she is not some special order or class of believer. He or she just has a particular role to play on behalf of the community: to preach, teach, care, and lead. A while back, I got a piece of mail addressed to the “pastor in charge.” I looked around, but not finding such a creature, I trashed the letter. For the pastor of a Baptist church is not “in charge.” He is “in service,” along with all the other priests in the community.
Priests to ourselves, priests to one another, and finally, priests to the world. According to Exodus chapter 19, it was God’s intention that Israel be a “priestly kingdom” to the world (v. 6). Sadly, Israel turned that job over to the professionals, as the church has also been wont to do. But the priestly calling of the New Testament church is unequivocal and clear: “For you are . . . a royal priesthood . . . that you may proclaim the mighty acts of (the one) who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). As Carlyle Marney wrote, "No professional clergy can do what the church is called to do." It is the intent of the gospel to "put a priest at every elbow."
Maybe that word “priest” is hard to swallow, at least in reference to yourself. If so, then choose another. The “priesthood of all believers” might also be called the ministry of all believers or the servanthood of all believers. But the point of this vital, New Testament doctrine is that nobody gets to sit in the stands. If you’re a believer, you belong in the game.
When the terrible carnage of the First World War was over, the government of France faced a terrible dilemma. Over one hundred soldiers had battle trauma so severe, they were left with total amnesia. These tragic souls could not remember their own names and their identities were otherwise unknown. Finally, in a desperate bid to resolve the situation, the government announced that on a given day, relatives of those missing-in-action should come to a designated hospital. Then, at the appointed hour, the soldiers were led out, one by one, to stand on a large platform. As the anxious families gathered below, the pitiful soldiers looked out over the multitude in hopes some loved one would claim them and restore their rightful heritage.
As we survey our own circle of loved ones, acquaintances, and friends, each of us knows persons who are bewildered and lost, persons who have forgotten their true destiny as children of God. Maybe they wander through life with a vague disquiet gnawing at the soul, a perplexing awareness things are not quite as they should be. But they do not fully grasp their plight, nor know how to find liberation.
What they need is a priest, a minister, some servant of Christ to embody and speak the good news of the Gospel: that they are beloved of God and through faith in Jesus Christ, can be reborn to life eternal. What they need is someone to help them find their way home to the Heavenly Father. What they need . . . is you.
The word “priest” comes from the Latin “pontifex,” which means “bridge builder.” Listen how Frederick Buechner describes the job of a pontifex.
Island calls to island, and once, in trust, the real words come, a bridge is built and love is done. Not sentimental, emotional love, but love that is pontifex, bridge-builder. Love that speaks the holy and healing word which is: God be with you. The islands become an archipelago, a continent, become a kingdom whose name is the kingdom of God.
Priests to ourselves, priests to one another, and priests to the world. What a calling! I can hardly believe our gracious God loves and trusts us that much.