Alleluia, Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.  The Word of God that engages us today is the epistle lesson, particularly this verse: “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” (1 Pet. 2:9, ESV).[1]  This Bible verse is the inspiration for one of Martin Luther’s most wonderful contributions to Reformation theology: the concept of the priesthood of all believers.  St. Peter calls his readers “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”  In verse 5 he refers to them as a “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.”

But why does Peter call Christians priests?  What does that mean?  And what are the duties of this priesthood?

Peter’s first readers were Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire—“the elect exiles of the Diaspora” (1:1).  Those early Jewish Christians would instantly recognize that Peter was riffing on a similar verse from the Old Testament.  At the base of Mt. Sinai, God spoke through the prophet Moses to tell the Israelites: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (Ex. 19:5-6).  “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  Doesn’t that sound like the language in our epistle?

Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a reflection of God’s holiness to the peoples around them.  That’s why he instituted the Aaronic priesthood, in which all the descendants of Moses’s brother, Aaron, spent their entire lives in the Lord’s service, blessing and praying for God’s people, upholding the holiness codes of the ceremonial laws, and offering animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins.  Yet there was an important aspect of priesthood in ancient Israel: only the male descendants of Aaron could serve as priests.  Any daughter, any other family or tribe that attempted to carry out priestly duties would be killed and cut off from Israel.

This is what Peter’s first hearers would initially think of when Peter spoke of a holy and royal priesthood.  Yet Peter does something revolutionary.  He calls all of his readers priests.  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” (2:9).  Peter doesn’t mean just the Jewish priests descended from Aaron.  He calls every single Christian brother or sister a priest.

Why?  Because Jesus offered up the final sacrifice for sin when he died on the cross.  He died once for all.  No more animal sacrifices are required.  And since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., animal sacrifices cannot be carried out.  Jesus is our Great High Priest and the Lamb of God.  He is the High Priest and the greatest sacrifice for sin.  By his blood, he makes a way for us to enter God’s presence and experience his grace directly and without a mediator (cf. Heb. 4:14-16).  Now all the people of God, regardless of their ethnic origin, are priests in the kingdom of God.  We are all priests, called to offer a living sacrifice of praise to God and service to our neighbors.  We are all called to proclaim our marvelous Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that all may hear and know the Savior.  Pastors may be the only ones who preach in public worship; but all Christians are called to share the Gospel.

Unfortunately, this proper understanding of the priesthood of all believers was lost during the Middle Ages.  By the 4th century A.D., a hierarchy had developed in the church, by which the clergy were divided into bishops, priests, and deacons.  Bishops were clergy who oversaw the work of the priests in their diocese.  Priests led the congregation in worship, taught the Word of God, baptized, and presided over the Lord’s Supper.  Deacons were lay people ordained to preach but not to administer the Sacraments.  There was a creeping emphasis on the importance of priests as some kind of intermediary between the people and God.  But none of these distinctions exist in Scripture.  The Bible has many words for pastors in the New Testament: elder (presbyter), overseer (bishop), and shepherd.  But priest isn’t one of them.  And as this creeping sacerdotalism grew in the church, the emphasis on the importance of the priests and other clergy diminished the vital role of all Christians to serve in the church.  More than a thousand years of church history elapsed in which this idea became more and more entrenched in the Catholic Church.

But soon after Dr. Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, he translated the Bible into the language of the Bible.  He gave them back the Scriptures in words they could understand.  And, in so doing, they rediscovered the priesthood of all believers.  Luther was a champion of the Christian lay people and all they had to offer in the life of a local congregation and community.  Luther writes:

“A priest, particularly in the New Testament, must be born, not made.  He is not ordained; he is created.  However, he is not born of the flesh but of the Spirit, that is, of the water and the Spirit in the washing of regeneration [Titus 3:5-7; John 3:5].  Therefore all Christians are priests, and all priests are Christians; and accursed be the statement that a priest is something different from a Christian.  For this is said without the Word of God…”[2]


And in another place, Luther writes: “Consequently, every baptized Christian is a priest already, not by appointment or ordination from the pope or any other man but because Christ Himself has begotten him as a priest and has given birth to him in Baptism.”[3]  Martin Luther lifted up the office and calling of the priesthood of all believers and shined light on it for the first time in centuries.  In so doing, he was only going back to Scripture, back to the Word of God, back to the declaration of Peter’s epistle: “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” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Dear people of God, you don’t have to go through a pastor or priest to gain access to God.  You have access because of the grace in which you stand (Rom. 5:1-5).  “There is one mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).  You don’t have to go through any other person to get to God because by right of your Baptism and faith in Christ, you are already a priest!  Each and every one of you has an important contribution to make in the life of the church through your time, talents, and treasure.

It would be impossible for me, your pastor, to carry out all the tasks in our congregation.  There is more work than one person can do.  There is more work than twelve people can do—as we discovered in our first reading from Acts 6.  There the Apostles declared, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2).  And so the church elected seven men of good repute, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, to see to the social welfare ministry of the church.  Men like Stephan made sure that the church’s widows were not neglected in the daily distribution of food.  The pastors couldn’t do it all—nor should they.  They needed help from the congregation, and the congregation needed to help.  Because all of them were priests in God’s kingdom with a job to do and a role to play.

There is far too much work to be done in our church for the paid staff and elected lay leaders to do.  Everyone has a part to play.  You are all priests—forgiven sinners crowned as saints by the grace of God, which Christ won for you on the cross, when he died for you.  It takes a tremendous amount of people to keep this place going so that we can share the Word of God and shine the light of Christ in our community.  Unfortunately, Epiphany is like many churches where the 80/20 rule applies.  80% of the work is done by only 20% of the people.  But that’s not right.  It’s time to step up to the plate.  It’s time for you to get your hands dirty, put on an apron, and serve tables in the kingdom of God.

Here are just a few examples.  Right now Epiphany is recruiting men and women to serve on the Church Council.  We need a new treasurer, a new property board chair, and a new safety and security chair to carry out the work of our church.  The Board of Elders need reputable men of good character, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, who can help the pastor oversee the spiritual needs of our flock.  We need lectors to read the Scriptures, greeters to welcome people into our church, altar guild ladies to handle holy things, as well as people to serve snacks, people to visit the sick and homebound, people to pray, people to help at funerals, and people to weed the flower beds and mow the fields.  That doesn’t even begin to cover it.  And most of all, greatest of all, we simply need you to go back home to your neighborhoods to love your neighbors as yourself—your literal next door neighbors who share a property line or live on the same street as you.  How else will your neighbors know about Jesus?
I do want to comment on something briefly.  During the 1970’s, it became popular in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod to say, “Every member is a minister!”  The idea was to emphasize the priesthood of all believers and the vital contribution made by every church member.  As I have already said, the English word minister is related to the Latin word for servant; and in that sense, every member is a minister.  But we must pay attention to how the word “minister” is used in the wider culture of American Christianity.  In many denominations, the word “minister” is synonymous with “pastor.”  Yet even if every member is a minister, not every member is a pastor.  Being a pastor is one vocation in which to live out the calling of the priesthood of all believers, but it’s not the only calling.  Furthermore, in the LCMS, we generally use the word “minister” in a very narrow sense to speak of professional church workers trained and rostered by the Synod.  In the LCMS there are ordained ministers (pastors) and commissioned ministers (parochial school teachers, DCEs, directors of parish music, and so forth).  In our polity, the laity are another category of church member.  So because of all the various ways in which the word “minister” may be used, we would do well to avoid the slogan, “Every member a minister.”  Rather, we should reclaim the older, Biblical language of the New Testament and say, “Every member is a priest!”

By the grace of God, we have been brought into God’s kingdom of light.  You no longer dwell in darkness.  As priests, we are to shine the light of Christ and proclaim his name in word and deed.  That is what the priesthood of all believers is all about.  “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” (1 Pet. 2:9).  Dear people of Epiphany, you are priests, one and all—regardless of your age, sex, or socio-economic status.  You are a priest because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the greatest Priest of all.  In the name of the Father and of T the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

[2] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), §3641.

[3] Ibid., §3642.