When I was an eight-year-old sycophant, I would mimic the dramatized signs of the cross etched in open air by parish priests: “May the grace and peace of God the Father, the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always.” And also with you.
I even memorized some of the liturgical greetings in Latin: Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo. Somehow, the foreignness captured the essence of those words.
What was it about the signing of the cross, of hands held high in blessing over a congregation that made me awe at the experience? There was a certain magic there, a power that reigned over the rest of us. It was benevolent, and it came from God, but it never seemed to be a magic that I could gain hold of. Like a little boy playing with GI Joes, I would have to make believe.
These days, I’m rich with a profound Lutheran theology centered on the priesthood of all believers. Even my church decided long since to change its vocabulary—we are not members of the congregation, but partners in ministry. Still, there are elements of ritual off-limits to me—sermons and sanctifications, blessings and leadership. It is clear ministry is within my grasp, but only certain kinds. The priesthood is not the same for all believers.
Or it is, and we cling to traditional boundaries for comfort’s sake. In my progressive circles, I believe we can recognize what Paul articulated so long ago to the fledgling Corinthians: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes. As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” [1 Corinthians 12:4-13]
The question that comes to mind is the manner in which we employ all these gifts, and the value we give to each. In certain instances, for example, the gift of healing might be more highly valued. When suffering is prevalent, healers come to the fore and employ their gifts while those whose gift is prophecy step aside. But when all circumstances of life are considered together, all these gifts share equal value. Therefore, why do we profess a priesthood of all believers while simultaneously setting aside an office for “priest” to be more privileged in guiding, leading, and teaching than others? Yes, these are the ones whose gifts are (ideally) those of teaching, guiding, and leading, but there are many ways in which to lead, many forums for teaching, and many diverse moments set aside for guidance. Have we asked ourselves if these all are equally valued? Or do we set some above others in all ways, at all times?
The implicit theology here is one of a humanity both in persona Jesu and in persona Christi—Jesus Christ in all people. Peter was no greater than Paul; Benedict XVI has no greater claim to leadership than the parish priest. The challenge is in living out the theology of a universal priesthood. How do we remove ourselves enough from tradition and custom to recognize where such a theology is rabidly discussed but weakly practiced? Jesus Christ didn’t come to pay lip-service to forgiveness, love, and salvation; he was the very essence of these things in all that he did and all that he said.
So I issue the challenge to myself, as well as to all the faithful: Be the priesthood of all believers as much as you embrace the idea. Perhaps this means dismantling tradition, and while we resist change and loathe the discomfort of newness, it is only in devotion to lived theology that we will find truth at work in our world. A universal priesthood means we all are called to action; we cannot call upon others to act unless and until we are part of that action.
Every so often now, in the silence of my room, I will mark the sign of the cross and leave it hanging in the air, offering a quiet blessing to those who need it. Am I an ordained priest? Hardly. Am I as able and willing to participate in the blessing of others as clergy? Absolutely. And while I do not go around piously blessing friends and loved ones with open-air crosses and hands held high, I do so alone to remind myself that I, too, am able to grant blessing. I, too, am the mouthpiece of God in this world.
Paul, convert of the faith and unlikely disciple of God, has said it, and he continues to say it through us: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”