Who’s in? Who’s out? Who meets the requirement; makes the cut? As our political world seems more and more polarized we can barely have a conversation. Loyal opposition of one age is now seen as enemy and folks speak of warfare within a political party, let alone the “other.” Family? “He’s no longer treated as family,” one man said to me. In the faith, outside of the faith? Saved – damned? Chosen? Who’s in and who is out?
With lessons from the early church I am wondering who is in the world (as John the gospel writer announced that “God so loved the world that he gave his son …”) and the “all” in the priesthood of all believers (one of the keys of the Protestant Reformation that we are remembering this month). Then there are saints – as we celebrate All Saints today. Saints of God, children of God, the priesthood of all believers – consider what this can mean for us today particularly with so much falling apart.
Let’s start with the text – a very Protestant thing to do. Remember, the Bible is not the last word or the only word but it is the starting point then we wrestle with the word to find the living word that is the Spirit of God.
In I John, we encounter the powerful, tender, and intimate language of family. Not servants or slaves or even disciples, we are called “children of God.” Of God, from God, in God, blessed by God – children and heirs of the kingdom of God. Being a child is not something earned; it is a given. Whether they like it or not Halsey and Dan are our sons – they are our children and through thick or thin they remain our children. They gain that status as a birthright, not something that is earned or proved but given.
This is a fundamental starting point of faith. Our beloved status of child of God is given to us. In fact, faith itself is a gift. Sure it can be squandered, denied or mistreated but it remains a gift.
Back to the text: not only are we called children but Paul then explains that we are inherently connected one to another – each of us has a place within the body, going as far as calling us, the collective, the body of Christ. We are inherently connected; life is fundamentally interdependent with all the members playing a part.
We know this. Sure, we live in one of the most individualistic cultures on the planet but every time we pick up an apple at the grocery store we are reminded of the land, the tree, the farmer, the worker who picked the apple (probably a migrant), the driver who took it to the processing plant, the staff that prepared the delivery, the next driver who delivered it to Graul’s then the worker who put it on the shelf, the clerk at the register and, at Graul’s, the young woman who collects the carts and picks up the trash, a job that she appears to thoroughly enjoy and matches her capabilities. We are deeply interconnected – that is not theory, it is fact. The Bible tells us that we are children, not slaves, and our well being is tied to our interconnectedness. The all means all.
Whether it was kings or popes, a good part of our shared history is one of facing down hierarchies and the abuse of the many by the few, in order to recognize the rights and dignity of the many. With Jan Hus a hundred years before Martin Luther, we pressed for worship in one’s own language and communion in both elements for the people. At that time the people were served only the bread and the chalice was reserved for the priests. (As a historical aside, when we were in Prague the last time for a partnership conference I was invited to serve communion in the Bethlehem Chapel, the same place where a European commoner was first offered the chalice by Jan Hus. It was quite an honor and a real “wonky” moment for a Protestant pastor.) When Martin Luther picked up the cause in 1517 he coined the phrase “priesthood of all believers” meaning that all Christians can pray directly to God and all Christians can receive both bread and wine in the sacrament. All have the authority of prayer and the right of access to communion, not just a special few, the reformers asserted. This was summed up in the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.”
We are celebrating All Saints today and in good Protestant fashion we affirm that the title saint is given to all who are blessed by Christ. As noted in your bulletin, “We are not saints due to our own goodness; we are made saints by the unmerited and freely given grace of God.” For all the saints, as we will sing, is truly all – all made saints by the mercy of God.
All? Who is included in the all? Our faith is closely tied to public life since democratic processes and other cultural assumptions of human rights are grounded in the Protestant Reformation. You’ll recall that a representational form of government where the people elect their leaders was worked out in the Presbyterian Church well before the Declaration of Independence and our American Constitution were written. It was the Presbyterian, John Witherspoon, who was the only active minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. As a church we have wrestled with the sense of “all” and who has rights for a very long time.
From the beginning of recorded we have had slaves – less than human, not part of the “all.” For centuries, women were considered less than men – not part of the “all.” And, for as many centuries gay and lesbian neighbors were not viewed as part of the human family, not in the all. Yet, by the grace of God and the grit of the people we have been changing – always too slowly but changing nonetheless.
At this week’s Bible study the question of the origins of slavery came up; the Bible simply assumes that it is a part of life. Yes, slavery came to be with civilization – a rather odd mix of terms isn’t it? As soon as humans shifted from hunters and gatherers to life in communities – civilization – slaves became economically advantageous. So, “civilization” introduced slavery. We might call that “original sin;” the beginning of societies were brutal and, when to our advantage, we humans label others as less than human.
Is the “other” just as human? Is the other a child of God, made in the image of God, or something other? It is a fundamental question.
I must confess that it is tough these days being an “older white guy.” Now, I know that the collective guilt that is often poured on one group or another is not at all fair. But, we older white guys have an inordinate number of abusers and, to use some technical terms, too many jerks and idiots. For centuries, to this day, women have needed to guard themselves against the abuse of powerful men. The Harvey Weinsteins and Bill O’Reilleys of the world see women as objects to exploit, lesser forms of human life to serve at the whims and wishes of those of wealth and power. It is so startling and evil that it is painful to face and, for many, hard to state. It is agonizing to hear the stories pouring out these days but they are important to hear. Bring them on….. for change is a must, the continuation of abuse is not an option.
Imagine how different life can be when the starting point is that the other is a child of God, a person made in the image of God. That is, in part, what the “all” in the priesthood of all believers means for us today.
I greeted the confirmation gathering last Sunday – students, parents and covenant partners – and reminded them that our youth are beginning a process of reflection around two questions: “Do I believe that Jesus is Lord?” and “Do I want to be part of this collection called church?” One of the things that I am most proud of, along with many other Protestants (the protesting ones), is that we believe that all other people are created in the image of God. Therefore women as well as men are ordained to be elders, deacons and ministers in our church. And gay and lesbian members who are gifted by the Holy Spirit are called into leadership as well. Note: we are still a minority within Christendom; the majority of our sisters and brothers in Christ believe that women are different and inferior. Yet, it is this minority that claims my soul and loyalty, understanding that all of God’s children are created in the image of God and all of God’s children have the potential for leadership. Such fundamental rights and dignity are given by God, not earned or doled out by human powers. They are given.
Who is in and who is out? What rights are given and what are earned? Is food and water a right or a privilege? Is health care a right or a privilege? Can each young girl expect to be treated with dignity?
If only we could live as we sing, even as we sing with our children. “He’s got the whole world in His hands ….. He’s got you and me sister in His hands.” Or “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
If only we could live as we sing.