Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am in the process of both helping a friend with some severe mental difficulties get an apartment and of becoming his “payee” (that is, managing his social security benefits so that he doesn’t run out of money before paying rent and utilities). My friend has an excellent advocate through a nonprofit, and she and I have been on the phone with each other pretty frequently during this whole process. Anyway, we were talking the other day about my friend’s soon-to-be landlord, and she said “his heart is in the right place, but he can be difficult so call me if you have any problems with him.” I responded, “well, I can probably hold my own with him” to which she replied “I know, you’re a godly man.” That is not what I meant, and she gives me too much credit. I meant that I can be a difficult jerk, too, if I have to be.

Something occurred to me after this conversation which had not before. Namely, I realized that a lot of Christians are functionally donatists. Donatism was an ancient heresy which arose following the persecutions of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian in the early-fourth century. Many clergy had buckled under this last concerted effort to stamp out Christianity in the Roman Empire. One of their greatest crimes in the eyes of the church was handing over holy objects, particularly Gospel books which were usually the most valuable thing a church had at the time, to the Roman soldiers. In fact they were given a name which literally means “the ones handing [things] over”–traditores, from which we get the English word traitor. When Christianity was finally legalized under the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, many of these traitors did their penance and rejoined the college of clergy, but the Donatists claimed that their sin made the sacraments they administered invalid and they’d have to be reordained.

At first, this might strike us as reasonable. Ought not there be consequences for wicked behavior? Well, yes, but it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the priesthood. Ordination is an irrevocable, ontological change, which is to say that it fundamentally alters a person’s nature in the same way as baptism. One cannot simply cease being a priest any more than one can simply cease being a baptized Christian. One may break one’s vows and be under discipline. A public and notorious sinner may for a time be excommunicated, unable to receive the Sacrament until reconciliation is effected, but he doesn’t stop being a Christian. A priest may be inhibited or even defrocked, but that doesn’t mean she ceases to be a priest. She is still perfectly capable of confecting the sacraments, she is simply forbidden from doing so, at least publicly.

In purely practical terms this is very good news for you. It is like your insurance; no matter how wicked I might be, you’re still receiving the grace of the Sacraments. And anyway, where is the line to be drawn? Should any sin render one unable to function as a priest? There is a fair distance between a cross-word to someone who cuts you off in traffic and committing murder. They’re both sins, but gravity matters.

In any event, my friend’s advocate assuming I could handle something because I’m “a godly man” probably (like I said) stems from a bit of functional donatism. Now, she is definitely from a more evangelical background, and I do wonder to what extent that might have influenced that assumption. Not to be too hard on evangelicalism (I really don’t think it’s a good look when mainline clergy do that, because it often comes from a place of assumed superiority), but just to tell it like it is, the understanding of ordination in that context usually assumes a degree of subjective, personal faithfulness (and maybe even charisma) that is different from our understanding–namely, I think, that ordination is not at all about me and my personal qualities, it’s simply a gift for the church effected by nothing more than the bishop praying over me and laying his hands on my head a dozen years ago. But none of this is to say that we are not affected by the same problem. There are a very few priests in our church from whose hands I’d have trouble receiving the Body of Christ (and that being my spiritual state when given the opportunity I probably shouldn’t do), but I have to remind myself that the Body of Christ is still there, regardless.

All of this is a rather lengthy introduction to a single point about today’s lesson from Hebrews, and you may call to mind my disclaimer about substitutionary atonement and supercessionism from three weeks ago, that on these issues I am considered by some a theological troglodyte, though I’m not especially sorry.

The ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all believers, whereby baptism allows us to approach the altar of God, are secondary to the perfect priesthood of Christ himself. I mentioned last week that, like Melchizedek, we continue to offer the unbloody sacrifice of Bread and Wine rather than goats and sheep and oxen and the like, but I didn’t make it explicit why. It is because, as we hear in this week’s Epistle, Christ offered it once for all. He was the sacrificial lamb, and his perfection (not mine nor yours) made this possible.

Thank God, because like those priests of the Old Covenant, I’d have to be constantly making sacrifices to atone for my own manifold sins and wickedness, and you’d never be certain whether the sacrifices I made on your behalf were efficacious. But now we have a guarantee of God’s Grace if we but desire it. The verse immediately before this morning’s Epistle opens makes it explicit: “This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant.”

We have two more weeks of lessons from the Epistle to the Hebrews–it would be three, but as ever we will avail ourselves of the prayerbook’s permission to observe All Saints’ on the Sunday following the feast–and I pray this series of sermons hasn’t become too pedantic (though, you know, pedantry is my spiritual gift). There is so much comfort here, but even more than that I find reason for tremendous joy, as we are drawn further into contemplation of Christ’s victory over sin and death. Most of all, I am reminded this week of how powerful it is to realize that when we are praying together here at this altar in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ remains standing before the throne of the Father interceding for us, as our priest in this life and our king for ever.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.