priests as ministers of grace
The 19th Sunday After Trinity
Job 24:1-17, Psalm 72, Ephesians 4:17-32, St. Matthew 9:1-8
God’s Grace by God’s Means
Richard Sharpe is a fictional soldier in the English army who goes to the Continent to wage war against Napoleon. In camp one day, his commanding general goes for a ride, unaware that an enemy patrol is close by. The enemy descends at the gallop.
If not for the alert and courageous intervention of Sgt. Sharpe, the general would be done for. The grateful general commissions him. And now for the low-born Sharpe, no end of trouble commences.
Lt. Sharpe’s immediate superior suffers a grievous wound in battle. As he lies dying, the captain gives his sword to Sharpe, knowing the difficulty he will face commanding men with whom he once stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Soldiers, the captain says, don’t see an officer up from the ranks as “touched by grace, set apart.”
They see him as they see themselves, as one of “the damned.”
Put another way, common soldiers want a man with uncommon blessing as their leader. They cannot save themselves, and if their officer cannot save them he can at least train them and stand up for them. He is their conduit, the one who receives orders from the high command and implements them at the level of “You take the left flank and you watch the rear.”
He must serve them as he commands them; he must monitor their condition and make it known to those above him if his men are too bloodied or too fatigued to fight. He is their mediator . . . and, thus, their priest, for mediation is the priestly role.
Or once was.
St. Matthew shows us a healing today, and we have seen no shortage of our Lord’s healings as we have traipsed through the gospels this Trinity season. In this instance, Jesus returns to Nazareth and some of the townsfolk bring to Him a paralytic.
The Lord responds to the faith of the man’s friends and provides the cure they seek, but this time He does something startling. “Son, be of good cheer,” He says, “your sins are forgiven you.”
The scribes are scandalized. “This Man blasphemes!” Did not God say through His prophet Isaiah, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake”?
Who then is this Jesus of Nazareth who claims to scrub sin? Does He suppose He is God?
Now again we find the poor in spirit trusting implicitly in this One who does things only God can do. And again we find the proud and self-important, so keen on demanding proof, clamping shut their eyes to avoid the proof before them.
Jesus has read their thoughts. Who can do such a thing? Might He not be the long-awaited Messiah God would send, the One who would fulfill the law and, so doing, make Himself the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world?
No, oh no. For if He is, these scribes must look to Him for forgiveness of their own sins, a task they are managing smartly for themselves. They are fulfilling the law by living perfectly according to its statutes. They have no need of Another to lift that burden off of them.
Arise and walk, Jesus says to the paralytic, and the man arises and walks. The multitudes marvel, but the hard of heart begin to scheme a way to trip Him up. Jesus has cleansed a leper, healed many, rebuked the wind and waves. No one complained.
But here, as He claims authority to forgive sins, comes the first sign of opposition to Him: He has taken for Himself the prerogative of God; He has gone too far. “This Man blasphemes!”
The scribes and Pharisees launch their campaign to expose Him for a fraud. It will soon morph into a crusade to eliminate Him that will end at the cross. Or will it end there?
The grave cannot contain our Lord Jesus . . . but He will depart of His own volition. He will ascend to His Father on high and He will remain absent from the creation until He returns at a time of His Father’s choosing.
But His work will continue for He will establish on earth His church to carry on what He has begun. He will send His Holy Spirit to empower and equip this body of which He is the head and He will pour out His grace on the world through this church.
And so we must not miss the puzzling plural with which St. Matthew concludes this passage.
The multitudes “marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.” Not to a Man but to men. Did not Jesus alone heal the paralytic? What can the evangelist mean when he refers to such power given to men?
Good Protestants shudder. They come close to crossing themselves. St. Matthew might be referring to a priesthood. He might be pointing ahead to those troublesome passages in chapters 16 and 18 in which Jesus tells His disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
It sounds disturbingly like He is ordaining certain men with extraordinary authority to carry on His work. Reformed theologians, intent on stamping out any vestiges of the Roman Catholic priesthood with its sacrificial function, arrive at this verse and they harrumph mightily.
One of the best of them, D. A. Carson, has written a splendid commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew. But this passage concerns Christ, he says, and not the church. He dismisses as “unlikely” any notion that the church and its hierarchy are in view. He neglects to tell us, however, what is “likely.”
God the Father is the God of grace and He has sent a Priest named Jesus to mediate grace to His people. This One is the great High Priest, a Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. But the evangelist tells us the people of Nazareth glorified this God who had given such power to men.
Can there be other, lesser priests, mere mortals whom God will use as ministers of His grace? If so, might they be “touched by grace, set apart” as officers for God’s special purpose?
Two thousand years later, the questions echo – much louder, I suspect, than when St. Matthew penned his gospel. In that day, this now-puzzling plural must have seemed plain enough. The first Christians were all Jews and for them nothing was as unremarkable as a priesthood within the priesthood that was Israel.
“A kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” God had called them when He made covenant with them at Mount Sinai. And in His next breath He set apart the tribe of Levi as the priestly clan who would be His agents to represent Him to His people and His people to Him.
So who would find it in the least odd that “a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” as the Jew St. Peter calls the church in the New Testament, would have within it a caste of priests, taken not from any clan but called by God from every people, nation, tongue and tribe to minister to His people and mediate between Him and them?
The mediator matters – not because I say so but because God says so. When our Lord cleansed 10 lepers, He dispatched them to the priests to have their healing certified. The law of Israel required that they receive that affirmation before they could return to the community.
The priests could not heal. God had already done what only God can do. But He sent them to the priests.
Oh, but that was on the other side of the cross . . . Since our Lord offered the final sacrifice we have no need of a priest. Well, on this side of the cross, this same Lord met a certain Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road and commissioned him to ordain presbyters – priests – for all the churches.
Why? To referee fights over the color of the carpet? No, to minister God’s grace to God’s people by God’s means.
The early church understood. It instituted the two sacraments the Lord had commanded, baptism for entry into the covenant community and Holy Communion for frequent renewal of the covenant commitment.
It ministered the evangel – the gospel – to the people not merely to equip them for evangelism but to grow them in grace.
The apostles Christ had summoned ordained men called priests to follow in this work. The church searched the Scriptures and found other means of grace God had given. It incorporated these into worship for the people’s sanctification – advancement in Christlikeness.
These were confirmation, ordination, the reconciliation of a penitent, marriage and anointing of the sick with oil.
A Christian marriage mirrors the covenant relationship between Christ and His church. It affords a godly man and wife the great privilege of raising covenant children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, of sending them out into the world as witnesses of their Lord’s mercy and love. It is holy matrimony, a means of grace, to be solemnized by a priest.
The reconciliation of a penitent sinner comes through confession of sins to a priest. Would you not unburden yourselves of the curse of leprosy? Go, show yourselves to the priests. Would you not unburden yourselves of the curse of sin? Go, confess your sins to the priests.
A priest of the new covenant can no more forgive sins than one of the old could cure leprosy, but he has authority to declare what God has done.
Sin, alas, infects those in the pulpits as well as those in the pews. In the middle ages, those leaders elevated these “lesser” sacraments to the stature of the two the Lord commanded and used all the sacraments as means not of God’s grace but of man’s manipulation and control – and a revenue stream.
Finally, a monk named Luther cried out, “How can man barter what only God can provide? How can man turn a profit on what God bestows for free on those He loves?” The wonder is that there were not a million priests of God joining in chorus with Luther.
He gave the pendulum a shove in the opposite direction – but then others would not let it rest at the bottom of its arc. They set out not to reform what Rome had corrupted – it was called the Reformation, was it not? – but to abolish. Protestants threw the baby out with the holy water.
Out go robes and in come Hawaiian shirts. Out go priests and in come buddies. Out go the means of grace and in comes “I’m okay, you’re okay.”
The church of God looks moribund today, you say? How could it not? It must receive God’s grace before it can disseminate it in the world. Confirmation, confession, anointing of the sick, even communion . . . many have tossed them out like a broken rosary and others have stopped little short.
Again, the leadership bears most of the blame – but now Protestants must share it with Rome. A few years ago, I met a black man from a Caribbean island. Andres is a physician by training, a missionary by calling and a high-ranking leader in a mission agency by gifting.
He grew up in the palace of his father, an Episcopal bishop among whose perks of office was . . . a mistress. By God’s grace, Andres did not flee the faith so sadly modeled for him, but he did flee the historic church and go searching for pure and undefiled religion in other precincts. Little wonder.
We – you and I — have the privilege of remaining in the church the apostles set in motion in the power of the Spirit on orders from the Lord. The means of grace are lying in the open if we will only pick them up.
Tools once employed for a wrong purpose need not be cast away. In the hands of those who would use them as the early churchmen did they will serve just as well now as then. God’s people will receive blessing and He will receive glory.
Jesus healed a paralytic, showing compassion for one created in His image and demonstrating His power over disease. He forgave the man’s sins, putting before all His authority to cleanse the spirit as well as the body. He is the God of grace.
And through His priests today He heals by His means of grace. Those disgruntled soldiers Lt. Sharpe commanded saw themselves as the damned. You are not the damned but the redeemed.
Yet your redemption is not complete until you join that blessed company who dwell in the Lord’s presence, when you have no sickness to heal, no sin to absolve.
Until that glorious day, disease and sin will recur like a fungus. So it is that God has made provision for ongoing treatment. He offers the healing of disease by anointing with oil and the absolution of sins through confession.
He wants His sheep tended. He wants His healing, forgiving grace dispensed. Christians once put a price on what God gives away for free. Will we now throw away that grace as though it were void of value?
Each time we gather for Holy Communion, we petition God to “assist us with thy grace.” In both of our daily offices, Morning and Evening Prayer, we offer thanks for God’s means of grace. Will we thank Him for them and not use them?
When King David saw his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah in the enormity of their horror, he said to Nathan the priest, “I have sinned against the Lord.” The priest replied, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
In his first epistle, St. John assures his charges that if they confess their sins, a faithful and just God will forgive them of their sins. He urges them to keep the Lord’s commandments and adds, “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.”
The church fathers in their wisdom saw that God’s absolution is not to be assumed but declared – by a priest. The same mediator who ministers baptism for the remission of sins hears the sinner’s confession and pronounces forgiveness of sins.
The church of old erred in making confession to a priest mandatory, not in making it available. Do it under duress and you will take a beating; do it from devotion and you will bathe in a blessing.
The redeemed should not live like the damned. Absolution allows you to arise and walk. It lifts your burden from you. It grants you peace and frees you for your Lord’s service. “. . . they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.” Amen.