“You are a saint. I could never be a pastor,” a new friend said to me.
“Why’s that?” I inquired, even as I sensed what was coming.
“Because I am nowhere near that type of holy.”
“Thankfully, that’s not a requirement for Presbyterians,” I answered.
I went on to brag to my friend about the priesthood of all believers — about how Presbyterians believe we are all ministers in some capacity on our best days. And, on our worst days, with that whole depravity of humankind – well, we can be that kind of worst as well. Now, don’t get me wrong, I try hard to be as Christ-like as a I can be, but even being a pastor doesn’t mean I get it right any more than another Christian. That might be a comfort or a concern, but the only priestly thing about a Presbyterian minister is their vows — which purposefully are not all that different from a those of a deacon or elder.
Like many pastors, I must confess that I often benefit from the misunderstanding of the role of the pastor in the Presbyterian Church. To my benefit, many congregants respond to my text messages and phone calls first, trust my opinion more than another congregant and believe my spiritual insight carries more weight than that of another church member. Many times I enjoy a privileged position in this way, without even fully realizing it. And yet, it gives me great pause when I notice the lack of respect in an elder-elder, elder-deacon or deacon-deacon relationship. If we are truly the priesthood of all believers, where is that same level of respect, deference and, perhaps, even reverence?
Often age, economic disparity, ethnic differences and disparity in upbringing cloud the way we work together as a community of God. We confess on Sunday mornings that the Holy Spirit works in new and surprising ways, but do we really leave space to be surprised? Or are we quick to decide who will be filled with the Spirit and who is beneath us? If we really believe in the Jesus who was hungry, thirsty and in need of rest, we better leave space to learn from the Christian in our midst who we cannot be bothered to respond to, who does not have the same level of education as us or who didn’t even grow up in the church!
“We follow Christ so we can and should do better,” I say all the time. But perhaps I should be more prophetic in my words that frame the way we relate to one another in Christian community. How about, “We will do better!” We will do better at setting aside who we are so we can make space for someone else. We will do better at assuming we know better so we can be surprised by the all-knowing God of the universe. We will do better at honoring each of God’s children — because the kingdom of God is about others, not just me.
When my new friend called me a saint, I had almost a visceral reaction to the word; “I’m no saint,” I thought to myself. And in that disqualification of my own confidence in Christ, I hear Paul’s words, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1). Perhaps it is not that “I am no saint,” but that we need to bring back the way Paul originally used the word — to designate the general word for Christians, those who were set apart for God, now aware of God’s love for them and the Holy One’s gracious offer of salvation.
Perhaps I should have returned the title of saint that my friend graciously bestowed upon me, rather than devalue myself to explain the uplifting and equal priesthood of which we as Presbyterians all claim to enjoy together. Perhaps it is more about recognizing how much more there is to the kingdom of God – more space, more confidence, more of the Spirit in us – than making myself seem like less to welcome someone else in.
I may have missed the opportunity in the conversation with my new friend, but let me get it right for you: You are a saint in the Lord Jesus Christ, set apart to be used by God to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through and to bring about the never-ending kingdom of the King of Creation. You are worthy. You are capable. You are holy. You are loved because God first loved. Never accept any less and never offer any less to another saint in your midst.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.