by Catrin Harland
Last week, Roger Walton suggested that the very Methodist idea of social holiness, while perhaps originally concerned with the internal life of Methodist community, typically also finds meaningful expression within the sphere of social justice.
Another phrase with strong resonance for Methodists is ‘the Priesthood of all believers’. Being a ‘priesthood’ is rightly seen as emphasising a sense of community, but without losing that dimension, I want to suggest that this idea has often been too inward-focused, concerned to too great a degree with internal relationships, including between lay and ordained. Understood in the context of its biblical roots, I would suggest, it is a concept which has more missional potential, and should turn us outwards.
Luther, in speaking of the church as a priesthood, drew on 1 Peter 2:5 and 9. These, in turn, seem to derive in part from Exodus 19:6, where Israel’s relationship with her God is powerfully proclaimed. The writer of 1 Peter adopts this language to give an identity as God’s people to those living as ‘exiles’ and ‘strangers’ – a ‘diaspora’. They are a people, not because they are gathered in one place, but because they share one identity in Christ.
And they are a priesthood. This is inextricably linked with holiness. Holiness in Scripture comes by being chosen by God, close to God, dedicated to God’s purposes. The Temple and its priesthood are holy. The land and people of Israel are holy. The people who belong to Christ are holy. This is a result not of their actions, but of God’s choice. This is the grace of God, a message close to the warmed heart of Methodism.
So what are we to make of the idea that the people of Christ are a holy priesthood?
Firstly, I would suggest that it is linked to the idea of exile identity. It is striking that, in first century Judaism, not much appears to have been made of this Exodus verse. The one exception to this is Philo, a diaspora Jew from Alexandria. He quotes the Greek translation of Exodus – not the ‘Kingdom of Priests’ of the Hebrew, but a ‘royal Priesthood (hierateuma)’. This word is unusual, and found mainly in Alexandrian Jewish literature. So maybe the idea of priestly identity had some particular currency among the diaspora community there? For a Jew in Jerusalem, holiness would be embodied in particular by the priests. But in the diaspora, with very few priests around, the Jewish community would have felt particularly holy – even, perhaps, priestly – relative to their ‘unholy’ host city. If so, it may be that the Christian communities to whom 1 Peter is written, are being offered this relative holiness. They are the few who know themselves chosen and made holy by the grace of God.
Secondly, priests entered the holiest parts of the Temple not on their own behalf, but on behalf of the people. So perhaps the ‘priestly’ diaspora was holy not merely relative to, but on behalf of, Alexandria? As a Christian community, we are a holy priesthood, knowing ourselves close to God, not so we can feel superior to those around us, but so we can offer prayer for a world that often feels lacking in holiness and desperately in need of it. And that holiness that comes through grace makes us very aware of how far we and the whole world fall short of the holy way of life to which we are called, and can both lament and offer confession for the world.
Which leads us to the third implication of our priestliness. Paradoxically, holiness is a gift of grace, but also a way of life. We do not make ourselves holy, but we are called to ‘be holy, as the Lord is holy’. 1 Peter makes it clear that the followers of Christ are to live and behave in a particular way, not just for the sake of their own souls, but also so others ‘may see your honourable deeds and glorify God’. As priests, we proclaim and imitate Christ’s self-giving love, telling and living a story which is transformative and holy.
The priesthood of all believers is a chosen community, with a special place in God’s heart, but it is also a community looking outward. It is a missional community, a community committed wholeheartedly to the messy world in which we live. It is an open community; entry into it is not earned, but offered freely. And it is a holy community. Holiness is a gift of God, and a way of life. The priesthood of all believers is a community blessed with, and called to, that holiness.
 An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, Luther, W.A., 6.407; It is this text which is often seen as the origin of the doctrine we now call ‘The Priesthood of All Believers’.
 1 Peter 1: 15-16; cf. Leviticus 11: 44-45; 19:2
 1 Peter 2:12