Friday, October 3, 2014

Priests in the Church (part 2)

OBJECTOR: I just don’t see any texts in the New Testament that teach what the Catholic Church is saying. I agree with all you say about Christ’s priesthood, but God designed the Church to have pastors who care for the flock. These men were not supposed to be priests. The idea of a special priesthood is just not in the New Testament.

CATHOLIC: I can offer you at least four lines of evidence. But first, do you agree that Christ called some men to be his special representatives, such as in Matthew 4:19, Luke 6:13, and John 15:16? Do you agree that these men are called apostles and they are the human foundation of the Church (cf. Eph. 2:20)?

OBJECTOR: I agree, but where is the idea of a ministerial priesthood in those texts?

CATHOLIC: Consider first Matthew 28:18–20, where Jesus commissioned the apostles to go "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." This twofold ministry of baptizing and teaching can be summarized in the phrase "the ministry of word and sacrament." In other words, the apostles and those after them were to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments.

OBJECTOR: Many forms of Protestant theology—for instance, Lutheran and Calvinist—would agree with this ministry of word and sacrament, but they don’t agree that this constitutes a priestly function.

CATHOLIC: Then let’s look at the second and third lines of evidence. The easier of the two is expressed in John 20:19–23, where Jesus empowers the apostles with the authority to confer forgiveness on the penitent. For the sake of brevity, I quote only verse 23: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This power to forgive sins, to convey God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of confession, is clearly a part of the priestly function of Christ. In this text, Jesus is conveying this authority to his apostles.

OBJECTOR: I am sure you know that many Christians don’t agree with this interpretation. We believe that Jesus is giving his apostles the authority to proclaim his forgiveness to all, not to forgive them in the way you say, since he himself is the only one who can do that.

CATHOLIC: Yes, I know this interpretation, but if you study the text carefully, I think you’ll agree that the common interpretation among non-Catholics simply does not fit the text. That is, it doesn’t take the text seriously. Jesus speaks of "the sins you forgive" and "the sins you retain." We Catholics take this text seriously and believe that the forgiveness that comes only from Jesus can be conferred on those who repent because Jesus himself gave that authority to the apostles and their successors.

OBJECTOR: Well, perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. What is this third piece of evidence you mentioned?

CATHOLIC: The third line of evidence has to do with the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles with him "Do this in memory of me." When Jesus gave them this command, he was making them priests of the New Covenant.

OBJECTOR: That’s a strange idea. What makes you think that the phrase "Do this in memory of me" has anything to do with being a priest? Those words are addressed to every Christian and apply to our celebrations of communion in church. I just don’t see any connection between those words and the priesthood.

CATHOLIC: You’re not alone. But consider first to whom these words were addressed. Jesus did not say they apply to every Christian. If that is true, it could be so only by an extension of the original situation. A more historically responsible interpretation sees the fact that it was just the apostles at that Last Supper.

OBJECTOR: Even if I agree with you on that score, that doesn’t mean that Jesus is making the apostles priests. All these words mean is that we should remember Jesus when we have communion.

CATHOLIC: If that’s what the words really meant, your conclusion would be true that "Do this in memory of me" has nothing to do with being a priest. But they mean a lot more. As I noted, they were first spoken to the apostles. I don’t have time to go into detail here, but let me at least say this: "Do this in memory of me" was a command from Jesus for the apostles to do exactly what he did that night. They were to repeat this action in perpetuity. It is also clear that his actions were priestly because he was offering the bread and wine just like Melchizedek did (cf. Gen. 14:17–20). As you know, Hebrews makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek. In a higher sense, Jesus was acting as a priest at the Last Supper by giving the apostles his body and blood. Therefore, his command to his apostles involves them performing priestly actions. They could perform such actions only if he were making them priests to stand in his place and to give the people of God his body and blood.

OBJECTOR: Well, I must say, I have never heard this interpretation before, but it seems like a stretch to me to see all that in the account of the Last Supper. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the New Testament.

CATHOLIC: Remember that we all read the Bible through the eyes of our communities of faith. I can understand why such an interpretation will seem strange to you if you have little or no experience with a priestly ministry in your church. Perhaps my last line of evidence will help you to get thinking in that direction. But first, let me sum up the first three. What we see in the Old Testament is a three-fold priesthood. There is the common or universal priesthood of all Israelites at the bottom (cf. Ex. 19:6), a ministerial priesthood above them (cf. Ex. 19:22, 24; Lev. 1:5), and a high priest at the top (cf. Num. 35: 25). We thus should expect to find a similar three-fold priesthood under the New Covenant, and we do. There is the common or universal priesthood of all Christians (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5, 9), a ministerial priesthood above them (cf. Rom. 15:16), and a high priest at the top (cf. Heb. 3:1). Rather than varying from the biblical model of priesthood, the Catholic understanding copies it exactly. It is the two-fold model that departs from what we see in the Bible.

OBJECTOR: You said you have a fourth line of evidence. What could that possibly be?

CATHOLIC: You believe, I am sure, that the whole purpose of the eternal Word (Logos) becoming flesh was to reconcile us to God. Now, in order to have a ministry of reconciliation, Christ had to be a priest as well as a prophet and king. In fact, his act of reconciling death highlighted his priestly office more than anything else. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:18–23 that the same God "who through Christ reconciled us to himself" is also the one who "gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18). "The message of reconciliation" in verse 19 is that God does not hold men’s transgressions against them. That is the ministry of the priests in the Catholic Church: They are to be agents of reconciliation by carrying Christ the Reconciler to others. That ultimately is why God chooses some men from among his people to be his priests. Priests reconcile people to God.



God Bless

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