A devotion by Dean Douglas A. Sweeney given at a Samford University faculty workshop on Aug. 20, 2019.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)
Today more than ever, Christians all across the globe — Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox — are united in support of the priestly work of the laity. Most Protestants associate this emphasis with Luther, who developed it in opposition to Roman Catholic teaching on the higher Christian life lived by priests, monks and nuns. On the basis of Scripture texts like the one I just read, he taught that “every baptized Christian is a priest already, not by appointment or ordination… but because Christ Himself has begotten him as a priest.”
But nearly all Christians now agree that those who follow Jesus share in the Lord’s priestly ministry and play an important role in spreading his love and grace in the world. We agree that we are to mediate, communicate or share the Lord’s goodness, truth and beauty in the lives of those around us. This teaching was codified, in fact, at the Second Vatican Council, whose leaders declared famously that “laypeople, sharing in the [priesthood]... of Christ, play their part in the mission of the whole people of God in the church and in the world. They truly exercise their apostolate by labours for evangelizing and sanctifying people, and by permeating the temporal order with the spirit of the gospel.”
Nowhere is this priesthood more necessary today than in the academy, which is full of fragile egos, insecurities, uncertainties and fears — to say nothing of most of the ordinary forms of human suffering. Our schools are full of sinners standing in need of grace and mercy, people plagued by doubts and debts but still expected to perform as confident masters of their subjects and magnanimous public figures. These pressures breed anxiety and toxic self-absorption, yielding a morally repugnant blend of obsequiousness toward those whom we assume can ease our burden and obliviousness, or even disrespect, to those who cannot. We spend an inordinate amount of time in making a name for ourselves. We do what we must to stay employed and advance in rank within our departments. But all too often we find ways to take the intellectual high ground for behavior that is frankly self-promoting.
In the midst of this situation, we professors here at Samford share a calling to worldly ministry, to live as priests among our neighbors on campus (and beyond). We share a mandate from the Bible to serve in the manner of Jesus Christ, whose life was spent for people like us in humble, self-defeating love. As depicted by St. Paul in his epistle to the Philippians (2:3-8), this mandate reads as follows:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Without confusing our secular roles with those of officially ordained priests (or pastors), or assuming the weighty mantle of ecclesial authority, we are nonetheless to engage in acts of sacrificial service to our colleagues in the academy. We are to make time for others, put their needs before our own, support their academic labors and rejoice in their success. More importantly, perhaps, we are to help them interpersonally, demonstrating compassion for their welfare in the world, encouraging them as they struggle with the pressures of the academy and praying for them and their loved ones without ceasing.
In an era characterized by academic acquisitiveness, we are called to model a counter-cultural way of operating. Rather than spending so much time attracting attention to ourselves, trying desperately to impress and practicing scholarly one-upmanship, we are called to build up others, valorizing their achievements. Rather than trying quite so hard to be players in the academy, win respect from those in power and demonstrate to others that Christians are not as dumb as we seem, we are called to be “poor in spirit,” to “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” to be “pure in heart,” and “salt” and “light” in the world (Matt. 5:1-16). We are also called to witness to the “foolishness” of the world (I Cor. 1-2), calling things as we see them through the spectacles of faith — and to submit, yes submit, our minds to the sovereignty of Christ, even as we strive for academic excellence.
Too many of us today continue to imitate our colleagues in the corridors of power, conforming to their worldviews and failing to bless them with the things that make us different as people of faith. I am not suggesting that we should instead exaggerate our uniqueness, calling attention to ourselves like adolescents in rebellion. In the main, I think we should knuckle down and do our work well, taking pains to help our colleagues with careful teaching, research and writing. But I also think that we should practice scholarship as ministry, a form of priestly service intended to bless the larger world. Rather than holding back for fear that other colleagues will reject us, it is time to reach out and face the consequences of faith, hope and love within the academy.
It is time to shower attention on those who have no power over us, meeting the needs of students, junior colleagues and staff members before we tend to our CVs, and looking for ways to treat others — especially “the least” of those among us — as though they were better, more important, than ourselves. It is time to tell the truth — the whole truth — about our work, “outing” ourselves as Christians when the occasion calls for it. We need not drive away our colleagues with annoying, artificial attempts to make a Christian difference, substituting spiritual chatter or religious moralism for painstaking scholarship. But we do need to resist the many professional enticements, institutional incentives and pecuniary tugs to privatize our Christian faith, failing to be who we are — who God has made and called us to be — as we live our daily lives.
Many of us are blessed by association with colleagues who exemplify the priestly traits I am advocating. I have been so blessed. In fact, I would not be speaking these words today if not for the example and the academic ministry of one of my former teachers. This man is widely known for scholarly acumen and excellence. I must admit that this is what drew me to his classes in the first place. But the thing that kept me there and made me want to practice history was his humble, loving example of scholarly service: his willingness to work on behalf of projects and for people that he knew could not boost his own career; his habit of deflecting the many kudos that came his way, making sure that others received their due for toiling in his vineyards; his tireless support for junior colleagues in need of help; and his practice of responding to malformed questions from his students and aspersions from opponents with a spirit of genuine charity and an eagerness to learn. I am sure that many of you could testify to such experiences with mentors who have blessed you in these ways. Let’s try to be more like them as we do our work this year. Let’s commit ourselves to mediating the love, grace and truth of God to students, staff and colleagues on the faculty.
As historian Kenneth Hagen wrote of Luther’s view of calling, “The vocation of love, serving the neighbor, is not optional. The whole structure of God’s world is ordered so that the neighbor is served in and by vocation.” May God help us as we seek to spend our lives on those around us with faithful, hopeful, loving priestly ministry.