Priests are not in the Bible, at least not directly. There are priests in the Old Testament who serve in the lineage of Aaron and the Levites, offering sacrifices to God and keeping up the temple, but the word for priests is not used in the New Testament for any ministry other than the laity. The “royal priesthood” or “nation of priests to our God” is used to describe the whole church, you.
My job title derives from the word presbyter or elder in Greek. It describes the local head of a house church who represents a bishop locally in early church writings. My favorite image of the jobs of priests and bishops goes back to the actual functioning of the early church in Bradshaw’s Early Church Worship (1994). The priests would arrive from around the city before dawn at the bishop’s home, where they would celebrate the Eucharist together, breaking bread literally and taking pieces with them back to their house churches and gatherings. The priests would then add the bishop’s piece to the bread broken locally, making physical the unity of their celebrations.
Bishops. The word means overseer literally, and it describes the job in a way that does not seem nice to our ears today. Who wants oversight? The answer is anyone who has ever cried for justice. I lived without a bishop in the Baptist church, and I saw misbehavior and theology that could not be held accountable within the church. There are lovely strengths to that tradition, but I was left longing for oversight and accountability.
What we translate that to in a more positive light is unity. The bishop’s job is to represent the unity of the church of God, which means they often stand in tension between various sides and forces. It is not always a fun job. They do get to also see the church from a unique viewpoint, which becomes necessary for us who only think in terms of our local community. We are connected, through our bishop, to the whole diocese and the larger church. We do not have much in common with St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nogales, but we also have everything in common with them through the bishop and diocese. They are sister to us.
Bishop Kirk Smith is my boss and our pastor. He is the Bishop of the Diocese of Arizona and an able administrator. When I left the diocese ten years ago for Michigan, I was pleased to find other gifts in the bishop I served under there. As I kept up with my home diocese and eventually returned, I found that his able administration allowed some amazing things to happen, like peace, unity, and common purpose that led to growth, new parishes and health in the local parishes.
His kindness to me is personal and deeply felt, but his professional work as a churchman and bishop has meant a great deal to this parish, even life in the midst of great death. We welcome him this week in his last year of ministry as our bishop and celebrate what God has done through his faithful ministry in this place.
Join us Sunday for a time to celebrate, worship with, and learn from our bishop.