Priestly Millennials and the Promise of Community

January 1st, 2019
This article is featured in the The Future of Worship (Feb/Mar/Apr 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

When people gather, they need facilitators or leaders. For Joel, who has been described as a “cultic prophet” due to his calling of the people of God to gather, such leadership is the responsibility of the priests and elders.[1] Joel might have been a priest himself as he references the Tamid, the daily temple offering that was a central ritual in Joel’s time. The priesthood in Joel, we said, is somewhat vague, opening possibilities for us to reinterpret the nature and purposes of the priesthood.[2] The Reformation, of course, already did so by establishing the priesthood of all believers. Joel’s priests portray specific tasks: they lament and lead the people in lament; they call people to gather; they bring offerings; they pray, encourage, and point the people back to God. In naming these tasks, Joel draws on the priestly tradition that has informed Israel’s life since Moses’s brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s four sons were summoned to be priests (see Exod 28-29 and Lev 8-10).

Set apart and identified by wearing a vest in bright colors of gold, blue, purple, and deep red, with gemstones, priests were called to facilitate rituals as the people of God gathered and sought God’s presence. Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that “priests themselves do not mediate, but they supervise and attest the visual, material, physical acts of worship that do the mediation.”[3] There was a time that practices, not persons (like Jesus), bridged to God. The priests, representing the holiness of God, reveal God’s availability to be present in the lives of God’s people as they facilitated order, coherence, and dignity in the face of disorder, alienation, and threat. “The priesthood is to protect and guarantee the maintenance of an alternative world, wherein Israel could ‘see’ God and see themselves differently in the world.”[4] As such, priests, in gathering and through ritual, create moments of reconciliation with God, reparation of wounds received and restoration of relationships.

Ritual permeates the priestly life. Just as we need narratives to make sense of our world and ultimately thrive, we need practices and rituals. Joel knows the wisdom that rituals communicate. Rituals are “structured sequence[s] of action that pay homage to some cultural idea.”[5] Some rituals point to a sacred object, but not all do, as others point to sacred values or ideals such as relationships, care, hospitality, or compassion. Furthermore, some rituals are public, whereas others are done in private. Rituals are typically found around important life events, such as a rite of passage, a traumatic event, when relationships change, and when hostility or disagreement sets in.

Communications theorist Bradford Hall reminds us that rituals often evoke one of the following images: (1) they point to an action done repeatedly; (2) the action typically has meaning for those voluntarily participating; (3) rituals which have an ordinariness to them, are often reserved for special moments (such as death, births, birthdays, and weddings) or settings (ranging from a building such as a church to a room with a table); and, (4) some rituals, despite their ordinariness, are reserved for special moments.[6] When rituals are absent or when the protocols around them are violated, Hall warns, such action can have negative effects on individuals, relationships, and communities, for rituals imbue meaning and without experiencing personal meaning in life, one cannot flourish. “Rituals,” Hall concludes, “are a vital part of any community not only because they teach people what is good, and provide…a way to create and maintain important social relationships, but they serve a cohesive function for the larger community in general.”[7]

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Who are the priests for the millennial generation today? As How We Gather showed, millennials meet in groups and are congregating in many spaces for many reasons. One finds ritual, restoration, and healing. The lack of young adults in the church suggests that pastors and elders are priests to only a small number of millennials. I suggest that many millennial leaders are priests to their peers. They, like priests of old, find the sacred in the ordinary and call society to create and portray belonging, justice-seeking compassion, and care that touches all, especially the marginalized. Likewise, millennials find a deep connection between wholeness, spirituality, and ecological concerns (or nature). It is persons like Jules [Galette] who embody the values once held by the priests of the ancient Near East and who invite persons overlooked by society into a covenant relationship, also with God. People in need or in emotional and relational pain, our inner cities, the earth, and many other spaces and places are touched by millennials making a difference. Like Joel, millennial priests do not dichotomize the body and the soul, as Ammerman reminded us. Rather, body and spirit are interconnected and caring for one is not more important that the other.

There are however, also significant differences between ancient priests and their modern contemporaries. Whereas the priests of old kept ordinary people from the “most holy” spaces they identified and served, priestly millennials welcome all. In Joel’s time, priests practiced a “one degree holier” ministry—ordinary people could access the holy, but not the most holy. The priests, already holy, could access the most holy. Anyone who acted two degrees holier died, for God’s holiness would be offended.[8] Millennials disrupt this understanding of the priesthood, which included a prohibition against any person with any deformity from serving as a priest.[9] They redefine what wholeness and integrity means. No longer do grain and blood offerings define a sacred space; an ordinary table with a couple of recipes is sufficient. Proper conduct, once held dearly by priests, has lost its purity, perfectionism, and power. Here, Jesus showed us a different way. How often did Jesus gather and share a table with people to be called “a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:29)? Jesus, God Emmanuel—God with us—came close to us by joining a table. As one gathers and partakes in the ritual of eating together, a distant God can be an intimate, nearby presence.

This article is adapted from The Millennial Narrative by Jaco J. Hamman. Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Assis, The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope, 19.

[2] Seitz, Joel, 135.

[3] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, 664.

[4] Ibid., 665.

[5] Hall, Among Cultures, 95.

[6] Ibid., 85-92.

[7] Ibid., 94.

[8] Hundley, “Sacred Spaces, Objects, Offerings, and People in the Priestly Texts: A Reappraisal,” Journal of Biblical Literature 132, no. 4 (2013).

[9] See Leviticus 21:18-21 and Ezekiel 4-5 for the setting up and disruption of holiness codes.

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