I could tell that he had been badly injured in the accident. I'm no medical expert, but I could tell by the pallor of his skin that he was near death. The attending nurse said, "I think we ought to send for a priest." I stepped forward and said, "Can I be of help? I'm a pastor." The nurse looked me over and said, "I think we ought to send for a priest." But I am a priest, I thought. Even though I am a Protestant and a pastor and a Methodist, I am a priest: someone called by God in the church to intercede for God's people, to represent their lives before the throne of grace. I am a priest, in the words of Deuteronomy: someone who ministers in the name of the Lord.
No wonder we expect our pastors to be holy. It is an awesome task to stand in the pulpit and preach God's Word to people; to preside at the altar; to break the holy bread; to sit by someone's bed in time of need and hear her prayers. It's an awesome responsibility.
We expect a priest to be perfect.
In the Old Testament, the high priest of Israel was special. He wore a golden breastplate on which was inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. When he went into the dark, inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies, it was as if he brought the whole nation with him to atone for their sin. The priest wore a gorgeous turban on which sat a crown of pure gold. Inscribed on the crown were the words, "Holy to Yahweh."
The high priest had to be free of all physical defect and deformity. He had to be a member of the tribe of Levi. In other words, priests were born, not made. Yet he was held to a rigorous standard of holiness. A priest who committed adultery was killed on the spot. In order to enter the Holy of Holies on the day of Yom Kippur to atone for the sins ...
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William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).