One of the effects of bisecting Christians into clergy and laity is to read Scripture originally directed to all believers as though it were directed to a favored few - the clergy - while lay people were given the left-overs.

Our clergy/laity divide not only flies in the face of biblical theology, but also contradicts the reform of Judaism the historical Jesus initiated and for which He gave His life.

We know His mind on the subject from many Gospel passages. Sunday's Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount provides just one example (Mt 5: 13-16). Coming immediately after Jesus' proclamation of the Beatitudes, it demonstrates the esteem in which He held His disciples: "You are the salt of the earth,...the light of the word."

Like Israel

In regarding all God's followers so highly, Jesus is walking in the footsteps of the ancient Jewish prophets. In the first reading, Isaiah says almost the same thing about those who mirror Yahweh's concern for others in their everyday lives (Is 58: 7-10). "Share your bread with the hungry," God commands, "shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn;...then light shall rise for you in darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday." Those who care for their neighbors are a ray of light in a dark world.

Paul provides us with the irony of the concept (I Cor 2: 1-5). Reflecting on the light-bringing effect of his own ministry in Corinth, he informs his readers he had only one thing to offer: "Jesus, and Him crucified."

"I came to you in weakness and fear, and much trembling," he writes. "My message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."

The results Paul achieved didn't depend on years of seminary training or degrees in Scripture and theology. They came only because he was willing to give himself over to Jesus' to experience in his ministry the same dying and rising Jesus experienced. He tells his community that they can be a light for others, but they must first give themselves over to "the mystery of God:" discovering the strength that flows from their weakness.

Salt and light

Returning to the Gospel, we see Jesus' greatest fear was that His followers would either lose their saltiness or hide their light. They would no longer be what they are for others.

"If salt loses its taste," He asks, "with what can it be seasoned?" Likewise, "No one lights a lamp, then puts it under a basket." Salt makes everything taste better. The light "must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father." Christians have an obligation to be perceptibly different.

A clerical/lay structure in any Christian church makes it almost impossible to achieve Jesus' dream. It drains the salt and dims the light. In the last 1,600 years, we've been so overwhelmed with the exploits of our "professional" religious leaders that the laity have come to regard themselves as lower-level Christians. In recent centuries, they've not been permitted a role in choosing any of those administrative leaders, not even their local pastors.

In another part of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks about the gifts each person brings to the Body of Christ. Jesus and His first followers envisioned a community in which no one is inferior to anyone else. Everyone is gifted by the Spirit for the community's good.

Though human nature makes it difficult to create such an entity, we should never build or support a Church structure that makes this vision impossible to carry out. A clergy/lay Church might function well; but unless everyone is salt and light, the good of the whole community will never be achieved.

(2/3/05)