You already know your colors and your words have come in a rush since I visited you just over a year ago. By the time you’re able to read this letter for yourself, you hopefully have learned the word “Pentecost.” It’s the Greek word for the Jewish festival called Shavuot. Pentecost comes every year fifty days after Easter. It’s on Pentecost, St. Luke reports, that God the Holy Spirit falls upon the pilgrims in Jerusalem like tongues of fire. For this reason, you may have noticed, every Pentecost churches (the altar guild cosa nostra) adorn their altars with paraments as red as the watermelons on your spring dress.
On Pentecost three years ago God made you a Christian, and your parents made me your godfather. No, you did not have a say in either case. This speaks volumes about the nature of discipleship. On the first Pentecost, Elin, the Holy Spirit overwhelms Peter and, as your Mom might say, the Living Word has its way with him. Peter preaches the first Christian sermon; or rather, the Lord speaks through him. “This Jesus whom you crucified,” Peter announces, “God raised him up, and we have all been made witnesses.” That the Gospel requires witnesses, Elin, is the reason you’ve been stuck with me as your “Bonus Dad,” for, as often you might hear the phrase “cradle to grave Episcopalian,” there are no second generation Christians. Christians are made not born. The Church is sustained not through children but by witness. Your parents made it a part of my own vocation to bear witness to you; so that, you might one day learn how to speak Christian or, even better, live in a way that makes no sense if God has not raised Jesus from the dead.
Many Christians, you may have already noticed, perhaps most Christians, instead live as functional atheists. There’s a reason. It’s hard to be a Christian in Christendom.
God should make you odd.
For example, your baptism commits you to struggling with some odd, inconvenient choices. “Will you serve the Messiah or Mammon?” is one such dilemma. “Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you attempt the posture of servant?” is another question that’s the stuff of the right kind of nightmares. “Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who, let’s say, hunger and thirst for God’s justice?” They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture. Therefore, if the Church is faithful to its promises to you (and consigning you to the cry room balcony augurs a poor beginning) your baptism made you not just a Christian. It’s made you odd.
By the time you read this letter, Elin, you’ll likely be the age when “odd” is about the last thing you’ll want to be. By the time you read this you’ll be an age where what you want most is to conform, blend in, be normal, a desire that afflicts even us grown-ups. I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what we’ve done to you in baptizing you. But, truth be told, you should take your gripes up with your parents too. They were more than just accessories to the crime. Your baptism? They did it without your consent. They did it against your will even. They didn’t wait until you were old enough to “understand,” whatever that may mean. They didn’t postpone your baptism until you could choose it for yourself, and in that your parents may have done the boldest thing they could ever do for you.
Elin, I can guess what you’re thinking: it was just a bowl of H2O. True, but trust me. Your baptism may be the most counter-cultural act your parents ever commit. By baptizing you into the way of the cross BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourself your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you did not have a mind worth making up. Even as I write this letter to you, you still do not have a mind worth making up on your own.
Again, this is the wisdom behind that Pentecost word, “witness.”
None of us have minds worth making up until you’ve had your mind (and your heart and your habits too) shaped by Christ. The God-Man who is both Mary’s boy and Mary’s Maker” Who both died and was before time? This not the sort of thing you can choose for yourself as you would between berries and bananas on the way home from preschool. How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself? After all, what it means to be free, Elin, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus? I realize telling you that you don’t have a mind worth making up on your own sounds offensive. If it sounds like I’m being offensive in order to get your attention it’s because I am. Indeed I have to be offensive. We live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid.
Surely, in Texas you will have noticed how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own “choice.” It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement, “I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.” When engaged couples tell me they’re going to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions.
Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves. But notice how this is, in itself, a Story none of us got to choose, which makes it not just a Story but a fiction.
It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between religion or no religion.
It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between faith or no faith.
It’s a fiction, to believe the choice is either the Christian Story or No Story.
On this day three years ago we baptized you against your will, before you could make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself. We did so because if we do not make you a participant in the story of Christ then another rival Story will soon and surely takes its place over your life.
The Story or More.
The Bible refers to those stories as the gods of Mammon and Mars.
They’re barren deities.
Three years ago today, by immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing, your parents went against the grain of the culture. It was prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that in baptizing you your mother accepted that one day you may have to suffer for her convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font. Maybe you’re wondering, Elin, how in the world the convictions we mediated to you could lead you to suffering. After all, you might be thinking, “Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.”
Context is always key.
When much of the New Testament was written, Christianity was a small, odd community amidst an empire antithetical to it. Christians were a nation within a nation. Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family (just look up the crazy things Jesus said about hating your father and mother). Baptism then was not a religious seal on a life you would’ve lived anyway. It was a radical coming out. It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation of everything that had come before.
To profess “Jesus is Lord” was to simultaneously protest that “Caesar is not Lord.” As I hope you’ll learn in confirmation— or in old episodes of the pod I’ve done with your mom, the words mean the same thing, Caesar and Christ.
They both mean King.
You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other. This is why in the early church and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. By a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits. And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might. Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand. In other words, baptism was your pledge allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.
If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, Elin, there’s a reason for that. A few hundred years after St. Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too. Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian. After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became Christian-ish.
Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed.
It moved inside, to our heads and hearts. What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come. Jesus was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs. Faith became synonymous with beliefs or feelings.
Elin, I apologize for the historical detour, but I do want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with Constantine that makes it possible for us to assume that when scripture speaks of faith it’s intends more than our personal beliefs or private feelings, or that when the Bible mentions “salvation” it merely has life after death in mind. Nothing could be further off the mark because the word for faith in the New Testament is best expressed by our word “loyalty.”
I mentioned Shavuot, Elin, the other name for the day when you were baptized. It’s the holiday when Jews celebrate Yahweh giving the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, St. Paul says that Jesus is the end of the Law, and the word Paul uses for end is telos. Think of a telescope or a telegraph. He means that Jesus is the aim or the goal of all that God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai. All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world. “Eye for an eye?” It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek. The “You shall have no other gods” command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.
When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that “Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.”
He means— and, Elin, trust me; this is everything: the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.
And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Elin, because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus. It’s about following after Jesus. It’s about immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, which by the way is what the word “baptize” means. Immerse.
Elin, what scripture intends by calling Jesus God’s telos is the same claim with which we wet your head: that the truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk, not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor, and certainly not in the fake grain of an AR15’s laminated stock. The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone. If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel.
Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, then that means:
The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.
The way to deal with violence is to suffer.
The way to deal with war is to wage peace.
The way to deal with money is to give it away.
And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.
The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.
And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.
Perhaps now, Elin, you’re beginning to intuit how what we did to you today three years ago— if we follow through on our end— will make you a lot more dysfunctional in our world than you otherwise would have been. It’s no wonder our culture— Christians included— would prefer us simply to “believe.” Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe. The “beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth. And you can be sure and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a cross.
But the way of the cross is the path to which we committed you.
If I’m honest, a part of me feels as though I should say I’m sorry, for if you stay true to that path you’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus (this is how you can know that your fellow Texan, Joel Osteen, is full of shit). On the other hand, I recall enough from middle school Shop Class to know that whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful. Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours more and more beautiful than it could have otherwise been.
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