Something to Believe

by Jason Micheli

Length: 23:29

Hebrews 7  (click to see Scripture text)

October 24, 2021

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Dear Elijah, 

Not only is this the same date when I took Ali to our first homecoming dance in high school— a dance at which I nearly got myself arrested, but that’s a story for another time. Not only is today the Sunday before everyone’s favorite holiday, Reformation Day. Five years ago today, Elijah, you were baptized. 

The passive voice may make for bad writing but the passive voice is essential for good theology because it was not your Dad who baptized you, Elijah. I didn’t baptize you. Your Mom, Dad, and I, we were all but bystanders to God clothing you, budding little sinner that you were, in Christ’s own permanent, perfect record. 

God baptized you, Elijah. 

You were baptized by God. 

Five years ago today. 

And concurrent with this dying and rising, I became your Godfather. 

So far as I can tell, as a Godfather I only have two obligations. The first, as we all know, is that I cannot refuse any request on the day of my daughter’s wedding. The second is that your Dad expects me to do what I can to show you that the story into which you have been baptized— without any of us waiting to ask how you felt about it— is not just the greatest story ever told, it’s an endless interesting and life-giving story, better even than Bad Batch or the Clone Wars. 

Even though I’m a contrarian by nature, Elijah, I nevertheless make it a point to do what I am asked to do; therefore, five years ago today I committed to writing to you every year on the anniversary of your baptism. This is the first such anniversary that has coincided with a Sunday. Since you’re a German-American, Elijah, I trust you can appreciate the efficiency of my annual epistle to you doubling as my Sunday morning sermon. As an Italian-American, my only concern is that I do both with style.

Elijah, it’s been another year when a contagion has kept us from seeing each other on anything but FaceTime. When you FaceTimed me at the end of this summer, I was at the pool with Gabriel and Alexander. I was sitting on the deck of the pool and you pointed out the gray hair on my chest, Elijah, which, much like this letter, was a way of reminding me that another year has passed. I responded to your observation by quoting Indiana Jones to Marianne, “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.” 

This year, little man, you carried on your Dad’s tradition of wearing absolutely dreadful red pants on Christmas Eve, and you moved to a new city surrounded by mountains where— you promise me— you’ll take me to see the giant star that overlooks it all. With your new city, Elijah, you’ve discovered a new home, a new church, and a new school. And with your Mom and your Dad, this year you have suffered hope and, together, you have suffered the loss of that hope. Such instances of suffering and dashed dreams, Elijah, are but reminders that when it comes to seeing God at work in the world we’re all a bit like the blind man from Bethsaida in the Gospel of Mark, the scripture text I preached at your parents’s wedding. 

Do you know the story, Elijah? 

Some do-gooders bring a blind guy to Jesus and Jesus takes him by the hand, leads him out of the village, stops, spits in his hands, rubs his hands on the blind guy’s eyes, and asks the blind guy— like he’s a pharmaceutical salesman handing out samples— “Can you see anything?” And Mark reports the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”” Like a kid your age playing ball at recess, Jesus then has to ask for a do-over. Even the best of us, Elijah, are like that blind guy before Jesus gets his do-over. To the degree we can see God’s presence in this world of suffering and harrowed hopes, God often appears hazy, glimpsed only in part— like Luke barely making out the voice Obi Wan from the beyond. For that matter, life often leaves us like the blind man from Bethsaida, feeling spit upon and wondering why God couldn’t get it right the first time. 

That we live in a world where sin and suffering are easy to spot but the work of God is comprehended only in shards and fragments as strange as walking tree people, that we live in such a world— a world, it often appears, without God— is why it’s critically important not just for me to remind you but for all Christians to remind one another of our baptism. And it’s why, Elijah, I do not take it as my task to teach you about God in general. Nor do I think it my role to teach you everything about the Christian faith. I believe my job as your Godfather is to teach you baptismal faith. I’ve got enough mileage on me, Elijah, to have learned that baptismal faith is the only kind of faith that can anchor you amidst the storms of life. 

Just as the blind guy had to grab a hold of Jesus’s hand, faith, as the Large Catechism puts it, “must have something [tangible] to believe, something to which it may cling and upon which it can stand.” This is why Martin Luther insisted that baptism and faith should never be separated. You, Elijah— your faith— must have something external to you to grab on to and cling for life. Otherwise, faith turns inward and you’re left attempting to have faith in your faith. No one’s faith is so strong, and very few of us can delude ourselves for long that our faith is somehow sufficient to save us. Indeed for the first Protestants the phrase by faith alone could just as easily be substituted by baptism alone because it’s on baptismal faith that we stand. 

What is baptismal faith, Elijah?

Baptismal faith is faith in the work of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptismal faith is the conviction that the Gospel is not a once upon a time story about an event that happened in a Galilee far, far away. The Gospel is the happy news that the Living God acts in the here and now to reclaim lost creatures. Baptismal faith is faith that the external event— in your case, October 24, 2016— is the act of the Electing God. Baptismal faith is trust that the time and place of your baptism was not your parents’s doing. Baptismal faith is trust that the time and place of your baptism, even if you’re baptized as an adult, is not your doing.

October. 

2016.

Aldersgate United Methodist Church. 

At the corner of Collingwood and Fort Hunt. 

With Stanley Hauerwas preaching and a ceramic font made by your Aunt. 

Baptismal faith is faith that the time and place of your baptism was God’s will for you. It was God’s will that, then and there, God would implant his word— the word that calls into existence the things that do not exist— in the water and give it to you, Elijah, so that you may grasp the treasure it contains. Then and there, God elected to apply his unmerited grace to you by water and the Spirit. Baptism is a revelation of the will of God. At the font, God acts, as the theologians put it, by “divine necessity.” 

Surely with a preacher for a father, you’ve witnessed other baptisms by now, Elijah. Recall how, during baptism, we call down the Holy Spirit to anoint the water. But, as your Dad can explain to you, the works of the Trinity are undivided; that is, what one member of the Trinity does, they all do because God cannot separated into parts. If baptism is a work of the Holy Spirit, it is also necessarily an act of God the Father, and if the Old Testament is clear about anything it’s that we cannot manipulate God the Father into doing what we want. Therefore, Elijah, no matter what your parents and grandparents may thought they were doing in scheduling your baptism, the ultimate will behind the then and there of your baptism that Sunday five years ago was Almighty God. 

The Word in the water is how God applied predestination to you. 

Baptismal faith is faith that baptism is not the moment when we make a decision for God. Baptismal faith is faith that baptism is the revelation that God has made a decision for you.  

Elijah, your Dad prefers vinyl records, but I like to play music on my Amazon Echo. It’s just easier. By the time you read this, Jeff Bezos is most likely in charge of the Star Fleet Federation, Alexa is probably installed on a microchip in the latest vaccine you’ve received, and the Amazon Echo is as antiquated as a CD player. So if you’re scratching your head wondering what I’m talking about— when you were little the Echo was a device that allowed you to ask Alexa to play music, forecast the weather, or order a Lego Hoth-Tauntaun set (the one with the mini ATAT). In the year 2021, you could also ask Alexa whatever random questions popped into your head. Alexa had a constantly evolving array of answers to almost any question. 

Not long ago, Elijah, I asked her a simple question, “Alexa, does God love me?” 

And the little blue light on top of the device circled round and around. 

“I’m sure you’re very lovable,” she answered, which your parents and one of your grandmothers know is not at all true. 

I tried again, “Alexa, does God love me?” 

Again, the little blue light circled around. 

“How could anyone not love you?” 

“Easily!” I heard Ali mutter underneath her breath.

I asked her again, “Alexa, does God love me?” 

“People all have their own views on religion.”

I tried again, “Alexa, does God love me?” 

Again the little blue light traced the top of the Echo, and Alexa said, “It’s more important that you love yourself.” 

Here’s the thing, Elijah. 

Here’s what I hope you know by now. 

It’s not. 

It’s most definitely not more important that you love yourself. By the time you read this, Elijah, you may have enough mileage on you to have discovered that there are substantial or significant parts of you that are not very lovely and possibly unlovable. This is why it’s more important you know that you— even you— are loved by the love in which “we live and move and have our being.” And this is why it’s important for you to know, Elijah, that baptismal faith is faith that the time and place of your baptism was God’s will for you. 

Because baptism is not your doing, because the will that willed our baptisms is extra nos (outside of us), faith has something better than the liberal pieties Alexa has to offer. Faith has something visible, faith has something tangible, faith has something in the here and now, to take hold of and believe. 

The fifth anniversary of your baptism, Elijah, coincides with the liturgical calendar assigning a reading from the Book of Hebrews. In several places, the preacher of Hebrews proclaims that our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, is “a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” This is a strange claim to be sure. If the preacher’s goal is to establish Jesus’s priestly bona fides, you’d expect the preacher to trace Jesus back to Aaron, the brother of Moses, the very first priest of the Law’s system of sacrifice. But the preacher of Hebrews goes back even further, to the Book of Genesis, just after the flood, to this mysterious figure, Melchizedek, who appears only once and there only briefly. 

Abram is still in the infancy of his election. In a valley, Melchizedek, who is both a king and a priest, goes out to meet Abram. Melchizedek takes with him bread and wine. In the name of the Most High God, Melchizedek blesses the bread and the wine and he gives to Abram the bread and the wine, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High.” There in the valley, with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah behind him, Abram takes the bread and the wine. And he eats the bread and drinks the wine. 

He tastes and he sees the promise of the blessing of the Most High God. 

He grabs hold of it in his hands. 

In the here and now. 

Christ Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek, says the Book of Hebrews. 

How?

Like Melchizedek, Christ comes down and meets us in the valley of the shadow of death and Christ gives us water and wine and bread to which we can cling; like Melchizedek, Christ gives us tangible, edible, visible means which we can grab a hold of and know, in the here and now, that, as Gerhard Forde says, “the God who runs the whole show is for you.” Without these external things, faith has nothing to believe but some incomprehensible promise about the distant future or some ancient history that happened over two thousand years ago. 

Blind men like us require more.  

Faith can only be faith when it has a concrete promise to believe. After all, even the demons and the pagans believe in the history of Jesus. What they do not believe is that this history of Jesus is for them. Faith, then, is not about you believing in God. Faith is not about you believing two thousand years ago Christ died for you. It’s not even about you believing three days later God raised him from the dead for your justification. As Martin Luther preached it, “If I now seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it there…But I will find it in the sacrament or in the Gospel word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me today that forgiveness which was won on the cross.”

TODAY.

Faith is rather an everyday encounter. 

Faith is an ongoing, living, present-tense laying hold of the promise God makes to you in the here and now. Faith is holding out your hands to receive the bread and the wine through which God promises to you today, “The body and blood of Christ given for you.” Don’t you see, Elijah? This is way better than Star Wars. With Star Wars all you have is the story and some Lego action figures, but the Lego action figures are just approximations of the story. They’re just plastic gestures towards the story. With this story, the Gospel story, you’ve got the real deal. You’ve got bread and wine which the Living God uses to pull the story into the present so that he himself can make the promise to you that he loves you to the grave and back. 

Faith is laying hold of a concrete promise. Faith is returning to the water our Great High Priest has given us so that you can forever know,  Elijah, that on this particular day in 2016, God made a decision for you. Without waiting for you to earn it. Without waiting for you to grow up into an adult so you can add something to it. Without requiring any decision on your part. 

Elijah, if you want to ferret out those Christians who are charo-phobic (afraid of grace), simply make the assertion in church some Sunday that baptism saves and see who reacts. Because there is no better exemplification of the one-way love of God and his absolutely unmerited grace than a baby in dirty diapers and with drool on his mouth. Nevertheless, I’ll bet the house as soon as you say, “Baptism saves,” you’ll have church people chiming up about doing our part or making a decision on our end. They won’t seem to notice that, in doing so, they’re taking a chain saw to the very limb on which they stand. 

Faith clings to baptism, Elijah, because the whole point of baptism is that, through it, God saves us from having to depend on our own decisions. 

Grace is not cheap, Elijah. Nor it is it expensive. It’s free. And the freeness of the gift is precisely what destroys the self that so wishes to stay in control. In this way, Elijah, baptism not only saves, it sanctifies. It turns you out of yourself. It breaks the self’s incurable addiction to itself and, by doing so, it reverses the very first sin our parents made in paradise. 

So there’s the good news, Elijah. 

As a Christian, you don’t need to believe a thousand different things about God. You don’t need to believe in a future you scarcely can imagine. You don’t even need to believe in a two thousand year old history. You only need to cling to these concrete things, bread and wine and water. 

Faith, the catechism says, clings to baptism. 

Faith trusts that there the will of Almighty God went ahead and preemptively, offensively, one-sidedly incorporated you into Christ’s death and resurrection and forever clothed you in Christ’s righteousness— clothed you, that is, in an irremovable suit of forgiveness. 

This year, Elijah, you also learned how to ride your bike without training wheels. 

To be clothed in Christ’s righteousness, to be outfitted in an irremovable suit of forgiveness and handed his own permanent, perfect record, not only is God’s grace like riding without any training wheels to slow you down, it’s like riding your bike knowing that no matter how fast or recklessly you ride, no matter how many bumps you go over or how many wheelies you attempt, no matter how often you take it all for granted or how much mileage you put on your tires, you’re never, ever going to crash. 

Love, 

Jason

 

 

This ‘King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him’; 2and to him Abraham apportioned ‘one-tenth of everything’. His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is also king of Salem, that is, ‘king of peace’. 3Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever…Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood—for the people received the law under this priesthood—what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? 12For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. 13Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests…

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. 25Consequently he is able for all time to save* those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27Unlike the other* high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever.

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