Your mother and father called me today, New Year’s Day, to inform Ali and me that we were “called” to be your godparents. Thanks to his seminary degree, your Dad, like me, is savvy and manipulative enough to throw that word ‘call’ around to get what he wants. The rub is whether in time I’ll be found to be someone you want in your life.
Your parents waited nearly three months after your baptism to bestow this vocation upon me. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that proves to have been an auspicious delay or an ominous one- or, more likely, just lazy parenting.
Elijah, I didn’t ask or expect such a burden to be laid on me nor, truthfully, am I in any way convinced I’m fit to serve as your godfather. I’m not very virtuous or saintly. I don’t practice what I preach; it’s easier to preach. I’m terrible at remembering dates and occasions; I never send cards. I can do spot-on Brando impressions (look him up), but often I’m still so surprised to discover I’m a Christian that I doubt I’m a good candidate for the sleeves-rolled-up spiritual sage role.
Despite my misgivings and shortcomings, I wonder if your parents conscripting me into being your godfather is exactly right. After all, if I live up to this role then you will understand what I mean when I say that to be a Christian is to be thrust, by your baptism, into a life and into relationships you would never choose for yourself apart from Jesus Christ. If such a lack of choice is a mark of a baptized Christian, then perhaps there is no more appropriate way to become a godparent than to be called on New Year’s Day and be told- not asked- who you are now. A godparent.
And if you believe, as I’ll make damn sure you do, that Christians are a family created not through biology but through baptism then my status as your godfather rates me neck and neck with your aunts and grandmas.
Of course, Elijah, you had even less say in this relationship than me. All you can do right now is splurt, feed, poo, and yank (with something approaching delight) on my goatee. You didn’t choose me. But again, if I live up to my role as your godfather then one day you’ll understand that your parents’ disregard for your opinion and choice in this matter- a matter that less courageous parents would term “personal” or “private”- is constitutive of their faith and what it means to belong to that motley People called Church. St. Paul says in one of his letters that to belong to such a People is like being a part of the human body. No body part, Paul writes, can say to another body part “I have no need of you.” In other words, Paul implies, to belong to the People called Church is to wish you could say to another “I have no need of you” but, because Jesus is Lord, you can’t. You’re stuck with the bastards.
Well, Elijah, thanks to your parents and your baptism, you’re stuck with a bastard like me. I’ve no doubt there will be times when you would like to tell me that you have no need of me in your life, but in the meantime I may as well try to make myself of use. I wonder, have your parents told you whence comes your name?
Here it is, 1 Kings 18:
“Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’”
That’s how Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, makes his entrance in scripture, talking to a king about rain. It’s actually a pretty awesome story: Elijah and the prophets of Baal, or as I learned to say in Hebrew class, Ba-al, Elijah and the prophets of Ba-al.
Elijah doesn’t really hang around all that long in the Old Testament, but the stories of Elijah are go-to’s for a certain kind of preacher. And no story more than this one, this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. One famous preacher, long ago, ended his sermon with the words, “If God be god, follow him, if Baal be god, then follow him, and go to hell.”
Preaching on Elijah, Elijah, always seems to zero in on the people’s fire-side, altar-side confession: ‘The Lord is indeed God; the Lord is indeed God.’ But the story doesn’t end there. The story doesn’t end when the Lord answers with fire. The story goes on. Elijah says to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of rushing rain.” And from the top of Mt Carmel, Elijah looks out toward the sea. A little cloud was rising. “You better go before the rain stops you” Elijah tells Ahab.
In a little while the heavens grow black with clouds and wind; there is a heavy rain.
Elijah, who had said to Ahab “there will be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”, three years later Elijah says to Ahab, “you better move along before the rain comes.”
And then there is a heavy rain.
That’s where the story ends, Elijah. The first story about Elijah in the bible: Elijah and the prophets of Baal. It’s a long story, Elijah, but for all the fire imagery it comes down to rain. Who will bring the rain? It’s a your god or my god, kind of thing. It doesn’t get any more basic than rain. It’s a first commandment, tablet smashing, golden calf confrontation.
The story poses a choice: which god is life giving, which god gives life?
Two, three years in on the famine, no rain…..which god is it going to be?
The rain- it’s a metaphor for what, for which, for who shall sustain and nourish life.
“How long will you go limping with two different opinions about the God who gives you life, who sustains your life, who nourishes your life, who promises you life, today, tomorrow, everyday?” Elijah, your namesake asks.
Elijah’s question- as elemental as it appears- it’s not a simple question. It’s not at all simple. And no way is it easy, Elijah.
The encounter, the confrontation, the choice- every day- between this God and every other god, between this God and every other temptation and every other distraction, every other value.
Elijah’s question- the choice- it’s so basic that you have to answer it everyday.
Everyday you have to choose.
Every day, every day, every one of us makes a choice about which god is life.
Which god is it going to be today?
‘Will you serve God or Money?’
‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’
‘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 hunger and thirst for God’s justice?’
They’re inconvenient choices. And no less for you, Elijah, than in Elijah’s day because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.
Therefore, your baptism- if done rightly- makes you not just a Christian. It makes you odd.
By the time you can read this letter, Elijah, you’ll 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 from which we never recover.
I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what I’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? Like choosing me as your godfather, 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. 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 don’t have a mind worth making up.
You don’t have a mind worth making up that is, not until you’ve had your mind (and your heart and your habits too) shaped by Christ. How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself? After all, what it means to be free, 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?
Elijah, I realize telling you 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.
Notice 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.’
Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves. Which, in itself, is a Story none of us got to choose. Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.
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.
We’ve baptized you and your parents have chosen me as your godfather before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself.
We have- they have- done 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 of More. Or Might.
By immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing and by giving you a storyteller like me against your will your parents go against the grain of the culture.
It’s a prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that your parents clearly accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.
You might be wondering, Elijah, how in the world a little thing like baptism could lead to you suffering because of the convictions we mediate to you. After all, you might be thinking, ‘Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.’
No. You should know as my godson that for the first Christians 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.
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. For to profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’
As you’ll learn in confirmation, Elijah, the words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord. You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other. Which is why when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And 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, Elijah, there’s a reason. A few hundred years after 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. Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’
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 faith refers to personal beliefs or private feelings or that ‘salvation’ means life after death. Nothing could be further off the mark.
The word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’ Allegiance.
Being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Elijah, 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.
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 and not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor. 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, Elijah you’re beginning to intuit how what your parents have done by baptizing you and by calling me to be your godfather will make you two 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 safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross. But the way of the Cross is the path to which your parents commit you and commit me to 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. On the other hand, Elijah, as much as anything what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe is trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.
And with that promise in mind I leave you with the choice proffered by your name: Which god is life-giving?
You have to choose, Elijah.