Here’s my sermon from Sunday occasioned by the baptisms of Tyler and Parker.
The texts for the sermon were Romans 10.1-10 and Psalm 19.
You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.
Dear Tyler and Parker,
In the event the bishop has whisked me away to another parish or, more likely, exiled me to the Eastern Shore, allow me to introduce myself.
I’m the right reverend Jason, as in I’m right in most things and reverent about very few. I’m the one who baptized you.
By now, confirmation age, you’re old enough to realize that what I’ve done to you commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices.
‘Will you serve God or Money?’ is one such dilemma.
‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’ is another.
‘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?’ is still another choice.
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, your baptisms- if done rightly- make you not just a Christian.
They make you odd.
By the time you read this letter, Tyler and Parker, 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? 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.
I can guess what you’re thinking: it was just a bowl of H2O. In a school cafetorium at that.
True, but trust me: your baptisms may be the most counter-cultural acts your government employee parents ever commit.
By baptizing you into the way of the Cross- BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourselves, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have minds worth making up.
You don’t have minds worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your minds (and your hearts 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?
I realize telling you you don’t have minds 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.’
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.
Which, in itself, is 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.
Today we baptize you against your will, before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself. We do 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.
Today by immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing 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 in baptizing you your parents accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.
Tyler and Parker-
You’re just confirmation age, still only padawans, so you might be wondering how in the world what we do to you today 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.’
Isn’t that what Paul means when he gives what sounds to us like a more eloquent version of the Sinner’s Prayer in Romans 10? Isn’t Paul saying that faith is what we believe (personally and privately) in our hearts?
Actually, Paul doesn’t mean anything like that, but for you to see that requires you to know Paul’s context.
When Paul wrote Romans, around the year 55, 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 Tyler and Parker, 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 in Paul’s day and for centuries after 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, Tyler and Parker, there’s a reason for that.
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.’
Tyler and Parker-
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 read Romans 10 and assume that when Paul writes about faith he’s talking about our personal beliefs or private feelings or that when mentions ‘salvation’ he has life after death in mind.
Nothing could be further off the mark.
Because for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’
To discover just how complicated being loyal to Christ can get, you need look no further than verse 4 of that same passage, where Paul says that Christ is the telos- the end or the aim or the goal- of the Law.
Of course, by Law Paul means Torah.
By Torah Paul means Scripture.
By Scripture Paul means Revelation.
And by Revelation Paul means….Everything.
Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People all of it telegraphs the way of Christ.
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.’
Parker, the way your wood-working Father might translate that would be to say:
The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.
And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Tyler and Parker, 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.
What Paul intends by calling Jesus God’s Telos is the same claim with which we wet your heads:
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 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, Tyler and Parker, you’re beginning to intuit how what we do to you today- if we follow through on our end- 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 we commit you to today.
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, Parker, your Dad’s a pretty good carpenter. He can tell you 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 beautiful.