I often find myself jumping off the lectionary for several of the October-November Sundays that wrap up the church year. On the last Sunday in October, I like to at least reflect on Reformation Day, which offers its own readings. This year, however, I’ve been following the lectionary’s journey through Hebrews and Mark, challenging as those texts can be. What are the connections between these readings and the Protestant emphasis on the primacy of personal faith over required deeds or institutional power? Whose work is Jesus doing, what are we believing in, and what does that faith mean?

Depending on whom you ask, the most important aspect of the Reformation was that it did away with the sacramental priesthood. So the language of Hebrews fits when it praises Jesus as a priest unlike any others, because his sacrifice was offered once and for all, whereas human priests (who aren’t also divine, that is) can never offer the perfect sacrifice. In Mark, according to this reading, Bartimaeus can come off as a proto-Luther, standing up to a crowd of people who wanted to prevent him from having direct access to Jesus. It’s all about the freedom to call on God by ourselves, without anyone or any institution getting in the way of our direct access to the Holy. No hierarchy! No priests!

The only trouble is, we seem to be wired for limiting our access to God. It hardly took a generation after Luther for Protestant ministry to become a professional class and ecclesiastical status all its own. We pretend we’re just setting up functional designations for roles to be performed in the church, but really we’re acting as if clergy can do things “normal people” can’t. You can translate this conversation in terms of church buildings, Bible translations, or favorite hymns; we tend to assume that only certain people, behaviors, or knowledge can get us to God. If we assume that we got rid of the priesthood because we stopped requiring celibate men wearing funny shirts to lead our worship, we misunderstand what that priesthood means.

That’s why nobody preaches on Hebrews anymore: it depends on a clear understanding of how priestly intercession works, and we don’t have that understanding anymore. Hebrews did its job, as did Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Azusa Street, and Vatican II. We know automatically that we don’t need anybody else’s help to get to God, thank you very much, and even the idea of needing an intermediary seems foreign. We can just call out to Jesus like Bartimaeus did, and that’s that. Which is true, but it’s true precisely because Jesus is the perfect intercessor. He’s the perfect bridge between God’s reality and human reality. Our access to God isn’t quite unconditional in the way we tend to think; instead, according to Hebrews, it’s mediated by the person of Christ, the perfected human Son of God, who speaks for us in God’s reality.

What difference does this make? Well, it reflects more clearly what’s going on in the story of Bartimaeus, for one thing. Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, calling out for Jesus to show him mercy as Jesus passes by. Bartimaeus does not, you’ll notice, run up and accost Jesus. Instead, he waits – has to wait, because of the crowd – for Jesus to call him. Ultimately, we all waited for Jesus to call us. We all waited for God’s presence to take on human form in the world. The Christian story is not a story of a human takeover of divine reality or even a popular takeover of elite religious institutions. It’s the story of God coming into the human world and changing it from within. The initiative was never with Bartimaeus, because God had already played the first card by coming into the world.

Can I talk about faith like this, like we’re talking about an objective reality? One side effect of the emphasis on “personal faith” is that it often feels like we’re talking about whatever a person happens to believe, like there’s no Truth there. I’m committed enough to expansive understandings and interreligious dialogue that I can tend to water down the actual stuff I happen to believe. Hebrews, not surprisingly, would tend to disagree. The cosmic language presents a Christ who has made a real, absolute difference in the relationship between this visible world and God’s invisible one. Whatever ability we may have to understand this invisible world, the basic relationship between human souls and God’s love is not conditional. It simply is.

Rob Bell has written that he believes in Christianity because he is convinced that it’s more true than anything else he’s come across. I can’t speak for what he means by “true,” but here’s what I’d like to mean by it: this story tells the truth of the human experience. There is in fact something out there, or perhaps something within, that radically transcends our capacity to understand, achieve, or even grasp at. Rather, that something comes to us and becomes a part of the reality we experience, in terms of healing, forgiveness, and deep peace. That’s not something we have to dream into being, it’s what already is.

So where’s the faith? I see it in Bartimaeus’ request “to see again” (Mark 10:51). The word ἀναβλέψω means ‘to recover sight,’ but it could literally read ‘to look up’ or ‘to look again.’ Teacher, I want to look again. I want to see this world differently. I want my eyes to be transformed by the reality you bring into this world. “And at once he [looked again] and followed Jesus on the road.” Jesus witnesses to a truth that, real as it is, can only be seen when we’re moving into it. Or rather, when we’re allowing it to move into us. It never quite makes sense, and it’s never something we can accomplish, but then it’s never something we have to make happen, because Jesus already made it real in this world. Everything we do – prayers, hymns, fellowship, spiritual practices, study – are all ways of opening our eyes, looking again, and perhaps catching a glimpse of the way things really are in Christ.

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