Sunday, January 23, 2011

To Confirm; to Live

Matthew 7:13-20

The first time I realized childhood was coming to an end was when there was no longer recess at school. Oh, what a sad day! What a cruel joke!! No one had warned us the year before that this time would come! The time for wide-eyed optimism was over, and we were about to be thrust into the "real" work of school. No more gold stars or hugs from the teacher; just "A's", "B's", and so on. We were still children, of course, but something had changed and would never be the same again.

In many cultures around the world, civilized and not-so-civilized, this is about the same stage of development when children make that awkward transition from childhood and take the first concrete steps toward adulthood. There is only one thing which still exists and which existed from the very beginning: we do not stop being members of our families. For good or bad, we are still who we were born to be and we are still identified by the families we were born into whether we are estranged from these families or not. For good or bad, we will always have that foundation from which we must necessarily grow. We began to take our own steps.

And these steps we take would have all the blessings - AND all the trappings - of our past. Even if we can look upon our childhood with regrets and certain bitterness as most of us can, we cannot escape the reality of where we presently are and where we will go from here. And we must also acknowledge the certain reality that at some point the journey stops being about our past but, rather, our future - which is to say, we make our own decisions, enjoy our own rewards, and suffer our own consequences.

Confirmation as a practice in many Christian traditions is typically reserved only for those children who had previously been baptized into the Covenant. Confirmation, in simple terms, is that time when children are supposed to take their first concrete steps toward declaring and living their own faith rather than the faith of their parents. And if the family, both biological and church, has done its job these children will be ready for such a colossal step. It is much like the bar or bat mitzvah of the Jewish tradition. Mitzvah being "commandment" and "bar" or "bat" being "son" or "daughter", the declaration being made is that one becomes a "son or daughter of the commandment" which means: I will be responsible for my actions to my God. In the Jewish tradition, parents are no longer accountable to the Lord for the sins of their children.

Confirmation is not typically associated with the "means of grace" we are more familiar with, and outside the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches it is not considered a "sacrament" of the Church. However, if we understand "sacramental" as "divine encounter", we must understand confirmation as standing before the Lord and making our own declaration of faith and allegiance. At the time of confirmation we become responsible disciples accountable to the Lord for our own lives. What we choose to do from that moment is entirely up to us.

Is it a matter of being "saved", declaring the Lord as our very own "personal" Lord? No, it reaches far beyond and becomes a purposeful, intentional, life-time commitment to discipleship. At confirmation we have not been "saved" FROM anything - rather, we are committing TO something much greater than ourselves. It is at this moment when we come to realize it is no longer about "me" or "personal" salvation. It is when we come to realize this "personal" Lord and Savior is not our very "own" to be kept only to ourselves.

In addition to being responsible for the proclamation of the Gospel, the Church is also charged with the awesome task and responsibility for continued support for these confirmands especially including those who have fallen away from the Church. It is indeed by grace we have been saved, but it is by commitment that we are strengthened each day for the next day's challenges. It is by baptism as a Sacrament of the Church that the Lord claims us; it is by confirmation that we claim the Lord and commit ourselves to His service in the Church and in the world. We can deny it, of course, but we cannot alter the spiritual reality.

But what of those who fall away from the discipline of the Church? There are many so-called "spiritual" Christians who have intentionally moved away because they reject the notion of "organized" religion as necessary to salvation, and they absolutely reject the concept of "discipline" that necessarily comes from the Church. What they fail to realize, however, is that "sanctification" - that is, the intentional pursuit of holiness - is a must, and discipline is a necessary component of the Church, particularly in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition by which we show genuine care and concern for one another and the necessary spiritual journey.

We have deliberately and with the most noble of intentions created a Membership Care Committee here at Asbury because we believe in Confirmation, we believe in accountability, we believe in the necessary discipline of the Church, and most importantly of all, we believe in each other and the strength that comes in numbers. We absolutely believe in this necessary action just as surely as we absolutely know that people who fall away from the Church and her discipline altogether are on a dangerous journey in choosing the "wide and broad way that leads to destruction".

Membership care teams, known as "discipling groups", will be making contact very soon with each and every active member of this church. As these groups expand and become even stronger - and I believe they will - they will be calling on members of this church who have fallen away, and these "fallen" will be lovingly challenged to account for their unfortunate and spiritually dangerous choice to go it alone. These "fallen" members will soon discover that "discipline" and "accountability" are not angry words with negative connotations. They will RE-discover, instead, that these very words were active in the loving care and concern they got from their parents not to punish them but to prepare them, to teach them, to correct them, of course, and to guide them.

There is no greater statement of neglect and lack of concern for one's well-being than to be left alone. Parents who neglect their children are in trouble with the law, and they should be! Should there be any less a punishable offense by the Lord's hands than to neglect members of our own church "family"? How is an unbelieving community to trust any "family" that cannot be trusted to care for its own??

A contact visit from these discipling groups will be "confirmation" that you are loved. An invitation from these discipling groups will be "confirmation" that you are missed. An invitation from these discipling groups will be "confirmation" that you are needed. Above all else, an invitation from these discipling groups will be "confirmation" that you ... are ... loved.

Confirmation as a "means of grace" must not be strictly limited to prepubescent boys and girls as a singular event, merely treated as a one-time-only bridge that must be crossed. Confirmation is, instead, a moment of accountability that will never end - for if it does actually cease to exist as a daily practice in the life of the Church, it will be the final nail in the coffin, the statement of the "confirmation" that the Church as the very Body of Christ no longer exists within us.

Play time is over. It is no longer "someone else's" responsibility to see to the business of discipleship. I believe life itself has been confirmed in so many ways but now that we have become the "good fruit" ourselves, it is time for us to being bearing "good fruit" for the Kingdom of Heaven. The Lord does not ask this of us - He requires it of His Holy Church, He commands it of those who call Him "Lord", and He promises everlasting Life to those who partake.

So let us partake. Amen.

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