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Joining the church in the third century was quite an ordeal. There were three stages. The first stage of coming to faith involved an examination of the circumstances under which the person came to faith; it included the testimony of sponsors, and the convert’s promise to live as a believer. The second stage involved a full three years of training in catechism. And the third stage, beginning with another examination to determine whether the candidate had lived piously and done good works, took the form of a full week of daily services and prayers,
fasting on the final Friday and Saturday, and an all-night vigil of prayer and Scripture reading leading to baptism at Easter dawn.
Calvary’s confirmation and new members classes might feel like their process is just as strenuous, but it certainly isn’t quite as long. Our confirmands have worked hard and under very unusual circumstances this year. And while it did not involve a three-year process or any requirements for fasting or staying up all night in an Easter vigil, we did Zoom an awful lot which might be almost as tiring as a church all-nighter.
Our scripture lessons this morning, show us a glimpse of what the early church was like, even before the third century.
The Gospel lesson from John tells the story of a frightened band of Jesus-followers who have been hiding away in an upper room since his crucifixion. When Jesus first appears to them, the disciple Thomas is not present. Maybe he was the bravest of the disciples and went out to get food for them or to scout out how dangerous it might still be for them in Jerusalem.
Regardless of why, Thomas missed out on seeing Jesus. And when he hears that Jesus showed up, in person to all the other disciples, he can’t believe it and wants proof. And what does Jesus do? Jesus shows up and gives him proof. He lets Thomas not only see but feel and touch for himself this crucified and risen Jesus. The church has always been, from the very beginning, a place for doubters to come and see and experience the risen Lord.
Not surprisingly, our confirmands this year have some doubts as they join the church. In our exit interview, one asked, “How little can I believe and still be considered a Christian?” What an honest question! How many of us have grappled with that very same concern? But faith cannot be quantified. And doubts are not only allowed; they are welcomed in the family of God. For how can we grow if we don’t allow ourselves to question? And how can our relationship with God and with one another be authentic if we are not honest about our wavering faith? The church, therefore, is the church of the doubtful, for doubters like Thomas and doubters like you and me.
Welcome, confirmands, to a safe and brave space for you and your faith and your doubts. In the Book of Acts, which is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, we learn about the ways of the early church. Not only were they united in heart and soul, they shared everything, all of their possessions. These verses are so radical to our American capitalist ears, so I want to read them aloud again for us to truly hear what it says.
From Acts chapter 4:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Can you imagine such a community where no one owns anything and not a single person has any need because everyone else is helping provide for them?
It’s almost unfathomable, and maybe this was more the ideal than the actual reality
because we know that in Paul’s letters to the churches, disparity between the rich and the poor continued to be something these communities grappled with. They wondered, “How can we be united as one; how can we love one another as Christ loves us, if some have a lot and others don’t have enough?” For many who had a lot the answer was to choose to be dispossessed, to give up what they had for the good of others. The church today does not quite resemble that early church, in a whole number of ways. But the church of Jesus Christ began as the church of the dispossessed, of those who owned nothing because they gave it to others and to one another to ensure everyone would have enough.
Welcome, confirmands, to a generous and compassionate space where we continue to work for justice, so that all may have enough to live abundantly. The Greek word for church is ekklēsia. This is a compound word made up of the preposition “ek“, meaning “out of”, and a verb, “kaleo“, meaning “to call.” So the Greek word for “church” quite literally means, “to be called out.” The church, therefore, is the church of those who have been called out by God to be the Body of Christ in the world. As we have all learned this year of Pandemic Living, the church is not a building. We are the church; not just the gathered, but the scattered. We are those who go out, go forth, and we are the ones whom God has called.
Welcome, confirmands, to the church of the called. Christ calls each of you by name
and sends you out to share God’s love with the world. Kathy Dawson in her book Confessing Faith: A Guide to Confirmation for Presbyterians writes
that Confirmation is not a sacrament in and of itself, or simply a right of passage, or simply becoming a church member. She defines confirmation as (a) the reaffirmation of baptism (b) by a covenant commitment (c) through a public profession of faith. As such, Confirmation is [A Reaffirmation of Baptism] a time to revisit the vows made on our behalf at our baptism. The Holy Spirit has already sealed and claimed the child
as a member of the Christian church at their baptism. And confirmation is an opportunity to respond to that freely-given grace.
Confirmation is also an Act of Covenant Commitment: meaning we do not make this commitment in isolation, but we covenant in partnership with God and the Church. Finally, Confirmation is when we Profess our Faith Publicly, so it is an opportunity for students to voice in their own words what they believe, as well as an opportunity for students to voice their own commitment to the promises made at their baptism. The church of Jesus Christ has always included those who are committed, those who have been marked by water and professed their faith in both word and deed.
Our confirmands, at the session meeting on Tuesday, April 6th did just that. Their Statements of Faith were honest, moving, real. Their commitments were to continue growing and learning in faith, to build community and to be community, to live in the tension of their doubts and their faith, to not give up on long-held family traditions and to explore what they might mean for them personally and for the world.
So, welcome, confirmands, to the Church of the Dispossessed, the Doubtful, the Called, and the Confirmed. You are not just future of the church; you are the church today. We’re so glad you’re here,
and we commit to walking with you in our journey of faith.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
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