Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year A] - May 18, 2014 (Acts 7:55-60 and 1 Peter 2:2-10)

Today is Confirmation Sunday. For those of you who may be new to our Lutheran tradition, this is the day where our high school youth stand before the congregation and make public profession of their faith. For those of you who have been Lutheran since before you can remember…this is the day where our high school youth stand before the congregation and make public profession of their faith. It is not a graduation “into” adulthood in the church, although we Lutherans can often slip into that way of thinking. The technical term for confirmation is “affirmation of baptism,” because everything they and we say and do today is actually a response to the promises God made to them in their baptism—the promise to love you without reserve, the promise to forgive you of your sin through the mercy of Jesus Christ, the promise to be there for you at all times, even after you die.

Confirmands, when you were baptized, your parents and godparents made promises to raise them with the knowledge that God had said these things to you. And so now, today, we arrive at that point where you will stand before the congregation and say publicly, “These promises are for me.” Almost everything your parents and your congregation have done in fulfilling their end of the baptism promises was, in a sense, to get you ready for this moment when you will say “these are my people.” As Peter’s letter puts it this morning, today, in this moment, you’re agreeing with the belief that “once you were not a people, but now—through union with Christ in your baptism—you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” You’re agreeing to the belief that God’s grace has claimed you out of no merit of your own and set you free to serve him. That makes it a public profession of faith.

Is this the first time you’ve somehow publicly professed your faith in God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? I doubt it. In fact, in some way, shape or form we’ve watched you do it before, even though you may not have realized that’s what you were doing or that people were watching you while you did it. This may have been at a youth group event or in Sunday School or before a football game or when you’re just hanging with your friends. To be quite honest, every time we face this font or this cross on a Sunday morning and confess our sins or say a Creed out loud we are making some kind of public profession of faith.

Will today be the last time you’ll make public profession of your faith? Well, we certainly hope it isn’t. While it’s good to choose this day and make a big deal out of it, while it’s helpful to have a day when you’ll put on the white robe and the red boutonniere and stand in front of us and say, “I am one of this royal priesthood”—let’s get real for a minute—the real public professions of faith will come when you leave this place. When Monday comes, are people going to know where you’ve placed your trust and hope? The mercy you’ve been shown by this God—will you somehow show it to others? This unconditional love you’ve experienced from this God—will you practice it with others? Those are the public professions of faith that God empowers us all to make.

However, we need to be very careful here. As good as it is to stand up and say from time to time, “These are my people and this is my God,” none of this is never supposed to be about us. Our faith—no matter how strong or weak it is—is never the most important thing about this moment…or about any moment, for that matter. The key point of any profession of faith is not our bravery or what we’re doing but about what God is doing in the world. We can lift up the promises we make as we respond to God’s love and mercy, but our identity, our purpose, is always based in the promises God makes to us.

We see an extreme but prime example of how a public profession of faith gives glory to God and not to the person professing it this in our first lesson this morning. It’s one of Scripture’s most chilling and most daring witnesses to Christ. You can think of it as Stephen’s confirmation, that moment in his life when his witness to the love of God was more brilliant and bold than any other. To give you some background, Stephen was one of the church’s first deacons. (Incidentally, “deacon” is essentially another word for “diaconal minister,” which is our Christy Huffman’s official job title). Back in the old, old days of the church, a deacon was a special servant who brought food to and tended to the needs of those the church was serving, maybe a little like our LAMBs Basket and HHOPE volunteers. The Christian faith had grown to the point that they decided they needed to have some people set aside to do those specific tasks, lest it get too confusing. Stephen, however, was also very gifted in preaching the Word, and people started to listen to him so much that people who didn’t trust Jesus’ followers thought it would be better if he were silenced. Even though Stephen and the others preached and embodied God’s love for all people, they felt threatened by them because it would upset their hold on power. They brought him before a council and basically asked him to recant his faith.

"The Stoning of Saint Stephen" Rembrandt (1625)
Instead, Stephen put on a white robe and a red carnation boutonniere and recited the Apostles’ Creed.  Actually, he didn’t quite do that, but he stood up and recited a very eloquent description of his faith. At the end of it, his opponents get so angry that they stone him to death. Stephen becomes the first martyr of the Christian faith. His confirmation is his point of death. In dying, he points to the power of the God who claimed him and loved him and set him aside as deacon. Notice how even as he dies, as the stones fly in at his breaking body, he chooses to let God’s promises, rather than his own bravery, shine through. It is still about God and not about Stephen. “Lord,” he says, “do not hold this sin against them.” Right up to the end he chooses to emphasize God’s mercy, not his own courage.

The account of Stephen is profound enough right there, but what makes it even more profound is that we’re told one of the people there at Stephen’s stoning was a man named Saul. Saul hates the followers of Jesus and even approves of Stephen’s killing, but later, even after Stephen’s profession of faith, goes on to realize that he, too, is claimed by God in Christ and empowered to be a witness. Paul goes on to be one of the church’s greatest leaders and witnesses.

No one here hopes that you ever end up having the type of public profession of faith that Stephen does. No one here prays that you will have to undergo a painful, public death on account of your faith in God’s promises. However, we do hope that the Lord will lead you into situations where you can testify to his glory, where you will be able to say with actions and sometimes even with your words that you were once no person but now you are one of God’s people…that once you had no mercy, but in Christ you have all the mercy you’ll ever need. We pray that you will be strengthened in your faith in such a way that others—maybe even other Sauls—will not primarily see you but through you that God is a forgiving, loving God and will want to know more about this Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.

The book One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of a little town named Macondo that sits somewhere in the remote swamps of Colombia, South America. At the beginning of the novel this isolated little town is an idyllic kind of place where everyone basically gets along. At one point, however, a strange insomnia plague sweeps through the town. For weeks on end, no one can sleep.  At first, the people of Macondo are kind of happy with it, because there was so much work that needed to get done and people were happy to do the work. They sit around and tell stories when they’re done with that.

However, after a while, they begin to realize that the lack of sleep was causing their memory to fade. Their brains are getting so fatigued—even though they really can’t feel it—that they are starting to forget things. Pretty soon, they realize they are starting to forget even the most basic things, like how to feed their livestock and how to repair things that got broken. The memory problem gets kind of dire and at some point one town resident realizes that unless they get over the insomnia disease, they are all going to forget even the most basic things they need to survive. They get worried, and so to help them live, to help them make sense of their surroundings as their memories deteriorate, they write down labels for everything. They also put up two signs put signs up in the town: “At the beginning of the road into the swamp they put up a sign that said MACONDO and another larger on one on the main street that said, GOD EXISTS.”[1]

Their memory was disappearing, their energy was waning, but the things they wanted to know and remember most—the things they thought would help them survive—were their location and that God did exist. It wouldn’t be always be obvious and discernable from looking around at the world that God exists, so they knew they’d need a reminder. And it’s true: when the stones of violence and general meanness are raining down, it’s hard to intuit that there is, in fact, a God.

So, while we don’t pray that you may face a stoning over your profession of faith, our prayer is that you will be one of those signs. We pray that with your life you will become one of those simple and profound sings that stands in the midst of the world…a world that works and plays so hard most of the time that it loses sight of its identity and that there is even a Creator of it. This world has some kind of insomnia, but we have come to remember that, in fact, there is one…and this God does not merely exist but also loves us and, in spite of our forgetfulness, makes us his people. In your actions and even your words, may you be given hundreds of opportunities to be another sign that proclaims not yourself, and not the purity of your own faith, but rather the God who gives us Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. P47

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