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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Reformation - October 29, 2006

Today is Confirmation Sunday.  Today Jake and Katie and Sara and Matt will affirm their baptisms as they make public profession of their faith.  Today is also Reformation Sunday.  This is the day we celebrate the work of Martin Luther as he struggled against doctrines and practices that he  thought were corrupting the church.  Did you know though, that one of the things Luther struggled against was confirmation?  It’s true.  In fact, in his lifetime he eliminated the rite altogether from his churches.

Before anyone gets too excited though, hear me out.  What Luther struggled against was the way that confirmation was understood in his time.  Originally, the part of a baptism where the person is anointed with oil was called confirmation as the power of the Holy Spirit was called upon; but it was all done at the same time.  As things developed in the western church, the Catholic church,  priests were authorized to do the baptism with water, but only a bishop could do the confirmation, the anointing with oil, so a time lag developed because it might take years before a bishop could get to some of the more remote areas.  So confirmation became separated from baptism, a separate rite, a separate sacrament in fact, and it was seen as being necessary for salvation.  Baptism was understood to be somehow incomplete until this confirmation could take place. 

That’s what Luther had trouble with.  He wanted to avoid the idea of confirmation as a separate sacrament that added something to baptism.  His understanding was like that of the early church, that the pastor or priest could do the baptism in full, including the laying on of hands and anointing with oil so that at that point the baptism was complete.  Additional confirmation was unnecessary so Luther eliminated the rite from his churches hoping to make clearer his understanding of things.

Even in his lifetime though,  a rite of confirmation returned, and Luther was OK with that as long as it was mostly connected to instruction in the faith and was not viewed as a sacrament and that it was not viewed as necessary for salvation.  This conflicted early history though, contributes to a degree of confusion that has always existed about what confirmation is and what it isn’t and perhaps what it should be.

First, a couple of things that it’s not.  As far as Lutherans are concerned, confirmation is still not a sacrament.  I personally don’t place a value judgment on that and say that we’re right and those who understand it as a sacrament are wrong because actually, I can see some benefit in viewing things like confirmation and marriage as sacraments, but that’s another issue for another time.  In our practice and understanding of baptism though, we continue to follow Luther’s thinking.  The pastor does the whole thing, water, laying on of hand and anointing, and confirmation, whenever it’s done, doesn’t add anything to it.  If a young person or an adult is not confirmed, it doesn’t change their status as a member of the church which might come as a surprise to some of you.  You can be a perfectly acceptable member of the church without ever having been confirmed.

Another thing that confirmation is not is graduation from church.  We joke about it.  Churches like this one have moved confirmation to Reformation Day in part as an effort to move it away from the time of spring graduations.  The trouble is, the way confirmation is structured with classes and requirements to fulfill, usually some kind of test followed by a ceremony with young people standing up in gowns to be recognized for having jumped through the appropriate hoops…well, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you’d better at least consider the possibility that you might be dealing with a duck (or a graduation).

What confirmation is, as presently formulated is Affirmation of Baptism.  While we still tend to call it confirmation, affirmation of baptism is what it was called when the green hymnal came out and that’s what it’s called in the new one as well.  The idea is that following a period of instruction in the Bible and the catechism, students have the opportunity to affirm, to say yes to what their parents and sponsors said yes to at the time of their baptism. 

This yes is said in two ways.  First it is said in the form of the Apostles’ Creed, the ancient baptismal creed of the church.  What’s different is that the creed is taught in less of a “believe it or else” fashion.  What I understand the yes of the creed to be is more like the yes of the disciples and the yes of people like blind Bartimaeus in today’s gospel.  They are people who followed Jesus even though they didn’t always understand everything.  In the Bartimaeus story it ends by saying, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” 

He followed him on the way. Bartimaeus couldn’t have understood what that following meant, but he had received sight from Jesus and for starters, that was enough.  I don’t expect that after seven or eight years of Sunday School and three years of confirmation instruction that young people understand everything about Jesus and their faith in him.  But they say yes to following, accepting the Trinitarian God described in the creed and accepting the tradition of the church as the boundaries within which they will continue to follow on the way. 

All along though, I have accepted and respected their questions just as I accept and respect any of your questions because I think that the tension created by questions is an important part of following.  Asking questions in the context of following within the boundaries of an accepted tradition creates growth points where faith can really become meaningful rather than just memorized.  Both parts are important though; asking questions without the safe boundaries of the tradition tends to lead to futility and despair.  Accepting the tradition without questions leads to a rather static, rote faith, which does work for some, but I think faith in Jesus offers much more.

The confession of faith in the words of the creed is the first part of the yes of confirmation.  The second part of the yes is a yes to living out one’s baptism, a yes to living among God’s people, hearing his word, sharing in Holy Communion, proclaiming the good news, serving others, striving for justice and peace.

This part of the yes brings us around to what I think baptism ought to be and therefore what confirmation ought to be.  Part of what baptism is is initiation into the alternative reality of Jesus.  For a long time, the church, including the Lutheran church has tried to convince itself that the gospel  reality isn’t so alternative.  Throughout history efforts have been made to fit the gospel hand in glove into prevailing societal values.  Luther, the great reformer himself, did this when he played ball with princes and other royalty to help get his churches established.  We have continued to do it into the present day, trying to make the gospel fit into American values.  Unfortunately, it’s not now, nor has it ever been such a neat fit. 

What we hear in the teaching of Jesus, what we enact in the liturgy should, at least some of the time, create some tension in us, tension by which we recognize that the hand of Jesus doesn’t fit so well into any of the gloves we offer.  What if confirmation day was a day when people were asked to make a choice between the reality of Jesus and the reality of the prevailing culture?  In baptism and in confirmation we ask, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil and all his empty promises?”  What if we asked, “Do you renounce the false promises of our immoral, exploitative, consumerist culture?”

If that were the deciding question, probably none of us, ever, would be confirmed.  It’s not a choice we really want to make.  Maybe the best we can do, any of us, including our four confirmands today is to recognize that there is a disconnect, there is a difference between Jesus’ vision of the world and the vision of the culture that surrounds us.  Recognizing that there is a difference we follow on the way, free to talk about the difference rather than pretend it doesn’t exist, free to begin to imagine and live the possibilities Jesus puts before us.

All that is part of what your yes of confirmation should be.  But most of all it should be a yes to the God who has said yes to you.  The God we find revealed in Jesus is one who accepts each of us as we are.  He may not like everything about us or approve of all that we do or don’t do.  But he says yes as he accepts us in love and forgiveness.  Confirmation means saying yes to this God, and accepting the gift of grace and love that is offered and then, with the disciples and blind Bartimaeus and all the saints of the church, with all of them, following on the way.   

      

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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