A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Easter 4 ~ Acts 17:22-31
I did confirmation class when I was 16. I don’t remember all that much about it actually. I remember my cousin and I sat with our minister in the balcony of the church and talked. I didn’t really know him so I remember it being pretty intimidating. Ministers back in the day weren’t always as warm and fabulous as they are today! I remember him posing questions, and us stumbling over our answers, but I don’t recall the content of what he or we said. As for my confirmation day, I don’t remember that either. Frankly, it just wasn’t that big a deal.
And that is a real shame! Because it should be a very big deal! One big problem with how we used to do it (and to be honest, still do it much of the time) is that confirmation was little more than a ritual of graduation from Sunday school. Rituals are good, but only if the deep meaning of them is brought to light.
Another big problem with confirmation is that it tended to be more focused on knowing the right answers than what I believe we should be focusing on: wrestling with the right questions!
Even the term confirmation can be problematic. What are we confirming?
Are we confirming that you’re a good person, that you’ve learned the right lessons, that you’re actually a person of faith, that you’re too old for Sunday school? I think it’s actually rooted in the idea that a person was confirming that they “believed” the right things in the right way. Very problematic!
So the United Church changed its language about this more than 20 years ago. Did you get the memo? Instead of confirmation it’s now called “Renewal of Our Baptismal Faith.” More accurate, but not quite as catchy!
Since most people in United Churches were baptized as babies someone else, usually their parents, made affirmations and promises of faith for them. So the “renewal” language is a way to say that the baby who has grown up is now ready to claim those affirmations and promises for themselves. Are they? Some yes, some no.
Our United Church Manual says that for a person to become a full member of the church they “must have enough knowledge about the Christian faith and the United Church to make their commitment with understanding” and if so they must make a profession of that faith. That’s section B.3.3.3 in the Manual – which, of course you all know about because if you’re a member you know about important United Church stuff like what the Manual is! (it’s our book of doctrine and bylaws, by the way).
You must have “enough knowledge about the Christian faith” to make a commitment with “understanding”. So how do we decide what enough knowledge about the Christian faith looks like?
Way back when they used to call it catechism. Some catechism programs take a couple of years to go through before you have enough knowledge about the Christian faith. In today’s cultural climate that’s a monumental ask. Nowadays a “regular” church attender comes once or twice a month. What are our chances of getting teenagers or new folks to commit to a weekly catechism class for a couple of years?
And why would we want to?
Don’t get me wrong – committing to a weekly exploration of your faith would do every single one of us immense good, but as a rite of initiation into the Christian journey I think it’s misplaced. What I’m looking for in someone who wants to be a member of the United Church is that they’re committed to being on the journey, committed to exploring, committed to questioning, committed to transformation. I don’t think we should be about confirming that a person knows what they need to know – I think we should be confirming that they know that they need to GROW, and are willing to engage in the effort!
The last step for membership (or confirmation) is called making a profession of faith. To profess means to declare openly, to affirm, to announce, to claim. Making a profession of faith shouldn’t mean you have the right answers about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – it should mean that you’re committed to asking the right questions about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and are willing to wrestle with those questions and grow spiritually.
So what are the right questions? I’m so glad you asked!
I propose that the right questions are these: “Why Christian?” – what do I think about this whole God thing and why am I committing to follow Jesus and his Way instead of Allah, or Buddha, or Vishnu, or Krishna, or Moses, or astrology, or the guy at the coffee shop who’s always going on about “like, cosmic phenomena, man”? Why do we sing about “spirituality in the key of J” instead of some other key? Why Christian? That’ll be our question for today.
The second question is “Why Church?”
Why does a person need a place like this to work on their Why Christian question? What features of this place (or places like it) facilitate and encourage the deepening we need? We’ll explore that question next week.
The third question is “Why United?” – as in, why this denomination? Knowing about the denomination one is committing to is an essential part of membership or confirmation. Why are we United and not Anglican, or Catholic, or Baptist, or Pentecostal – all of which are valid places to ask the Why Christian and Why Church questions? But we find our home here. Why? That’s for May 21st.
But today we’re asking “Why Christian?” When Paul was invited to speak to the people at the Areopagus in Athens he began by affirming that they were a spiritual people. But he did notice that they worshipped a lot of things. The same is true for us. What would you say our culture worships? Probably things like power, fame, sports or music or movie stars, possessions, etc. But there’s also a real spiritual hunger out there – it just isn’t currently focused on organized places like this one. But the spiritual hunger is real.
Paul identified that in the Athenians, and he noticed that they had an altar to “the unknown god” – and that was his “in”. You see, that word unknown can also be properly translated as unknowable! To the unknowable god.
And Paul’s unique insight for these people was that it is actually possible to know this unknowable god. And then he goes on to describe the God he knows.
And THAT is exactly what the Why Christian question is about.
How do you describe the God you know?
How do you describe the Jesus you know?
How do you describe the Holy Spirit you know?
We can’t know everything about God, Jesus, and Spirit, but we absolutely must affirm that we know something about them if we want to profess that we’re Christians. Christians are people who are committed to knowing God, Jesus, and Spirit.
What is essential in this is that we make a differentiation between the idea of knowing stuff about God and knowing God, and Jesus, and Spirit. So at confirmation or membership time I don’t really fuss that much with what a person knows about faith stuff – I’m much more interested in whether their heart has been warmed and they’ve felt drawn to join the journey.
You could have encyclopedic knowledge of Christianity and still not qualify to be a member of this body. It’s about what you want to give your heart to, your energy to, your life to.
To the crowd that didn’t yet know God or Jesus or the Spirit, Paul said that God’s purpose was, verse 27, “SO THAT they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”
God is the way God is so that we would search for God, and perhaps fumble and flail around but ultimately that we would find God – for indeed, God is not far from us but is right here, right now, present! That’s a knowable God!
Why Christian? Because you know, or have a feeling, or an inkling, or a nudging that there really is something More than just this, and that for now you’re framing it in conceptual language that is centred in these three truths: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
So let’s return to the right questions: How do you describe the God you know?
Is God a faraway clockmaker who set the world in motion and watches it unfold from on high?
Is God judgemental, authoritarian, kind, benevolent, forgiving, loving, strict, distant, near, present, warm, empowering, fixed, moving – how do you describe the God you know – today?
It may change tomorrow, but how do you describe the God you know today? This isn’t an answer you can learn – it’s only an answer you can live.
Paul said God was not made by human hands and didn’t live in human structures like churches. He said God is the One who creates, who enlivens, the One in whom we live and move and are. What are your words?
Similarly, how do you describe the Jesus or the Christ you know? The earliest answer the church used was “Jesus is Lord” meaning master, or strongest influence on one’s life. Some folks like to draw a fish to explain who Jesus is for them.
In French the word for fish is poisson. In Greek the word is ichthus. It is spelled with 5 Greek letters, and early Christians created an acrostic poem as their profession of faith using those 5 letters. The poem went:
iota – iesous (Jesus in Greek)
chi – christos (Christ)
theta – theou (of God)
upsilon – uios (son)
sigma – soter (saviour)
All together that makes: iesous christos theou uios soter ~ Jesus Christ God’s son saviour.
Maybe that’s the Jesus you know?
Or maybe some other words?
What are yours?
How do you describe the Holy Spirit you know?
What are your inklings? What are your nudges? How would you say it today?
These are the questions and the concepts that Christians affirm, and wrestle with. Because there are no easy answers to these – well, at least not any satisfying easy answers. The reality is that the answers are constantly deepening and growing as we grow.
When we do a confirmation, or a renewal of baptismal faith, or a profession of faith, we are not assessing someone’s knowledge of information about God, Jesus, and the Spirit we are welcoming as a fellow journeyer someone who is ready to affirm that formation, and even transformation, is the journey they commit to be on – the Way they aspire to follow – the Mystery they yearn to know.
You may have noticed that in a sermon called “Why Christian” I haven’t come close to answering the question. That’s kind of my point!
I will say this: Why Christian? Because we commit our lives to adding our voices to the choir that lives to sing our spirituality in the key of J.
If Paul were here today I think he might say something like this:
“People of Clarington. I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknowable god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
This unknowable god, this Holy Mystery many of us call “God” is utterly knowable, and yearns to be known.
In this God we live, and move, and are.
In the person of Jesus we learned how to notice this ever-present God.
And in doing so an indescribably wonderful loving energy called the Holy Spirit flows in, through, and among us.
People of Clarington, come and know this for yourself – come and learn to sing in the key of J!”