Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter based on John 15:1-8 (also confirmation Sunday at Zion)
Dear chosen ones: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Confirmation was not instituted by Christ. Christ instituted Baptism when He sent His apostles baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). He instituted Absolution when He said to His apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20:23) Christ also instituted the Holy Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk. 22:19).
The same cannot be said of the rite of confirmation. Confirmation is man-made and was unknown to the church during its first 800 years. The history of confirmation has been aptly described by a current LCMS pastor as “weird and wacky.” (see below) And for good reason.
Further, we have a real crisis in the Lutheran church in regards to confirmation. It has become viewed as some sort of graduation from learning the faith, as if confirmands have now learned everything they need to know.
Confirmands make vows before God and the church that they intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully, and that they intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it. Yet not many Sundays later, countless new confirmands join the large group of people that can only bee seen in church if you look at the confirmation photos on the downstairs wall.
So, why have confirmation at all? Why use this rite that is not commanded by Christ and comes from a history of weirdness and wackiness? The answer is that we don’t have to have confirmation. But we must have catechesis, that is, teaching the faith, and those who have been taught should confess before men that they believe what they have been taught.
How is it that Jesus said disciples are made? He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19) Disciples are made by baptizing and teaching. You cannot divorce one from the other.
What do you think happens to the faith of an infant that has been baptized but never again hears the Word of God? That faith dies. Faith is a gift of God and must be fed and nourished by the Word of God or it will die. What do you think happens to the faith of a confirmand that has been taught but is never again nourished with God’s Word or holy communion? There is great danger that their faith will die.
Confirmation as we practice it, is a period of catechesis, of learning the things that every Christian should know. It is a period of being fed and nourished by the Word, of learning and growing in faith, with the goal of the confirmand confessing this faith as their own. It is not the beginning of learning, nor is it the end of learning. Indeed, the promise to keep learning by hearing the Word of God is part of the confirmation vows.
Since Jesus said, “Whoever confesses Me before men, I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven”, confirmands also confess Christ before men. They confess that they believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins and that because He rose from the dead, they too will rise from the dead. They confess that they were adopted as children of God through Baptism and that they desire to live a life pleasing to Him.
We heard Jesus say in our Gospel lesson, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” Catechumens are thus taught the Ten Commandments so that they would know how to show love to their neighbour and abide in the love of God.
However, our relationship with God is not established by commandments or rules. It is established by love. Thus, most especially, catechumens are taught the Gospel – the good news that Jesus has taken all their sins away and taken their punishment on Himself.
As we heard in today’s Gospel lesson, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” This Jesus has done for all of us. There is no greater love than what Jesus has shown to us. He shows us true love in being our sacrifice for sin.
We also heard, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” This is not just true for the twelve apostles. It is true also for us, because this is nothing other than the doctrine of election. This is God saying, “You did not elect me, but I elected you.”
When it comes to election, we can easily get tripped up. We can get distracted from the comfort of election by asking, “How do I know if I am elect? How do I know that I have been chosen by God for eternal life? How do I know that I am included when Jesus says, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’?”
Romans 8, in talking about election, tells us, “Those whom [God] foreknew He also predestined… those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” (vv. 29-30)
In other words, when God elected you for salvation, it was not some bare, empty election. God chose you, so He made sure that you were baptized. He made sure that you heard His Word. God elected you, so He made sure to call you to faith.
So, to answer the question if you are included when Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” answer these questions: Did Jesus live for you? Did He perfectly fulfil God’s Law for you? Did He die for you? Did He take every single one of your sins to the cross in your place? Did He rise from the dead for you? Does He now sit at the right hand of God the Father interceding for you?
You know that the answer to all of these questions is yes, so you know the answer is also yes, Jesus chose you for eternal life.
“[God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.” (Rom. 9:15-16)
That is the great comfort of election. If it was up to us in any way to save ourselves; if we had to choose the good and avoid the bad; if we had to choose God; if it was up to our will or exertion, we would be hopeless.
Since God has chosen you, your salvation is secure and certain. He proves it by having called you to faith. Your faith is not some accident. God chose you, so He gave you faith.
God chose you. It is personal. It is for you. You can depend on it. It is eternal. You can rely on it when your sins condemn you. You can rely on it on Judgment Day.
Greater love has no one than Jesus laying down His life for you. He chose you, so He called you to faith and promises you eternal life.
This is what our confirmands confess to be their faith. We don’t have to have confirmation, but we do have to have catechesis to make disciples because teaching cannot be divorced from baptizing. And after having been taught, catechumens should be given the opportunity to confess Christ before men, and confess that they too are God’s elect, chosen by Him for eternal life. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
If you are interested in more details of the history and development of confirmation, see Rev. Mark Surburg’s blog found here: http://surburg.blogspot.ca/2013/08/marks-thoughts-weird-and-wacky-history_17.html