Claiming Our Faith – 2017/05/21

Psalm 66:8-20
John 14:15-21
Acts 17:22-31

Sermon:

I remember visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington.  It’s very neat.  There are guards, and they’re very fancily-dressed.  They march and march, and protect someone whom they don’t even know.  And it’s not like protecting other graves – this is a place where we don’t know if they have family.  It’s a World War I veteran, but we have no idea who he is, so in a way, he could be anyone.  He stands for everyone by being no one.

And today’s passage from the book of Acts introduces us to a very similar situation.  The book of Acts is the story of the very early church.  It’s about the time after Jesus was crucified, after he was resurrected, even after he returned to heaven.  It’s really about how the very first disciples go about creating the church.

Today’s passage covers a moment when Paul – whom we know from writing much of the New Testament – was in the city of Athens.  Athens had been the capital of the Greek Empire.  When Greece gave way to Rome, the capital moved, but Athens was still a large, powerful city.  And like all large and powerful cities in the ancient world, Athens was the home of many houses of worship.  People would make pilgrimages to Athens just for worship.

Paul was standing at such a place of worship, the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill.  In Paul’s day, there was a worship site there, and it was dedicated “to an unknown god.”  Now, we have to remember that Roman religion was polytheistic – they believed in many gods.  Unlike our Christian faith which believes only in the one true God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Romans believed in many of those gods you’ve probably heard of, like Zeus (called Jupiter in Rome) and Hercules and stuff.

So Athens got to a point in their religious belief that they also thought they should have a way of honoring all the gods by honoring an unknown god, much as we do with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery here in the United States.  Paul found himself there, and chose to deliver the sermon we heard today.

In it, he commends the Athenians for being so religious that they want to honor the divine, even if they’re not sure who exactly that is.  But Paul tells them that, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

In other words, Paul tells them that there is no such thing as an unknown god, because now they can know the one, true God.  And that’s when Paul gives his testimony.  He explains that God created everything, and that human beings were made in God’s image and came to be.  But that we are made in God’s image, and that therefore we can’t make idols or images of God.  God made us, not the other way around.  And Paul finishes out his mini-sermon by saying that a time of judgment is coming, so it is the time to change our hearts and lives and follow after what God is doing.

This morning, brothers and sisters, we have the opportunity to welcome new members into this great faith tradition, summarized so succinctly by Paul 2000 years ago.  This morning, we remember that our God, whom we know, has not only created us, but also claims us and sets us forth for new things.  This morning, we confirm two new young men in the faith.  They become full members of this congregation, with the full rights and responsibilities thereof.  But more important than those rights and responsibilities is the faith itself.

Confirmation is about confirming a faith in our hearts.  It’s about saying “yes” to the promises made at our baptisms, if we were baptized before, as both our young men today were.  Or, it’s about finally saying “yes” to faith and being baptized.  But either way, it’s about making our life Christ’s even more.

There’s a sense in the church that, once someone is confirmed, they “graduate” from church.  There are a lot of parents who fall away from the church, only to come back when they have kids.  They take those kids to church faithfully for a long time, and then when the kids get confirmed, they (both the parents and the kids) fall away.  Because confirmation usually happens in the spring, and because there are cakes and parties, people think of it like graduation – and graduation is interesting to think of this morning, because it’s half right, but it’s half wrong.

I’ve often thought that the best thing we could do is go through confirmation a few times in our lives.  It would always be good to be reminded of our faith story, of our history together, and of the kind of life we promise to lead in Christ.  This morning, two brave young men are making that decision for themselves.  And while that’s a celebration, the similarity it has to graduation is that, when we graduate from school, it’s not like we go straight to retirement.  On the contrary, the work gets harder.  We have to go out into the world and make it.

Similarly, confirmation is a day when we are no longer considered to be “just” the youth who need to be taught.  We become full-blown members, with a faith story all our own and with just as many rights, responsibilities, and privileges as anyone else in the church.  But just like heading into the working world following graduation, the work is far from over.

And that’s where the similarities to graduation end.  Because while graduation means we’re done with school, confirmation doesn’t mean we’re done with church.  It means we’re now the adults here; we’re in charge, too.

But being in charge doesn’t mean that the responsibility of learning is done.  The very best workers, including the very best bosses, are always learning new things.  Likewise, the best Christians are always seeking new information.  We don’t get to confirmation and say, “Now I know everything, so I’m done with God.”  Instead, we seek to continue to deepen our relationship.

Just as a wedding is not the end of a relationship growing deeper, but rather the start, so too is confirmation just the beginning of our walk with Christ, when we now possess greater spiritual maturity and can approach as adults.

So we return to Paul.  He tells the Athenians that they should be worshiping the true God, and not just some made-up, unknown deity.  He gives them the shortest confirmation class I can possibly imagine.  Yet at the end, the people in his hearing are given new information to help their spiritual lives moving forward.

Brothers and sisters, while we see two young men confirmed today, let today be a chance for you yourself, no matter where you are in your walk with Christ, to confirm your faith again.  Today is an opportunity to again say “yes” to following Christ.  In fact, every day is a day of confirmation, because every day is another chance to grow in our relationship to God.  We are here today, not just to recognize these two young men, but also to remember to continue to grow in our own faith.

Each and every day is another chance to have the call of Christ confirmed in your lives.  Be sure to follow the examples of the young men you see here today, and say “yes.”  We have met the one true God in Christ Jesus.  It is our honor to serve Christ, to know him, and to grow in his love.  Amen.