Sunday, June 18, 2017

Mark's thoughts: "Confirmation" - What do you mean?

On one occasion when I had written a post about Confirmation, I received quite a surprise.  The post had focused upon how Confirmation has, in a number of ways, been a negative influence in the life of the Lutheran church.  In response, a member of my extended family wrote a comment in which she objected that Confirmation had instead been incredibly important in her life of faith as a Lutheran.  When I asked why this was so, she went on to explain how in the time with her pastor she had learned about the content of the faith she now confesses.  At that moment, I realized that even though we were using same word (“Confirmation”) we were actually talking about two completely different things. And this experience illustrates why Confirmation can be such a difficult topic to discuss.

The word Confirmation is polyvalent – depending on context the word can have multiple referents. Therefore the same word can be used to talk about different things.  It is commonly used in three different ways. First, Confirmation can refer to a rite that is used in church – both the text and the ceremonial.  Second, Confirmation can refer to a theological belief. Finally, Confirmation can refer to a process by which the faith is taught (catechesis).

Confirmation can refer to a rite.  In the seventh and eighth centuries, what was to become known as Confirmation took the form of the following rite in the Old Gelasian Sacramentary which was performed by the bishop after baptism (immediately after baptism or more often, at a later time) in parts of Italy and Gaul:

Then the sevenfold Spirit is given to them by the bishop.  To seal them [ad consignandum], he lays his hand upon  them with these words:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has made your servants to be regenerated of water and the Holy Spirit, and has given them remission of all their sins, Lord, send upon them your Holy Spirit the Paraclete, and give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and godliness, and fill them with the spirit of fear of God, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ with whom you live and reign ever God with the Holy Spirit, throughout all ages of ages. Amen.

Then he signs them on the forehead with chrism saying:
The sign of Christ unto life eternal.

When Confirmation had officially been split off as a separate rite it was included in the pontifical – the book that contained rites performed by the bishop.  In the Roman Pontifical of the Twelfth Century the words took on the form that became standard in the pre-Reformation western Church: “I sign you with the sign of the cross and I confirm you with the chrism of salvation.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

In the LCMS today, Confirmation means this rite:

The catechumens kneel to receive the confirmation blessing. The pastor places his hands on the head of each catechumen and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead while saying:
     Name    , the almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given you the new birth of water and of the Spirit and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with His grace to life ╬ everlasting. ( Lutheran Service Book, pg. 273)

When used in the second way, Confirmation refers to a theological belief.  After a long development, in the medieval period Confirmation meant the following:

And although a simple priest has the power in regard to other anointings only a bishop can confer this sacrament, because according to the apostles, whose place the bishops hold, we read that through the imposition of hands they conferred the Holy Spirit, just as the lesson of the Acts of the Apostles reveals: "Now, when the apostles, who were in Jerusalem, had heard that the Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John. Who, when they were come, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Ghost. For He was not as yet come upon any of them: but they were only baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands upon them; and they received the Holy Ghost" [Acts 8:14 ff.]. But in the Church confirmation is given in place of this imposition of hands. Nevertheless we read that at one time, by dispensation of the Apostolic See for a reasonable and urgent cause, a simple priest administered this sacrament of confirmation after the chrism had been prepared by the bishop. The effect of this sacrament, because in it the Holy Spirit is given for strength, was thus given to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, so that the Christian might boldly confess the name of Christ. The one to be confirmed, therefore, must be anointed on the forehead, which is the seat of reverence, so that he may not be ashamed to confess the name of Christ and especially His Cross, which is indeed a "stumbling block to the Jews and unto the Gentiles foolishness" [cf.1 Cor. 1:23] according to the Apostle; for which reason one is signed with the sign of the Cross (Council of Florence 1438-1435).

In our day in the LCMS, Confirmation means this:

306. What is confirmation? Confirmation is a public rite of the church preceded by a period of instruction designed to help baptized Christians identify with the life and the mission of the Christian community. Note: Prior to admission to the Lord’s Supper, it is necessary to be instructed in the Christian faith (1 Cor. 11:28). The rite of confirmation provides an opportunity for the individual Christian, relying on God’s promises given in Holy Baptism, to make a personal public confession of the faith and a lifelong pledge of fidelity to Christ (Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation [1991], pg. 245).

When used in the third way, Confirmation refers to the process by which the faith is taught (catechesis). So in my experience growing up, the text of the Small Catechism was never seen or heard outside of “Confirmation class.”  Confirmation class took place place during seventh and eighth grade in a class room setting.  The “Small Catechism” meant the entire synodical Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation which was the text used. When I had finished Confirmation class I was confirmed and received the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time at the service.

When used in this way, for my own children it now means that the text of the Catechism (the Six Chief Parts) is distinguished from the Small Catechism (and they never see a copy of the synodical Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation).  Along with the whole congregation they speak a question and answer from the Small Catechism before the service every Sunday.  A banner hanging at the front of the nave always says what part of the Catechism we are looking at.  They attended Learn by Heart for a year with their mom where catechesis focused on the Small Catechism took place in the setting of the "Service of Prayer and Preaching" (Lutheran Service Book, pg. 260). This catechesis took occurred through instruction by the pastor and by singing catechetical hymns like LSB #581 “These Are the Holy Ten Commands” and LSB #766 “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above.”  They also reviewed the content of the Small Catechism at home with their parents.  This led to reception of the Sacrament prior to Confirmation using the rite of “First Communion Prior to Confirmation” (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, pg. 25).  This year in seventh grade, my twins will begin Catechesis in which one year they will study the doctrinal content of the Small Catechism in more depth using materials I have written.  In the other year they will do Biblical Readings that will take them through the salvation history of Scripture while using the Scripture texts to teach the content of the Small Catechism as it appears.  During both years they will again attend Learn by Heart with their mom and little brother (who will be preparing for First Communion prior to Confirmation).  

Now certainly these different uses of the word are also interrelated.  The theological belief explains what happens in the rite – what it is and does.  Sometimes the rite creates theological belief. Quite often in pre-Reformation history this happened as theologians tried to explain changes in the rite or the way it was done.  The process of teaching the faith often includes the rite (usually as a terminal event).  Theological belief changes and shapes the rite. Theological belief changes and shapes the practice.  These last two have been very common in the Lutheran  experience due to Pietism and Rationalism.

It is important that we clearly designate how we are using the word Confirmation, and recognize how others are using it, if we are to have productive discussions about this topic and not talk past each other.  So for example, while I am very skeptical about the value of Confirmation as a rite, I also firmly believe in Catechesis that it is based on the Catechism and Small Catechism, takes place in the setting of worship and in the classroom, involves parents, includes First Communion prior to Confirmation and seeks to use the text of the Small Catechism in many settings of congregational life.  This is something that has commonly been referred to as "Confirmation."

In order to avoid confusion I suggest that we refer to the first meaning listed above (the rite) as "Confirmation".  The second one (theological belief) can be called "theology of Confirmation." The third (process by which the faith is taught) can be called "Catechesis." 


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Commemoration of Elisha, Prophet

Today we remember and give thanks or the prophet Elisha. Elisha, son of Shaphat of the tribe of Issachar, was the prophet of God to the northern kingdom of Israel ca. 849-786 B.C. Upon seeing his mentor Elijah taken up into heaven, Elisha assumed the prophetic office and took up the mantle of his predecessor. Like Elijah, Elisha played an active role in political affairs. He also performed many miracles, such as curing the Syrian army commander Naaman of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-27) and restoring life to the son of a Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8-37). A vocal opponent of Baal worship, Elisha lived up to his name, which means "my God is salvation."

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Elisha, You continued the prophetic pattern of teaching Your people the true faith and demonstrating through miracles Your presence in creation to heal it of its brokenness.  Grant that Your Church may see in Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the final end-times prophet whose teaching and miracles continue in Your Church through the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Ecumenical Council of Nicaea

Today we remember and give thanks for the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea that began meeting in the early summer of 325 A.D. at Nicaea, modern day Iznik, Turkey.  The Roman Emperor convened the council in order to address theological questions regarding the Son of God.  The heretic Arius had said that the Son of God was the highest creation of the Father and there had been a time when the Son did not exist. This teaching had greatly disturbed the Church as many were led to believe that the Son was not truly God.  Alexander the bishop of the Egyptian city of Alexandria and especially his deacon and secretary Athanasius (who became bishop in 328 A.D. after Alexander’s death) opposed this teaching and affirmed the biblical truth that the Son is truly God.  The council produced the Nicene Creed which explicitly confessed that the Son is truly God by saying that He is “of one substance with the Father.” 

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, heavenly Father, at the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea, Your Church boldly confessed that it believed in one Lord Jesus Christ as being of one substance with the Father.  Grant us courage to confess this saving faith with Your Church through all the ages; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity - Rom 11:33-36

                                                                                                Rom 11:33-36

            Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity.  The timing of this Sunday really isn’t hard to understand. During Holy Week we saw Jesus Christ - the Son of God who was sent by the Father - die on the cross for our sins.  On Easter the Father raised him from the dead.  Forty days later, Jesus was exalted as he ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father. Yet before he did so, he promised the Holy Spirit and told the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they received this gift.  Then last Sunday, we celebrated the dramatic outpouring of the Spirit by the risen and exalted Christ.
            Like Jesus’ baptism which began his ministry, the Day of Pentecost focuses our attention on the triune nature of God.  Peter said in his Pentecost sermon about Jesus: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”  And so on the first Sunday after Pentecost, we pause to reflect upon the nature of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
            Unfortunately, this morning I have some bad news for you. Our text, which is the epistle lesson for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, is not talking about the Trinity.  Perhaps it was chosen because it mentions “him” three times in the doxology as it ends by saying, “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”  But this is not specifically a statement about the Trinity.  There’s nothing in the context to support that claim.
            Instead, what Paul has been doing since the start of chapter nine is to talk about how we are to understand the descendants of Israel – the Jews – and their general rejection of the Gospel.  Paul has just expressed a mystery – that somehow God has been at work through this to save the Gentiles.  Yet at the same time in doing so he has not abandoned Israel.  Instead the apostle says, “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience,
so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”
            Now we probably want to ask: “So how exactly does that work?”  But at this point, the apostle has run out of answers that he can explain.  Instead he just exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”  Paul’s “answer” is to throw up his hands and say he can’t explain it.  God’s wisdom and knowledge are just too deep.  His judgments are unsearchable, and his ways inscrutable. Don’t go there because you are just not going to be able to get it. God is God, and you are not.
            In making this point, Paul quotes verses from Isaiah and Job as he says, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”  Both of these verses come from sections where God declares that no one guided him in creation, and no one can explain how he did it. We just have to admit that when it comes to God, we are out of our league.  As God says in Job, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”
            Yet it is here that we begin to see a connection with this day in the church year – Trinity Sunday.  For if we are unable to understand what God does, then certainly we are not going to be able to understand who God is.  He will be a mystery to us.  And sure enough, he is. 
            God is relatively easy to describe. He’s impossible to explain.  There is only one God. But that one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God.  And yet there are not three Gods, but only one God. That’s what God has revealed about himself – about his nature; about who he is.
            We should just be willing to concede the point and say with Paul: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”  We should leave it right there. But we don’t.  Because we really don’t want to stand in a position of trust. We don’t want the stance of faith.  The first sin was about wanting to be God, and we’ve been playing that game ever since.  We think God should explain things to us. We think God should be justifying himself so that we can judge whether he make sense to us; whether his ways are acceptable to us.
            It is, of course, a silly demand.  We are his creation and he is the Creator.  We are sinners and he is holy.  Because we are fallen and sinful, we don’t even always understand ourselves and our own actions.  How much less can we expect to understand God and his ways? We can’t.
            Yet it is at this point that we need to consider why we even have a Trinity Sunday.  We do, because God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we have this knowledge – this revelation – because God did something amazing for us.
            In the days of the Old Testament, God’s people knew with certainty that there was only one true God.  They knew that Yahweh was the Creator of all things and that there was no other god.  Sure, everyone else had lots of gods – Baal, Asherah … the list went on and on.  But none of them were really God. Only Yahweh was God.
            Now along the way, there were things that made you go, “Hmm….”  God said, “Let us make man in our image.”  There was remarkable language about Wisdom.  There was one like a son of man in Daniel 7 who received worship. It made you wonder if there was more to the story.  But there was nothing clear; nothing explicit.
            And then, as St. Paul tells us, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” God sent forth his Son in the incarnation as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
            God acted to provide the answer for the very sin that makes us do dumb things we don’t even understand – the cruel words we wish we could call back; the hurtful action we wish we could take back. He did something unexpected and surprising in order to save us.  And in doing so he revealed more about himself.
            That’s the main point I want you to take away from today.  You know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the triune God – because he acted in love to save you.  Or to put differently: Your knowledge of the Trinity bears witness to God’s love and salvation. That’s the only reason you have this knowledge about God.
            Jesus Christ’s ministry began at his baptism.  And boom!  Right from the start we see the Trinity on display.  God the Father speaks about Jesus the Son as the Spirit descends upon him. Anointed by the Spirit as the Christ, Jesus carried out the Father’s will.  He offered himself as the ransom in your place.  He drank the cup of God’s wrath, so that you will never have to do so.  And then the Father raised up Jesus through the work of the Spirit as he defeated death.
            This is what God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has done to save you.  And in order to apply that forgiveness and salvation to you, the Son of God instituted Holy Baptism.  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.”  The triune nature of God revealed at Jesus’ baptism is now spoken at every Christian baptism.  The saving work of the triune God is applied to you by water and the triune Name.
            Trinity Sunday is about God. We confess who God is.  In the Athanasian Creed this morning we confessed very clearly what God has revealed about himself in Scripture.  We can’t explain how it is, but we can describe what is and is not true.  This is very important because if you get it wrong you lose the incarnate Son of God, and you lose salvation.
            But as we think about the Trinity today, we rejoice in what our knowledge of the Trinity says about who God is for us. He is the God who loves us – the God who has demonstrated that love through action.  It is the action to save us that revealed the triune nature of God to us. To confess that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to declare the astounding love of God that guarantees our present and future.