Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, ‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden sceptre to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.’ When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Luke 9: 18-25
Let me begin by thanking those who are about to stand for confirmation, reception into the Episcopal Church, or to reaffirm your faith. The rest of us are here because of you, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. I’m also honored to welcome and introduce my friend and colleague, Bishop Bud Shand.
It is our privilege to pray a word of blessing as one of you comes forward. While the words themselves are the same, the blessing is utterly unique, whatever it is that God wants you to receive. You may not hear or feel anything when we pray, but the blessing is there for you and will reveal itself in time.
I chose the Scripture passages for today to highlight two particular dimensions of a life of faith. The first text comes from the Book of Esther, one of the oldest books in the Bible. It tells of a moment in a young woman’s life when she had to be brave, to do something that she didn’t think she could do. Because of her position in the King’s court–how she got there is a story unto itself–she had the opportunity to speak to him and ask him to stop an evil plot to kill all the Jews in the land. Esther didn’t think she could do it. But then her uncle spoke to her with some of the most powerful words in all the Bible: Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for a time such as this.
So, too, for us, there will be times when we need courage, because it’s our turn to step up to the plate, whether we feel ready or not, and do whatever it is that we alone must do. God created us for such moments and is there with us in them. There is strength and courage beyond on our own for us to call upon. More on that shortly.
The second passage from the Gospel of Luke–one of the four biblical narratives of Jesus’ life–tells of the time when Jesus asked his followers what other people were saying about him. They told him that people were saying all kinds of things (some things haven’t changed). Then Jesus asked, “And what about you—who do you say that I am?”
That’s a question for anyone who, for whatever reason, feels drawn to Jesus’ life and teaching and wants to be part of a community that bears his name. Simon Peter’s answer: You are the Messiah of God has a particular meaning of salvation for him and his people. What it means for you or me to claim Jesus as Savior, or as Lord, or as God revealed to us in human form, or however else we might conceptualize him, is our own question to answer. How we strive to follow him and his teachings is what constitutes a lifelong journey of faith. It never grows stale, unless we allow it to. More on that in a moment as well.
The heart of what we are doing today is outlined in your bulletin in the section that reads “the Baptismal Covenant.” In the time I have left, I’d like to turn to it and reflect on its meaning with you. Remember that the word “covenant” simply means contract, or agreement. In Confirmation and Reception, we return to the promises made at our Baptism, which for most of us happened when we were infants or children when others made those promises on our behalf. Or maybe we made them ourselves, and we want to recommit to them again, which is something good for all who consider ourselves followers of Jesus to do.
Here’s the main takeaway of all that I’m about to say: While all of the questions in the Baptismal Covenant ask if you believe certain things, and as a result you are willing to commit to doing certain things, equally, if not more important, they also describe some of the ways that God shows up for you, how Jesus wants you to draw you closer, so that you might know him and experience his love. They describe how the Spirit of God, working in and through you, enables you, like Esther, to be brave when it matters most, because in that moment God invites you to tap into a greater courage that you can’t muster on your own.
In other words, this enterprise we call the Christian faith isn’t all up to us. One of the easiest ways to grow discouraged or stale in our faith is to assume that it is all up to us. And it’s not.
The first three questions all start with the words Do you believe? Do you believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe in the Holy Spirit? The answer we are given to recite comes from what’s known as the Apostle’s Creed, believed to be the earliest written summary of the Christian faith.
The word “believe” in this context doesn’t mean that we have no doubts or questions, that it doesn’t mean having what some call blind faith, taking something as true just because someone told you it was true or that it was written down somewhere. It’s more of a heart question–where do you and I place our trust?
So the first question is asking if you’ve had sufficient experiences in life to put your trust in this mystery we call God–the source of all life, or in the words of the Creed, the Creator of heaven and earth. Has the power, the mystery, and the wonder of life sufficiently touched you that you have some sense that there is a source of life, a source of goodness, a source of energy and strength that is beyond you, beyond us all, a source that we call God the Father, or in less parental, masculine imagery, God, the Creator. If not, where can you experience that? If so, where can you experience more of it, and so live with a greater sense of God’s presence in your life.
The second question is another version of what Jesus asked “who do you say that I am?” For many, this is a more challenging question than the first, because there are so many caricatures of Jesus, and so many people who claim him as their own and yet live in ways that any atheist can see are antithetical to Jesus’ teachings. To be sure that’s true of every Jesus follower to some degree, because we all fall short of his example. But some of the distortions are so offensive that it can be challenging to separate them from the essence of the man and his spiritual presence in the world now–which is one of compassion and sacrificial love, forgiveness and grace.
Have you sufficeintly experienced Jesus as a companion, friend, source of forgiveness and mercy, and as one whose teachings about love, forgiveness and justice inspires you, such that you want to put your trust in him? Have you heard him call your name? Not everyone in the world does, and there is no sin in that. But if you haven’t and you’d like to, where might that happen? If you have, how and when did it happen? How have you been inspired by the example of other Jesus followers and are drawn to the light that they see?
I was speaking to a colleague not long ago who told me of the time he decided to walk the entire 530 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela by himself. The Camino is an ancient Christian pilgrimage route across northern Spain that draws people from all over the world, all faith persuasions, and some with no faith at all. Most are seeking something on the journey–healing, clarity of life purpose, a sense of adventure.
This particular priest, who is about my age, went after an experience of deep wounding in the church–he was really struggling, not so much with his faith, but how badly he had been hurt. On the path, he met all manner of people who were struggling, too, most of them from the growing ranks of the spiritual-but-not-religious. He had dinner one night around a campfire with a group of young people, and when they learned that he was a priest, they wanted him to talk about Jesus.
“Jesus chose to love without exception,” he told them. “And with his last breath he forgave those who were killing him. I want to learn how to love like that, and that’s why I follow Jesus.” I want to learn to love like that, too. And I believe that Jesus wants us to receive that kind of love and forgiveness, and then to help him pass it on. We can’t share what we’ve never experienced ourselves. Where do we go, what do we do, to experience more of his love?
The third do you believe question points us to what Christians call “the Holy Spirit,” the part of God that moves in and among us, like wind and breath, and makes possible all manner of connection and empowerment. How have you felt that Spirit? Was it like Esther–giving you courage to do what you didn’t think you could? Can you place your trust in the power that lifted you? How can you open yourself to receive more of it?
Experiences of faith are at the heart of our affirmations of faith. If our experiences are tepid or inconsequential, our affirmations will be, too. My prayer for you, for all of us, is that we might be opened to experience God’s love, revealed to some through the presence of Jesus, and this amazing power beyond our control but that sometimes works in and through us in ways beyond what we could ask for or imagine.
The next five questions then, which on the surface read as things we commit to doing, actually describe the means God uses to reach us, and help us grow in faith because of how we have been inspired, strengthened, and transformed. If you want to know where and how to experience more of God, of Jesus and the Spirit, here are a few answers, embedded in these questions to us:
Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? This is about being part of a Christian community–showing up for worship, for opportunities to learn, for meals shared at one another’s’ tables, and here, at the sacramental table when we remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends. This isn’t a roll call, but a reminder that in community, we can experience God speaking to us, moving us in ways that give us strength and courage and help us to grow in faith. When we show up, things can happen–a word, a song, a smile can be exactly what we need; an opportunity, a chance to love someone else, to learn something new.
Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin repent and return to the Lord? This is the question that acknowledges our struggles to do what’s right and how often we fail. While it asks what we will do, the context is what God wants to offer us in the moments of our failing, which is forgiveness and mercy, the grace to make amends, and begin again. Speaking for myself, the times when I have felt truly forgiven–either by God or by another person–are among the most humbling and transformative experiences of my life. My faith in God soars as a result. That’s what God wants for you, for all of us, in our moments of regret and guilt–to know mercy and forgiveness, to be shown a path toward a different way to live, and opportunities, in time, for reconciliation with those we’ve hurt. Such experiences also help us become more forgiving when others hurt us.
The last three questions all point us to the ways we experience God, and the presence of Jesus, in relationship to one another. Jesus was really clear about this. The implication of each question is that we are to do these things: to walk our talk–to be a person of integrity; to treat others as we want to be treated; and to respect all people. Again, the context is what God wants us to experience through the love and kindness of other people–that God’s love, Jesus’ forgiveness, the Spirit’s power comes to us through the actions and words of other people, and to be open to that.
Going back to the example of Esther, there will be times when God will call us or somehow place ourselves in really hard situations for the sake of other people. The situations can be large or small, for the benefit of one person or for many. Sometimes, when we stand in the gap of human need and our inadequate response, we experience God’s power working through that situation and offering in ways we could never have imagined. Or in the face of human suffering–others or our own–our hearts break, and in the breaking they grow larger, more compassionate, with greater capacity to love without agenda, to give without expecting anything in return.
What I want you to hear is this incredible invitation, this call from the heart of God, to you, into a relationship of love, into a life of great purpose and joy–and also sacrifice and commitment. Yes, there are promises for you to make and to do your best–which will never be perfect–to honor. But Gods’ love comes first, and the desire to draw you closer, day by day, and enable you to become more like Jesus in your capacity to both give and receive love.
Now there are three questions that only those being confirmed, received or who are reaffirming their faith must answer. They are stark questions of renunciation of all that is evil and of recommitment to follow Jesus. It’s the Prayer Book’s way of asking what kind of person you want to be, and whose lights you choose to follow. If you want to follow Jesus, rest assured that he has already called and chosen you. And that no matter what happens, and how many times you fail in any endeavor to love as he loves, he’ll be there to help you get back up and start again.
A final word about the blessing you are about to receive. It’s already there for you, and in you, and surrounding you. Today is simply an invitation to receive. We’re all here cheering you on and thank you for the opportunity to receive something of that grace and love for ourselves.