Easter 2017 – 4th Sunday of Easter – Confirmation Sunday
Therefore . . . Click here for audio
Romans 12:9-18, Philippians 4:8-13
Pastor Marty Raths
There is a pattern to most of Paul’s Letters, reflecting his understanding of the life of faith. For Paul the life of faith begins with our experience of the grace of God, and then out of this experience comes a call for us to walk in newness of life. Jacob and Emily have just read from two of these letters, and in Romans Paul takes the first eleven chapters and in Philippians he takes the first three to write about the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and about what that means for us and for our world.
Then he transitions in chapters twelve and four to write about how we are to live in response to this grace, and in each of these chapters he signals this transition with the word “therefore . . .” So at the beginning of chapter twelve of Romans he writes the words we used for our call to worship, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God . .” and then he goes on to say what our new life in Christ should look like, that the character of our lives as Christians should reflect the character of God as revealed to us in the life and teachings, and the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Let me say this in another way. I once heard a preacher say that, when it comes to the life of faith, there is a believing part and a behaving part. (I would also say that there is a belonging part, but more about that later.) And the believing part is what comes before the “therefore” in Paul’s letters, and the behaving part is what comes after, and the two passages that were chosen and read by Jacob and Emily are found in the behaving part of these letters.
Now both parts are essential, but Paul and Jesus stressed the primacy of the behaving part, the part that comes after the therefore . . . My followers will be known by their love, Jesus said; and without love, Paul said, even our most eloquent words and our most deeply held beliefs are worth nothing. This may be a more modern way to say this: for Jesus and Paul it is far more important for us to walk the talk than to talk the walk.
It is sort of like the difference between the map and the journey. We need the map. Like our beliefs a map gives us the route and the destination, but it is no substitute for actually making the journey. Jesus did not say to his first followers, “Ponder me. He said, “Follow me.” In other words, start walking.
Now to make this journey we do need to have a picture of the map in our minds. So Paul tells us to think about these things: whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent . . . These things help to mark out the road for us, but again thinking about these things is no substitute for our actually making the journey, for our actually doing these things. Therefore . . .
So Paul goes on to say, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me . . . “ I like the way Peterson puts it in his translation The Message. “Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized . . .” When it comes to the life of faith, Paul understood the importance of practice and the power of example.
If I had to sum up the purpose of the church in a sentence it would be this: it is the place where we learn the practice of loving God and neighbor and self. And when it comes to loving God and neighbor, thinking alone cannot get us there, nor can believing, or hoping, or anything else short of actually loving. This is why Paul said that love is the greatest of the virtues. It gives worth to everything we say and do, and this loving takes practice, lots of practice.
There is a story that comes from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those faithful Christians who made their way out into the deserts of the Middle East in the early centuries of the church.
A man came to Abba Poemen out in the desert, came to his cave, and asked him what the lawyer had once asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength,” Abba Poemen said to him.
And the man went away.
20 years passed before the man came back to Abba Poemen, back to his cave. “I have devoted the past 20 years of my life to loving God,” he said. “And I can truly say that I love God. Now what must I do to inherit eternal life, Abba Poemen?” he asked.
And Abba Poemen said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Loving takes practice. We have to work at it, get better at it, keep at it, all of our lives, and it is the purpose of the church to help us to do this, and for us to help one another to do this. And there is no better way to teach the practice of love than through the power of example. Someone once said about a man who was important in his own faith journey, “He did not try to convert me to a better way. He was the better way.” To this I believe Paul would say, “Amen.”
Emily and Jacob, for the past three years you have been fortunate to have the loving examples of Abigail and Charlie and Judy and Sandy, and that is a gift from them that you will carry with you always, and I would encourage you to keep practicing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in them.
And I want to take this occasion to remind us all again of the power of example. In just a few moments as we all participate in the confirmation of Emily and Jacob, we will promise to surround them with a community of love and forgiveness, just as we have promised to do with one another. And being faithful to this promise means not just saying it but actually practicing it, being that better way for one another, or as Paul says of love, being the more excellent way. Therefore . . .
And now we are getting to the belonging part of the faith. You see as followers of Jesus were not just called to walk the talk, we are called to walk it together. Now I confess that there are days when I imagine being a church of one, just me and Jesus. It has its appeal. No need to consider the opinions of others, no reason to see things from someone else’s perspective, no chance of getting bumped and bruised by the inevitable and unavoidable imperfections of church life.
But Jesus does not really give us that option. Where two or more are gathered, he says, I am there. It is only when we are in ministry together that church happens, that we become for one another and the world the Body of Christ. I am reminded of a story I heard years ago that illustrates this well, and that seems especially fitting for Confirmation Sunday.
There had been no time to talk to the other children in the Vacation Bible School class about the little boy who came late, and there had been no time either for the teacher to find out how the little boy had lost his left arm. So the teacher was a little nervous, and understandably so, nervous that the other children might embarrass, or even worse, tease the little boy.
But taking a few deep breaths, she started the lesson. No problems there. The little boy handled the coloring just fine. Snack time too was no problem. The little boy gulped down his juice, and gobbled up his snack, just like the other children.
Feeling much relieved, the teacher invited the class into the center circle for their closing time. “Let’s make churches now,” she said, leading them in one of their favorite activities. And putting her hands together she said, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple . . . “ And then it dawned on her. Oh, my gosh, she thought to herself, what have I done?
And as she sat there speechless, not knowing what to do, the little girl who was sitting next to the little boy reached over with her left hand, and taking the little boy’s right hand in hers, she said, “Here. Let’s make the church together.”
This is what we are about every time we gather for worship, and come together for study, and fellowship, and service. And it is what we are about now as we surround Emily and Jacob with a community of love of forgiveness as they confirm their faith and enter into membership with all of us. We are about making the church together. Here take my hand because we cannot be the church by ourselves. You see there is a belonging part to the faith too, and along with the behaving part, it is what Paul was trying to impress upon the faithful in Rome and Philippi and at upon us here at First UMC Stillwater with all that he said after the “therefore . . . “