Sunday, June 5, 2016

Pentecost 3C

Galatians 1:11–24




Our three confirmands—Emily, Alex, and Dominic— are three of the most powerful people in the world. None of them command a mighty army— at least not yet. None of them is running for president of the United States of America— at least not yet. None of them is the CEO of a rich company such as Microsoft or Nike— at least not yet. Nonetheless, they are powerful people because they are beloved children of God— recipients of God’s grace. In baptism God declared God’s gracious love for them. On this Confirmation Sunday they are affirming that baptism.


In Galatians 1 the apostle Paul bears witness to the powerful way God’s grace had completely transformed his life. “You have heard, no doubt,” writes Paul, “of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”


But then, as Paul explains, God called him by grace to proclaim Jesus Christ to the Gentiles— that is, to those beyond his Jewish community. He was transformed from a zealous persecutor of followers of Jesus Christ named Saul to a passionate proclaimer of Jesus Christ named Paul. For Paul nothing less than God’s grace could explain this dramatic transformation.


Acts 9 tells the story of his dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, `Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, `Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, `I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”


Paul viewed this encounter with Jesus as an act of utter grace— he did not deserve to be chosen by God. But soon he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues in Damascus. He became increasingly more powerful, not in terms of political, military, or financial might, but in terms of the power of grace at work in him. In Acts 9:21 we are told that “all who heard him were amazed.” They asked, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name?” No amount of military might, wealth, or political clout could have achieved such an amazing turnaround. God’s grace transformed him and empowered him to be a leader in the early church. In word and deed he lived that grace and spread the good news of Jesus Christ all over the Mediterranean region. His missionary work was vital to the establishment and growth of the church.


As baptized children of God, we too are called to live by God’s grace. Our Hymn of the Day is entitled “By Gracious Powers.” Living by God’s grace is to live by God’s gracious powers. What are some of the gracious powers our confirmands and followers of Jesus have been blessed with?


The first is the power to ask faith questions. Knowing that we are loved by God, we are not afraid to ask the real questions of faith that are on our hearts and minds. Asking questions is not a sign of a lack of faith, but a sign of a growing faith.


My seminary colleague Paul was a thinker. Before he came to seminary, he had received a Masters in Philosophy from Michigan State University. When he was in confirmation, he had all sorts of faith questions. His father was a leader in their Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation. He could have told Paul to stop asking so many questions. But instead, he encouraged Paul to keep asking his questions. “Your faith will be stronger for it in the long run,” his father said. If his father had stifled his questions, Paul doubted that he would have remained in the church, let alone go to seminary.


Our confirmands shared some insightful faith questions in their statements of faith. One question Emily asks is, “How did Jesus actually save us? I know that He died on the cross for us, but I’m wondering HOW he saved us.” Alex asks, “Is everything in the Bible 100% true and do I have to believe everything it says? And, how should I interpret scripture: literally or some other way?” For centuries great minds in the Christian tradition have wrestled with how we interpret scripture. Dominic raises a series of associated questions: “What happens when we die? Do we really go to heaven, do we get born into new life? If I am really bad, will I go to Hell?! Is God really waiting, or did He leave on the bus already? And if there is a God, why is there so much suffering?” I would be very surprised to meet Dominic in hell, but I hope Dominic, Alex, and Emily will keep asking their questions. Their faith, as my friend Paul’s father suggested, will emerge stronger for it. Their power to live by grace will increase.


A second gracious power is the power to admit when we are wrong. On the wall above my computer desk in my office is a quotation from David James Duncan from his essay “A Prayer for the Second Coming of the Salmon”: “No person, no family, no country, and no civilization in history has remained viable for long without engaging in corrective acts of self-criticism, self-sacrifice, and restoration.” History is littered with the destructive consequences of military and political leaders not able to engage in healthy self-criticism. How could Paul have become such a powerful leader in the early church if he had not been willing to acknowledge his destructive persecution of followers of Jesus? The church would not have survived for over 2000 years without a healthy measure of self-criticism. One of the reasons Pope Francis has been well-received by so many is his willingness to critique his own church.


In Romans 3:23 Paul asserts that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Acknowledging our sin on a daily basis frees us to receive God’s gift of grace daily. We do not fear admitting our sin, because we know God will not stop loving us.


A third gracious power is the power to love, as we have first been loved. In John 13:34 Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches his followers: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What else than the grace of God can empower us to love our enemies? Paul marvels in Romans 5:8 that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Jesus did not wait for Paul to get his act together before he appeared to him on the road to Damascus. God’s grace frees and empowers us to take the initiative in loving others.


All three confirmands stress the importance of the church putting God’s gracious love into action. Dominic speaks of paying it forward and lending a helping hand. Alex affirms that caring for your neighbor is all part of continuing Jesus’ work. For Emily following Jesus is a matter of loving “the way he wants us to love,” of treating “each other with respect no matter who we are or what we believe,” of living “in peace and not war.”


A fourth gracious power is the courage to do the right thing. We adopted Hailey and Luke from an orphanage run by African Christian Fellowship International in Liberia. The head of ACFI was Pastor Edward Kofi. He was criticized by some in Liberia for allowing white parents to adopt black children. He knew ACFI’s orphanages could provide only so much care. Being raised by loving parents in a home, whatever their color or race, was better than being cared for in an orphanage with an overwhelming number of children. One of Pastor Kofi’s favorite sayings was, “Don’t pay attention to your critics— just do the right thing.”


The people of St. Andrew have stepped up to sponsor the Alajrab family. We are so glad they arrived safely. Not everyone in our society supports welcoming Muslim Syrian refugees. We have not paid attention to our critics, but have sought to do what we believe is the right thing. We risk doing so, knowing that the one who will ultimately judge our actions is gracious and merciful.


A final gracious power I want to lift up is the power to hope even in the most difficult times. Paul paid a price for his proclamation of Jesus Christ— he suffered persecution and imprisonment. They could take away his freedom and threaten his life, but no one could stop him from hoping. As Paul assured the Romans in 8:38–39, “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In our Psalm for today, we hear these comforting words: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (30:5). No matter how bleak our lives may seem at times we are assured God will have the final word, joy will come in the morning.


German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while he was in a Nazi prison, wrote the poem “By Powers of Good,” upon which our hymn of the day is based. Knowing that he faced probable execution, he still affirmed in the final verse of his hymn: “By gracious powers so faithfully protected, so quietly, so wonderfully near, we live each day in hope, with you beside us, and go with you through ev’ry coming year.”


Emily, Alex, and Dominic, on this Confirmation Sunday we pray that God’s grace will empower you to live each day in hope, with God beside you, and that you will go with God through every coming year. Inasmuch as you live by God’s gracious powers you will be powerful people indeed.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.