Sunday, May 6, 2012

He Brings His Friends

Today we celebrate a Confirmation. In an infant Baptism we celebrate God’s unconditional love. We don’t get to choose whether God loves us. We don’t get to decide whether God accepts us. We are the beloved children of God -- forgiven, redeemed, treasured and cherished – like or not. But we do get to decide how to respond to that fact. Confirmation is how we express that response. God invites us to respond to divine grace by joining together in a bond of love, by taking our place in the family, by accepting our role as fellow ministers in the mission. Today it runs against the grain of our culture to join anything. If a group of people organize themselves for a common mission, if they make commitments to each other, we call that an “institution” and we say “Who wants to live in an institution?” Nowadays, everybody’s “spiritual,” whatever that means. But nobody is “religious,” because being religious means you have to get mixed up with other people, and people are hypocrites, judgmental, superstitious, naive. They are too moralistic or not moral enough. In other words, they are human. And truly spiritual people are too – well, too spiritual – to dirty their hands with a shared faith or a common mission. 20 years ago when I was a priest in Georgia, everyone belonged to a church whether they believed anything or not. But today in the American Southwest, it takes guts to join a church. In this place, at this time, Confirmation means something – something special, something brave. Today’s lessons are perfect for Confirmation. In Acts, Philip tells the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus. And the Eunuch says, “Ok I believe. Therefore I want to join the family of believers. Baptize me.” A thousand years before Philip, the Psalmist wrote today’s Psalm, “My praise is of him in the great assembly. I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.” Of course the Psalmist went out into the country and found God in nature. Of course the Psalmist prayed in solitude and found God there. But instead of keeping his private spirituality all to himself, he joined with the family of faith to praise God “in the great assembly.” Nearly half a Century after Philip, St. John wrote his famous letter about what it means to belong to a family of faith. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God;. . . Whoever does not love does not know God . . . . . Anyone who says ‘I love God’ and hates a brother or sister is a liar. for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.” St. John says it clearly and repeatedly, Christian faith is not an idea about God we have in our head. It’s a commitment from the heart to God’s children, the human race starting with our family of faith and spreading out to all people. The love John means is not an emotion, but a commitment like a marriage vow. You will hear those vows today – to continue in the Apostle’s fellowship, the breaking of bread and in the prayers – to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself – to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. This Christianity isn’t an opinion in our head. It isn’t a feeling we have when staring at a candle or listening to praise music. It’s a way of life – a way of life ordered by a commitment to other human beings. Is this family of faith we call the Church perfect? No. It isn’t perfect. It is human. The Church is flawed, fallible, people stumbling along as best we can, but stumbling along together. In our Gospel lesson Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” When we join the family of faith, we graft our souls into the Spirit of Christ. That’s the vine. We like the vine just fine. Loving Jesus isn’t hard. But what about all those other branches? Those other branches are the problem. The other branches, our fellow Christians, may irritate us, may rub us the wrong way. Our fellow Christians may do bad things. They may embarrass us. But where do we look for Jesus? In the Bible, yes – but look at those vows again. Where do we look for Jesus? We “seek and serve Christ in all persons . . . .” We promise to look deep into each other’s hearts, to look deeper than each other’s faults and foibles to see the Christ light glowing like an ember or a tiny flame. Anyone who claims to be “spiritual” -- anyone who claims to love God and Jesus, but hates his brother or sister – anyone who is too good, too smart, and too cool to get mixed up with those Church people hasn’t got it. St. John says he is a liar. We seek Christ in the face of our all too human brothers and sisters. As we consider today what it means to be part of this family, I want to share three things from my experience. When I became a Christian again at age 30, I had found Jesus in prayer and sacrament. I didn’t have much use for the other people in the Church but I decided to put up with them since they were part of a package deal. There’s a saying, “The problem with inviting Christ into your life is that he brings his friends.” The second part of my experience is that I have done a lot of spiritual practices over the years. I have done long and arduous meditations. I have fasted, prayed, and spent weeks on solitude. But the hardest spiritual practice I have ever done is seeking and serving Christ in my fellow human beings. I did it for the love of Jesus and sometimes it was hard. But here’s the third thing. When I sought Christ in those all to human brothers and sisters, that’s where I found him. Being a part of this all too human institution, the Church, the family of God, has been the most beautiful, the most meaningful, the most truly life-changing experience I have ever had. This rickety temple has been my home and I love it with all my heart. So to our newest member, I say welcome. To those who have been here all along, I thank you for being Christ to me.