Friday, June 01, 2007

holy dove and heart's delight (acts 11)

A number of adults in our church have given their time, their energy and their love this year to make the confirmation process possible for these young people. It is a gift, and it is appropriate for us to celebrate the gift. The pastors are a part of the process at different points along the way. One of the highlights of my year is traveling to Lake Junaluska in early April and sharing in the retreat with them. At the conclusion, Bill, Tara and I meet with the confirmands individually and we listen as they talk about what they have learned.

They are very young people, these confirmands, still being formed in the faith, and yet I always gain something by being in their presence and getting a glimpse into how they see the world.

In the past few weeks I thought back over the years, almost twenty-five years of Confirmation classes. I thought of a rural church that I served, there were two young people, Bo and Heather, a boy and a girl, who were the entire confirmation class. I remember that we met in my parsonage each Wednesday afternoon and read through the gospel of Mark. When they were confirmed, it almost seemed like a wedding, there they were, Bo and Heather, making the promises. I thought about two kids who later played college soccer, one at UNC and one at East Carolina, and how they missed a soccer tournament to attend the confirmation retreat, and what a witness that was to their priorities.

And I have thought about these young people as they have grown up. One is in the military, serving in Iraq; one is a chef; one is a photographer; one is a physician; one is a minister of education in a United Methodist Church; a couple live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming…I am not sure what they do there, but it must be a great place to live; one has become a well-known musician; one is in business.

I thought about some of them as I listened to these confirmands, about their emerging faith, about their families, about what they might like to do with their lives, about their questions. Who knows where they will be in ten years, or twenty? And who knows the power of a seed that has been planted in this process?

In thinking about confirmation, and listening as well to the two scripture passages for today, I began to think about the traditions we cherish, the traditions we pass on—the importance of baptism, the meaning of Holy Communion, the guidance of the scriptures, the very nature of salvation itself---and yet I also know that sometimes God has a way of disrupting our traditions, and doing something unexpected, something new. The traditions meant something to us, and we hope they will mean something to our children.

Peter was steeped in a profound tradition, a tradition of circumcision and law, but also parable and miracle, a tradition that marked his identity. But it was also a tradition that had a lot to say about who was an insider and who was an outsider, about who was clean and who was not, who was righteous and who was not. Peter had had his ups and downs. He had been with Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration and he had denied that he knew him at the time of his arrest. And then Jesus had reclaimed Peter, and commanded him to feed his sheep. Peter was there, on the day of Pentecost, and he is a part of the movement and growth of the early Christian movement.

Along the way Peter has this vision. A large sheet, floating down from heaven, with all kinds of strange animals on it. Now, for you confirmands, I am not talking about a game you might find on the internet. But it is a strange vision. And a voice says, “all of this…eat it”.

Now this went against the grain of all that Peter had been taught. “It’s profane….nothing unclean will enter my mouth”. And the voice speaks again, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane”.

Two weeks ago I spoke about Peter’s encounter with Jesus, at the seashore, after breakfast. Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times Jesus commanded Peter, “feed my sheep”.

Well here we are, and again Peter is having some kind of encounter with Jesus, who is teaching him a new lesson. God is erasing the distinction between Jew and gentile, clean and unclean, sacred and profane. We thought Peter had already had one conversion experience, now he is having another conversion. One of my best teachers, David Steinmetz at Duke, once noted that “sin is so deep-rooted in the human condition that only a lifetime of conversion can change us into the new creations God has in mind for us” (Willimon, 103).

The evangelical concept of conversion, that it happens all in a moment, and then we are done with it, misses the richness of all that God wants for us. Conversion is not on the list of things to do before my kid grows up: immunization, Disney, have the religious experience. The fullness of salvation is about all that God requires for us, across a lifetime, and we see that in scripture, in people like Peter and Paul, and in our Methodist tradition, which sees salvation as growth in grace through a disciplined life of worship, study, service and witness.

And so we are not done with it, and God is not done with us.

Was Jesus finished with Peter at the seashore? No. Was God finished with Peter at Pentecost? No. Is God finished with us when we make a profession of faith, when we join the church, when we are confirmed? No. Is God finished with us when we are twelve, or twenty-one, or fifty, of ninety-nine? No.

There are always new visions awaiting us. For Peter, this required a shift in his entire worldview. You see, we religious people can become very good at defining who is in and who is out, who is good and who is bad. But God is larger than all of that, and life is more complex than all of that. What if salvation is for the insider and the outsider, for Peter and the gentiles, for the older brother and the prodigal son.

It is no accident that the question facing Peter in Acts 11 is the one that Jesus encountered in Luke 15 (he eats with sinners), prompting his telling of a parable about two lost sons and a loving father. Sometimes I think Luke, who wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, almost 40% of the New Testament, has a heart for the outsider.

A parent will say to me, “my child is different”. The good news is that God’s vision is focused on those who are different: gentiles, lepers, children, tax collectors, the unclean.

We see the world as it is, and if it does not conform to our categories, we make judgments. God sees the world as it is and imagines that it can all be redeemed. Salvation is coming to the last, the least, and the least.

I trust that God will do something new in the lives of these confirmands. In Acts 11.14 there is brief note that the good news brought by Peter is a message “by which you and your entire household will be saved”. And so I will go ever farther in the hope that God is doing something new in the lives of the families who surround these confirmands. God is not finished with us. Some corner of our lives awaits conviction and conversion. This was true for Peter. Much later in the story John is on the island of Patmos, and he also is given a vision. The one who is seated on the throne says, “I make all things new”.

Eugene Peterson, the translator of the Bible, once remarked that children are gifts of God, who bear the message that we are not at the center of everything, and then they become adolescents, and at this stage they remind to us that we are not in control.

Do you have a plan for your life? God says, I make all things new. Baptism is a symbol of that, a cleansing, a washing away of our sin. Luke remembered Jesus standing in the waters, the dove descending on his shoulder, a reminder itself of the dove that was present after the flood, after the chaos, a sign that all things had been cleansed and made new.

And so we sing, in response to baptism, about this holy dove but also the heart's delight, the pleasure of God in all things becoming new, the possibility that God delights in adolescents, that God looks forward to another generation of disciples, in the unfolding vocations of these young people, who knows where they will be in 10 or 20 or 30 years. What will they be doing then? Who knows?

We do know that we can anticipate a lifetime of conversions, these Confirmands don’t grasp it all but neither do we. But it is enough to be here, in this moment, in the spirit, waiting for the dove descend, praying, believing that God can make all things new.

Sources: William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation); Eugene Peterson, Like Dew Your Youth; “Wash O God, Our Sons and Daughters”, United Methodist Hymnal, page 605.


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