+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During the process that brought us the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and that sustains its current use, there was a watchword (if you’re being charitable) or a buzzword (if you’re being a bit more honest) which has come to the fore in our theological and liturgical discourse- “baptismal ecclesiology.” In terms of noticeable differences, perhaps the most obvious was that Baptism, rather than Confirmation, became the requirement for the reception of Holy Communion. Many of you have noticed that when I recognize there are first-time visitors I make an announcement to this effect–that all baptized Christians may receive–so, you may correctly assume that I don’t find this an especially problematic thing.
The other major effect is that we’ve started in the last forty years or so to talk more about ministry being not the sole province of ordained bishops, priests, and deacons but of all the faithful. This is also, I’d argue, a very positive thing. One of the things I’ve most loved about being the Rector here at Trinity is that I don’t feel like I’m doing the work of the Church and of the Gospel all on my lonesome. I do not take this for granted! Sometimes clergy get the feeling that they are the “hired hand” expected to do all the working, praying, and dying-to-self that some others had felt they had outsourced to them. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am extremely grateful for you people.
So, all that is good stuff, and it’s based on some pretty good theology. Baptism is not only the mystical washing away of original sin- it is that, and it’s more. It is full inclusion into the body of Christ, and the baptismal promises of the 1979 BCP are like the ordination vows of the laity – a metaphor which some are uncomfortable with because of a perceived clericalism in its expression, but I think it help us appreciate the responsibilities the Christian life places on us.
So, what’s the problem? Well, I am not the first person to suggest this, though it is considered somewhat impertinent these days to do so in ecclesiastical circles. We have, I fear, displaced the Sacrament of Confirmation, and thus forgotten its importance as a Sacrament. Indeed, some have derisively spoken of Confirmation as having been maintained merely to give bishops something to do in addition to Ordination which priests cannot. Others have spoken of it, less stridently but just as dismissively, as a rite in search of a meaning.
I’ll speak next week during our Christian Education class after coffee hour more extensively about the nature of the Sacraments and of their number- namely seven: two being the Dominical Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist (so-called because they were established by our Lord in the Gospels), and the five others, Confirmation among them, being no less Sacraments of the Church (this is not the universally held view, but it is at least the majority view, and the one which I hold, as well as it being the position taught invariably within the Western Church for a thousand years).
Anyway, to refer to something as a Sacrament (this is a spoiler for next week’s class) is to claim that it is an objective means of God’s Grace mediated by the Church. This is not to say that God’s Grace cannot be experienced subjectively (say through personal, spiritual experience) or outside the mediation of the institution of the Church (say through acts of Divine Providence or even miraculous intervention), but rather that we have received seven means whereby God’s Grace may be said to be effective by virtue of the Church’s action, as Augustine said ex opera operato, or simply from the work itself being carried out. This is why you don’t need to worry about whether or not I’m an especially personally holy man when you receive Communion, for example. It is the very Body of Christ you receive regardless of Fr. Drymon’s personal qualities or lack thereof.
So it is with Confirmation, and this is why simply calling it a rite of passage or a mature affirmation of faith is insufficient. To bring this back, at long last, to the text which inspired this rant, today’s lesson from Acts, Peter and John did not travel to Samaria because the Samaritans had reached the age of accountability or memorized the Apostles’ Creed and the answers in the Catechism (which I still had to do back when I was confirmed during the Dark Ages), but because the Grace of Baptism was to be completed by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Faithful by the laying on of Apostolic Hands, the importance of which we recognize today and thus continue in faith even if the rationale has been obscured in the wake of baptismal ecclesiology.
During last week’s eschatology lecture I mentioned my favorite New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, and coincidentally (or providentially? I don’t know!), he wrote something about this passage in his popular Acts For Everyone which I think gets to the point. It’s a somewhat lengthy quote, but its pithier than I’d manage, so it’s a net gain in terms of your time and attention, for which I am ever grateful:
“More important still, from Luke’s point of view, than the fact of Samaritans hearing about Jesus as Messiah, is what happened next. Many of the local people believed and were baptized in the name of Jesus. News of this reached the leaders in Jerusalem, and they made an unprecedented move. It appeared that, despite the Samaritan converts coming to faith and being baptized, they had not experienced the holy spirit in the same way that Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem had done on the day of Pentecost. This seems to have been interpreted in terms of the significant move that was taking place across the traditional boundary of culture and suspicion. It was important, they appear to have concluded, that what was happening in Samaria would not be dismissed by suspicious people in Jerusalem or elsewhere as merely some eccentric occurrence which could be waved away and discounted, leaving the new movement belonging only to bona fide Jews. So, just as church leaders in the fifth century decided that it was important for the bishop and only the bishop to lay hands on people in what has come to be called ‘confirmation’, thus making it quite clear that the new believers really are being welcomed into the central life of the church and not merely into some sort of private club, the Jerusalem apostles decided to send Peter and John to Samaria to lay hands on the converts and pray for the holy spirit. This they did.”
Thus, the Grace of Confirmation was, in fact, doubly gracious. You see, the Samaritan converts were objectively given the gift of the Holy Spirit, confirming their Baptisms before the larger Church, and the Church herself received the Grace of God giving growth in numbers and in faithfulness thanks to the inclusion of these formerly lost sheep from outside the fold of Israel.
And so it remains today. No doubt, a mature affirmation of one’s faith, the personal acceptance of the promises one’s parents and godparents made at Baptism, is an occasion for a significant, subjective experience of God’s Grace. There’s nothing wrong with that. But far more important, I’d argue, is the objective gift of the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit confirming the Grace of the first Sacrament, whether or not we appreciate or understand it. More important even than the realization of God’s grace in our all-too-human hearts and minds, is the objective reality of God’s Grace, God’s undeserved favor and love, whether or not we can contemplate or even fully accept it.
So, yeah, I’m going to start Confirmation classes again on the first Sunday of Lent, as has become my pattern, but I feel I should amend my typical plug in light of what I just said. Instead of “are you ready to make a mature affirmation of your faith?” how about “do you desire to receive the Grace of the Holy Spirit in a new and different way, whether you understand it or not?” We’ll take some time exploring that question, trying to make sense of what it even means to receive the Grace of the Holy Spirit, but perhaps that desire is enough, at least to start.
Stay tuned for that, and in the mean time, give thanks that the good work of Christ’s saving love has already been begun in you in Baptism, and pray that the same Grace may be visited on those who are struggling with their faith, have lost it, or do not yet believe. God stands ready to bless us all, because he has already claimed us. As Isaiah wrote: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.