Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Symbol of Unity

This post is also featured in today's The View, the parish newsletter from St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about our parish, click here.
Confirmation has been called “a rite in search of a reason.” We believe that membership in the church—the Body of Christ—is by virtue of baptism. Whether ten days old or a hundred years old, one is ingrafted into the life and love of the fellowship of Jesus as one is baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Whether Baptist or Methodist or Catholic or Moravian, you are accepted as a member of the universal church whenever you receive the one Baptism that all Christians share. In the Episcopal Church, full access to that shared life, which includes repeated nourishment through Holy Communion and ongoing spiritual growth through the work of the Holy Spirit, is initiated at Baptism—not at Confirmation. In short, one does not need to be confirmed in order to be a full member of the church, participate fully in its life, and receive fully the spiritual benefits that it offers. So why bother with Confirmation?

I felt a sharp sense of this ritual’s purposelessness back in 2000, when I was confirmed as an Episcopalian. Nine years earlier, when I was in sixth grade, I had already been confirmed as a member of the United Methodist Church. Though in a different denomination, I had already gone through a series of special classes that were led by our senior minister, who had told me that Confirmation was my chance to “confirm” the promises that my parents had made when I was baptized. When I was an infant, they had promised to bring me up in the Christian faith, and Confirmation was my chance to claim that faith for my own. Almost a decade later, I was hearing that same rationale all over again, and I asked why I had to make the same commitment a second time. Although the answer that I received was probably more thoughtful than I remember, the response I can recall is simply that the Methodist version did not count and that, in order to be an Episcopalian, I had to be confirmed by a bishop.

More than another decade later, years after I had been ordained and even after I had presented several classes of confirmands to the bishop, I discovered a better reason for Confirmation. During a forum before the service began, our bishop explained why bishops and, by extension, why Confirmation matter. When the bishop lays hands on a person’s head and prays that the work begun in Baptism might be continued in that person through a daily increase in the Holy Spirit, the bishop is doing more than giving that person an opportunity to claim the Christian faith for herself. One does not need a bishop to do that. Anyone can stand up at any time and profess the faith that we all share. But, when the bishop comes and confirms someone, the bishop is offering each candidate as well as the whole congregation the possibility of seeing that person as a distinct yet fully integrated member of the universal church. Because of the way our church is structured as an institution entrusted by Jesus Christ directly to his disciples and passed on from them in succession through the apostles, a bishop symbolizes for us our participation in the catholic church. Confirmation at the hands of a bishop, therefore, is our opportunity to take our place as an active part not only in our individual congregation but in the whole universal church that stretches throughout the ages and across the globe.

The opportunity to see our discipleship as something that transcends our particular location and context comes not only when we ourselves are confirmed but also when we gather with our bishop in worship together. This Sunday, June 4, at the 10:30 a.m. service, Bishop Sloan will be here for his biannual visitation, which gives our whole parish an opportunity to celebrate our place in the wider church. We enjoy having the bishop here, and we always offer our very best when he visits us—our best worship, our best music, our best hospitality. But the bishop’s visit is also the moment when we are at our best as members of the Body of Christ because, when he is here, we cannot help but see our connection with something much bigger than ourselves. In fact, in church-speak, the bishop is known as the “ordinary” of the diocese, which implies that ordinarily he is the preacher and presider at our worship. Nowadays, we only have that opportunity once every two years, but still our understanding of who we are week in and week out is based on what we do when we come together with our bishop.

This Sunday is our chance to celebrate not only a handful of confirmations and baptisms but also who we are as part of Christ’s Body. Whether you are being confirmed or know someone who is being confirmed or whether you plan to sit on the back pew while the excitement unfolds in the front of the church, come and be a part of something bigger than our parish. Come and remember your place in the universal church. See our bishop and remember our link with all Christians around the world. Take your place in that life that begins in Christ and is continued in each one of us. Reaffirm your commitment to following Jesus not only as an individual who is loved, redeemed, and saved by him but also as a member of his Body that collectively is loved, redeemed, and saved by him.

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