Monday, May 21, 2007

The Struggles of Us All

Philippians 1:27-30
Preached at Shavertown United Methodist Church

Today we have the special honor of baptizing one baby, and confirming eight young people, in the name of Christ. Baptism and Confirmation is the churches' way of symbolizing the claim that God has on us. When new babies are baptized, and when we are confirmed, it is pretty clear to the whole world that we are a Christian of some sort. No one else does it like those who follow Christ. There are similarities, however, especially with Confirmation. We mark the passage of youth to the beginnings of adulthood, much in the way that Jews have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and Hispanic culture has a QuinceaƱera for girls.

When we in the Methodist church confirm a person, we say that as these lives step into adulthood, we will walk with them before that day, but just a few steps further behind, watching for growth and available for advice. We also say that eventually, we will still walk with them as we walk with each other.

Which isn’t to say that those of us who are older are any better Christians. Being Christian, as even John Wesley believed, is something you practice, but you rarely perfect. Being Christian isn’t a matter of passing tests. It isn’t a matter of saying the right things, or doing the right things. It’s a matter of believing that Christ chose to die for you, and God raised him from the dead so that you might have everlasting life.

This is what, at core, we Christians claim. Our journeys as Christians revolve around understanding, acceptance, and the sharing of just this fact.

It is that essential story that is the basis of our existence. How we handle it, how we respond to it, is what makes us Methodist, or Episcopalian, or Catholic, or Baptist, or independent, or Orthodox. Customs, nationalities, evolution of thought, wars, and famines affect how we practice, what we believe in that practice.

When a baby is baptized, we as Methodists make a theological statement about infants, and about baptism. We believe that infants, as living human beings, are children of God. We believe that as the church, we as a whole are responsible for them, by supporting their parents in the faith, by providing education through Sunday school, fellowship through church trips and parties, and mentorship through relationships. We explain salvation to them, but we don't yet hold them responsible for taking care of their own salvations.

Somehow, they grow in their understanding of the faith, until they come to the point where they are able to take that responsibility. Some of our fellow Christians agree with us in those statements, some don’t.

When we confirm young men and women at the age they are, we are making statements about what we believe about adolescents, about the Holy Spirit, and about grace. We believe that at 8th grade, at 12 or 13, the beginning of the teen years, they have grown enough to understand their salvations, their growth in Christ, and to assume the duties and the pleasures of caring for their own souls. We no longer hold their faith in trust--they take charge of themselves spiritually and religiously.

Paul, in today's Scripture, is writing to the church in Philippi, which is along the main trade road between Constantinople and the ports that went to Rome. These were a racially mixed group of people, both Jews and Greeks, and the first member of the faith at Philippi was a dealer of purple dye named Lydia. We know this, and other stuff about Paul and the Philippian church through Luke's recording of events in Acts.

When you read Philippians, you get the sense that the people of the Way in Philippi have questions, they have doubts, they have fears, they want to make sure they are doing things right. Paul's letter to them is to answer questions, set their minds at ease, and admonish them about diverting from the path they have set out upon.

In other words, Philippians is a great letter to read to people who are growing and living in the faith, by someone who the whole church knows and trusts.

Its funny how, some 2000 years later, the advice is still so similar and necessary!

Our passage today is a place where Paul is telling the church that being a Christian means standing up for yourself and Christ. To not be moved.

This doesn't mean that Paul is telling them that they need to be inflexible, unforgiving, on the constant watch for sin and associating with pagans. Those aren’t the things that make for a Christian. No, what makes the mark of a Christian is loving your neighbor, believing in Christ, that he died for us, and that the Holy spirit is our constant companion, our connection to him and to God, on earth. He even goes so far as to tell the church what I believe is a reminder of what he must have taught them in person in the next chapter. If there is one bit of Philippians that Christians can recite from memory it is chapter 2, verses 6-11:

". . . who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
--(New Revised Standard Version)

Being Christian isn't just reading the Bible and going to church, though that is important. It isn't just marking yourself down as "Christian, Protestant" on your hospital admittance forms. It isn't just identifying yourself as "Christian, Other" on My Space. It is believing what Christ has done for us as true, and letting that resulting love shine out through us. No one is perfect-- Paul's advice is as much to the elders and long timers of the Philippian church, and to our own long timers, as it is to the newbies in both situations.

Stand fast. Stand together. No one can be a Christian alone. God is in nature, it is often said. It is true. But it is not all. It is only half the story. God is also here, among us, when we gather. You cannot be a Christian alone; you need people to stand fast with. And for this child, and especially for these confirmands who join is by name today, we have pledged, and will pledge again, to stand fast with them.

May we be as good as our word.

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