Romans 8:1, 26-35
May 23, 2021
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Today is Confirmation Sunday, and we gather in-person with their families to welcome Tessa, Madelyn, Olivia, Philip, and Isabel, to hear their public confirmations of faith, and to unite them to our church congregation.
I’m especially grateful to these five ninth graders. They decided back in September that because of the difficult year we were in, they wanted to go ahead and do Confirmation. They did not want to wait until life got easier. They wanted to use this time to think, pray, and learn about their Christian faith. Thank you too, Lilly, Kelsey, and Tyler, for serving as mentors and leaders during a tough year at the Seminary.
We do this on Pentecost Sunday, a day in which we read about and remember the coming of the Holy Spirit, with tongues of fire, to unite a desperate and divergent group of people into the body of believers who would give witness to the love of Jesus Christ.
This has been a year of hard of questions. This is after all, much of the point of how we do Confirmation here at Nassau Presbyterian. And this past year we have gathered on Zoom, together and in smaller groups, to read, ask, think, and pray together. We even got the chance to come together in-person in our parking lot for our last retreat when we gathered around a campfire and had a peaceful time of pizza and discussion. After a year laden with technologically augmented social distance, it felt wonderful to gather around the tongues of fire, on the ground, for basic questions of life, faith, and the meaning of the universe. It was somewhat like that scene in the Lion King, where Pumbaa, Timon, and Simba lay underneath the stars and contemplate whether the stars are fireflies that “got stuck up in that great bluish-black thing,” whether they are great balls of gas billions of miles away (“Pumbaa, with you, everything is gas”), or whether they are evidence that our lives are being guided by a good and great king of old.
We have asked lots of questions. But I think we have also found some answers and, like Simba, some hopeful routes forward. Still, it seems necessary to ask just two more.
We are here because you are joining the church. What is the church again?
We are here, at least according to Paul’s 8th chapter of Romans, because God has called, foreknown, and predestined you to come together because of your salvation? But who else has God predestined? Who else is saved?
One view, which was fairly dominant in the middle ages, is that people get saved when they go to church. The church, on this view, is the ship which teaches people to believe, gives them bread and wine, accepts their statements of faith, baptizes them and so on. As the ship, the church holds a congregation in the nave, the part of the building you are sitting in, to ferry them to heaven. In all of these things, on this view, the church, disperses salvation to those within its walls. So the Church is the gathering of those who think the right things, do the right things, and, as a light shining on a hill, is proof that God is saving people through a correct faith in Jesus Christ.
But this view, even as it has some strong elements, also has some problems.
- What happens when Christians can’t agree? Which churches are the saving ones?
- What happens when Christians flounder, flail, and fail? Which hypocrites does God really love?
- What happens to those who don’t have churches? To those who live in other lands or other times? Are their cultures and beliefs really that bad?
- Can our good works and earned righteousness, really be good enough to merit our ticket into, you know, the good place? And if God is loving, why would so many go down there to, you know, the bad place?
- These are real questions. They are hard questions. They are good questions.
A second view is that salvation cannot be earned, whether by doing or even believing the right things. On this view, faith is a gift from God, a gracious act that is freely given so that they might believe, and be saved. On this view, Christ’s death on the cross is strong enough to wash away our doing bad, as well as our doing good, because we are saved by faith alone, not by works, so that none can boast. The great protestant Reformer John Calvin, called this visible church, “our Mother” (Institutes: IV.1.4, 1016) in which is deposited the treasure to help our faith along in our feeble journey:
For seeing we are shut up in the prison of the body, and have not yet attained to the rank of angels, God, in accommodation to our capacity, has in his admirable providence provided a method by which, though widely separated, we might still draw near to him. […] at the same time guarding pious readers against the corruptions of the Papacy, by which Satan has adulterated all that God had appointed for our salvation. (Institutes: IV.1.1, p.1012)
While Calvin has inspiring aspirations (God’s admirable providence) and provocative imagery (the prison of the body), he also has cantankerous and downright ugly rhetoric about those with whom he disagrees. This is not so helpful and certainly fails to “love thy neighbor.” More tragically, in my view, Calvin thought the church was the collection of a select “elect” that is a small group of those chosen- those elected- by God for salvation. These elect it must also be added are a secret- we do not know who they are:
But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation. (p.1013).
Our church, this church, stands in this Protestant and Reformed tradition. And certainly this view also has strong theological support and a deep biblical defense. Even in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see that there is no condemnation for “those in Christ Jesus” (8:1), for “all who are led by the Spirit” (8:14), for “those who love God” (8:28), or “for those whom he predestined.” It is the belief, often held by righteous Presbyterians, that they were the chosen, predestined, children of God that earned them the nickname “the frozen chosen.” Perhaps you’ve heard that before. But here we must ask.
Is that what the church is? Is this what you all are joining?
Olivia, in your Statement of Faith, you wrote:
I would like to join the church because it is such a welcoming community and I would like to be part of such a great environment. I also was to be able to talk openly to people and not be judged. I know I won’t be judged because this church is so open- minded. But not only do I want to be able to talk to people, but I also was to listen and help others in the community.
Olivia, this is a beautiful vision of the church. Far too many churches have succumbed to judgmental isolation that keeps them from loving our neighbors, let alone our enemies. It also keeps them from helping others in the community. Yes, Olivia, the church welcomes all. Because God invites all.
Madelyn, You like pastor Dave’s jokes, Sunday school, Club 3-4-5, Fellowship, the Christmas pageant, and catching ice cream off the roof. You seem to pretty much love everything in the church. That is awesome. But you have also been to Africa and you say:
Malawi made an impact on my life not only in a religious way but who I am as a person. It helped me to see that people who have little to nothing almost always have a smile on their faces [while] we are living with more than we could ever ask for and struggle to be happy with what we have.
Does not it seem worth hoping for, that the joys of the Spirit are alive and well far beyond us and all the things we have? Do not we, in fact, need them and their smiles more than they need us and our stuff? The church is in fact, called to set aside its stuff and to simply live in harmony with those around the world.
Isabel, you wrote:
I believe that God provides for us;
Giving us supportive and welcoming communities both within the church and outside,
Guiding us through every day, And listening to our prayers.
God created our inmost being,
Perceives our thoughts from afar,
Searches and knows us,
And makes us fearfully and wonderfully,
I believe the Lord is our shepherd,
And watches over us, ushering us through our troubles.
Isabel: “supportive and welcoming communities, both within the church and outside” Would not it be wonderful if the Holy Spirit was moving beyond the walls of our church, searching, comforting, and guiding people, like a good Shepard, even when they might not recognize it? I mean, do we always recognize it in our lives, even when we do believe? Even when we are inside the church?
Speaking of “beyond the walls of our church,” Philip, you write in your history with the church:
The church came to my family’s home state Kerala, India very early in church history actually. Saint Thomas himself came from Israel and sailed across the sea in search of people to tell about Jesus. Eventually he landed in India where he spread the gospel of Jesus to many people in India before becoming a martyr in the name of Jesus.
Now for those who don’t know, Kerala is the long coastal state on the SW tip of India, a likely landing spot for someone sailing the Arabian Sea, especially if they were hopping along the southern coast of modern day Iran or Pakistan. It is also about the same distance from Jerusalem as is Spain, a destination St. Paul wanted to reach, and using the operative silk road trade routes would have been entirely feasible. More interestingly, in 1945 when a jar of ancient writings was discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, writings we had never seen before, they contained the Gospel of Thomas a non-biblical gnostic text mentioned by early orthodox theologians as heretical, but nevertheless likely to be dated from the 100’s. So yes, the Gospel of Thomas, and its corresponding Acts of the Saint Thomas, written apparently before 250AD, includes accounts of Thomas’s, (Didymus the Twin- we know him as Doubting Thomas) travels and ministry to King Gundaphorus in India. So yes, Philip, you sent me scouring my library for the historicity of the “Thomas Christians” of India and modern day Syria. While many in this congregation generally trace the lineage of our faith, through two thousand years, back through Europe to Paul and Peter, Philip yours is traced over a the same period, and perhaps a few more miles as well, back to India and possibly the apostle Thomas himself. And since Thomas’s confession of the Lordship of Christ comes before Paul’s, Philip, I think this means you’ve been a Christian longer than the rest of us! Together we represent an encompassing swath of what John Calvin called, the church universal- the whole gathering of believers through time and space. Now we are getting somewhere.
But what if the church is more? What if the church, as the group called and cleansed to be the bride of Christ, is more than just believers? What if God loves all? And what if God has called, foreknown, predestined, and justified all to also be glorified with Christ, in a good place.
Tessa. Inspired by the PC(USA)’s Brief Statement of Faith, you say,
We trust in God.
God created the world
and makes everyone equally in God’s image male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community.
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.
And neither is John Lennon. Clearly Tessa likes that vision, as does our broader denomination, the PC(USA) which, a dozen years after John Lennon’s release of the song put a similar vision into our Book of Confessions. It is a Biblical vision of all the peoples, all the nations, all the ethnos and genos, indeed all the world- all the asps and adders, all the lions and bears, all the creation, all the cicadas, all things being drawn into the love and unity of God’s holy mountain, a mountain crowned with a cross.
Paul says in the first verse of Chapter 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What we are asking when we ask “What is the church?” and “Who is predestined for a good place?” is fundamentally “who is in Christ?” And Paul’s answer is that all are the children of God, all are being drawn into the life of the spirit, all of creation is being redeemed, and that nothing—no not any thing, and not even nothingness itself- “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).
Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ? Who alone can condemn us? Christ. Christ alone. And Christ is the judge who gives himself to be judged in our place. So therefore there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. And guess what? “All things” are in Jesus the anointed one of God: the Christ.
Perhaps this has been the most important year to confirm one’s belief in a good and gracious God, a God who hears our groaning, sees our pain, and remembers a promise to save. This promise is being worked out in grace. All things, are born from this grace and are being drawn into its light. And someday, we hope and trust, everything will be illuminated.
So thank you to Tessa, Isabel, Olivia, Madelyn, and Philip. May your faith be stronger because of this difficult year. May you have the opportunity to share the hope of Christ with others throughout your lives, both in times of burden and times of blossom. We welcome you to Nassau Presbyterian Church and we give thanks to God for your hopeful faith. But even more, we love your vision of a cosmically welcoming church and we invite you to use all things in order to show how all things have been reconciled through the cross of Christ. Because this is not just about you and this not just about us. This is not just about this church. This is about all things. For Christ is foreknowing, calling, creating, predestining, and justifying all things to be glorified as the church. AMEN.
 Songwriters: John Winston Lennon, Imagine lyrics © Downtown Music Publishing