Sunday, April 29, 2007

The White-Robed Saints of Rev. 7 and Confirmation Sunday


I couldn't resist using the Rev. 7 epistle reading today. It was Confirmation Sunday and the related symbolism was just too tempting: white-robed saints and the blood of the Lamb. As many Lutherans know, Confirmation Sunday is not complete without the confirmands processing in wearing white robes and red flowers. Unfortunately the robes are too often of the "graduation" type, being rented from some collegiate cap and gown provider. This only symbolically reinforces the misconception among Lutheran youth that confirmation equals graduation.

In my parish they use the alternate "poncho" style robe that is sold in some church supply catalogues. Unbeknownst to me, one of the children asked the retired pastor assisting me why they had to wear those robes. And unbeknownst to him was that my sermon was intending to answer that very question. Now I don't know the particular history of the confirmation robe. In my limited reading prior to today I didn't see any helpful history on this topic. However, I do know that the white robe in Baptism is a significant part of the historic rite, going back to the Early Church of the first centuries. It is symbolic of the robe of righteousness in Christ mentioned in scripture (Isaiah 61:10; Gal. 3:27). I would imagine that the robe in confirmation is an extension of this robe.

At any rate it was a good "object lesson" in preaching on Rev. 7. And it was a good way to help them appreciate that the foundation and essence of confirmation for Lutherans is all about Baptism. Today we stand as those "clothed in Christ" through Baptism. This is the source of our righteousness before the holy God. It is not of ourselves, it is a gift of God. Thus, we are here today to witness to that truth, not to anything we have done.

Which is a point that needs to be made among Lutherans still convinced that confirmation is the "renewing of our baptismal vows." First of all we do not "renew" that which God has created and which He himself continually renews by His grace. He makes all things new, not us. Secondly, what is a "baptismal vow"? This sounds Reformed to me, where Baptism becomes Law - something I must do, not Gospel - something God does in and through His Son. True, confirmands promise fidelity and faithfulness to the confession and truth of the church. But there was no "vow" made by the infant as he was baptised. He believed, but "not by [his] own reason or strength, but the Holy Spirit has called [him] by the Gospel..." If there is a vow of any kind, it is God's. He pledges his grace and love on our behalf.

Like many pastors I struggle with confirmation. Despite what we say the inevitable happens - children begin that day to end their involvement in the church. Part of the problem lies in how we have pictured their place in the Kingdom. Too often we paint it in soft and subdued colors, or in bright vibrant and exciting shades. Yet the darker hues of suffering and death we avoid. Yet these white-robed saints are those who have passed through the "great suffering" (sorry, I avoided the word "tribulation" because of some wrong interpretations here). They have denied themselves, taken up their crosses and followed. So the red in those flowers, I reminded them, is the red of blood - the blood of martyrs and suffering for the faith. They did promise to remain faithful even to the point of death. It's in the rite, even if many young people recite the words with hardly a thought as to what it could possibly mean.

Confirmation has a lot of pietistic baggage that complicates its usefulness in the church. Luther initially abandoned the rite out of reaction to what he perceived were its abuses in the church of his day. How many pastors today are tempted to do the same! Still, it's a venerated tradition that is not likely to disappear any time soon. So, let's take the opportunity to use this occasion to direct their attention to the blessings of their Baptism, which Christians too seldom contemplate. The rite (in Lutheran Worship), to its credit, assists this well. We simply need to "connect the dots" and let them see where God is truly at work.

6 comments:

318@NICE said...

Pastor,
How do you think Lutherans would view Confirmation if it were a Sacrament in the Lutheran Church?

Thus, in the Catholic Church we teach that confirmation is a sacrament in which the Holy Spirit in a special way increases the sanctifying grace received in Baptism, strengthens our faith, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are given: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and the Fear of the Lord. And leaves an indelible mark imprinted upon the soul. So in this sacrament the Holy Ghost comes to us in a special way and enables us to profess our Faith as strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.
Thus, as you taught your confirmands, confirmation is not the end, but only the beginning and a help in their persevering in the faith.

Dave

D. Engebretson said...

In some ways Lutherans actually treat confirmation almost like a sacrament (i.e. by the attention given to it.) However, doctrinally speaking, the only sacraments Lutherans recognize are Baptism and the Lord's Supper, with the possible exception of Confession/Absolution. These are recognized as "sacraments" using the definition that a sacrament is that which has been established by God, involves the combining of God's Word with a visible element, and the conveying of the forgiveness of sins.

Confirmation was rejected as a *sacrament* in the Lutheran church because it did not meet these criteria. Luther's reaction against it was motivated by his high view of Baptism and his concern that confirmation claimed that which properly belonged only to Baptism, which he felt was the true, scriptural sacrament with a true promise of God. From a Lutheran point of view confirmation lacks a scriptural mandate as something established by God to be continued in the church.

Thus, confirmation as such did not even exist in the early history of the Lutheran church during Luther's time and following his death. Children were communed, I believe, at a much younger age, and catechized accordingly. It was beieved that the gifts you describe as being received in confirmation were all given in Baptism itself.

Confirmation made a reentry into the Lutheran church, if I understand properly, somewhere in the "Pietistic" era of the 17th century. Unfortunately, during this era there was a heavier emphasis on faith and feelings as opposed to the objective means of grace, and confirmation again took away emphasis from the gifts and grace of Baptism.

In our current era its importance among many laity is such that it tends to again eclipse the high view of Baptism Lutherans once had. As a Lutheran pastor my effort has been to redirect attention to the "foundational" sacrament, reminding the children and their parents that this event (confirmation) does not convey new grace (as opposed to the Catholic understanding), but rather is an opportunity to openly confess the faith into which they were baptized, and to celebrate the contiunal gifts in that sacrament that they still enjoy.

Catholics work with a different definition of what a sacrament is, and if I understand properly, tend to see baptism as more of a 'lead in' to confirmation, than as a sacrament lived out throughout the life of the believer (as in Romans 6 with its dying to sin and risign to newness of life.)

Did I get the Catholic understanding right?

Pr. Engebretson

318@NICE said...

Pastor,
Yes, you have the Catholic understanding correct for the most part. We agree with Lutherans that these gifts were given at baptism, however, they were not mature and are seedlings that do appear (more in some than in others), yet they need confirmation in order to bring these gifts received at baptism in their fullest. That's why, like at our Church, we begin confirmation at the age of 7.
About 2 years ago I was up at Ft. Wayne seminary and heard a great lecutre by Dr. Scaer (sp?), senior that is, on that Lutherans ought to accept all seven sacraments, because he was saying that the critera given traditionally by Lutherans might not be entirely right, and that the ancient view that where there is an outward sign given, inward grace received by the Holy Ghost, and right intention, there is a sacrament (mystery of grace). It was pretty eye opening to say the least.
Regardless, I believe you did the right thing in teaching your youth that confirmation is not graduation from Church, it is the continuation of the Christian life.
My wife was baptized and confirmed in the ELCA and she told me that when she was 15 she was confirmed and being the last child, that was the last time her family ever went to church. Sad.

Dave

Christine said...

My wife was baptized and confirmed in the ELCA and she told me that when she was 15 she was confirmed and being the last child, that was the last time her family ever went to church. Sad.

Sad indeed. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of "cultural" Christianity in the U.S. Too many who claim the name of Christ never grow and mature into the fullness that is the right of every Christian.

I'm always grateful when people maintain even the most tenuous connection to their faith because one never knows what will happen down the road but being Easter/Christmas or post-Confirmation Christians is certainly not what the Lord has in mind for His people.

Perhaps we need to recatechize parents right along with their children. My husband's parents attended Mass every week yet he severed his connection with the Church decades ago. On the Lutheran side one of my nieces was so unclear in her Lutheran identity that she ended up in a nondenominational evangelical group.

Revisiting the meaning and importance of Baptism and the riches and promises it bestows (and subsequently Confirmation) might be a good place to start.

D. Engebretson said...

Dave,
You wrote:
>>About 2 years ago I was up at Ft. Wayne seminary and heard a great lecutre by Dr. Scaer (sp?), senior that is, on that Lutherans ought to accept all seven sacraments, because he was saying that the critera given traditionally by Lutherans might not be entirely right, and that the ancient view that where there is an outward sign given, inward grace received by the Holy Ghost, and right intention, there is a sacrament (mystery of grace). It was pretty eye opening to say the least.<<

I studied under Dr. David Scaer while at the seminary and have heard him speak many times at the annual Symposia in the years since. This is a curious statement. Do you have the context or occasion when this was said? Is there a published paper from which this came? Knowing Dr. Scaer's theology I would be surprised that he would seriously embrace the 7-fold sacramental theology of the Roman church. I know that he has toyed with the concept of ordination in sacramental terms, but has never pushed it (although our confessions talk of ordination in similar terms, so he wasn't out of line.)

318@NICE said...

IT was at symposia about two years ago. He spoke on the sacraments and that actually, he was not really putting a number on it, but stated that it could even be more than the seven that the Roman Church and Orthodox hold to. He was even saying that wherever there is Grace given by the Spirit there is a sacrament.
I also spoke privately with Dr. Rast (sp?), about infant communion. He is in favor of it and sided with the Orthodox on this.
I guess what I like about Ft. Wayne is that they are more 'catholic' than merely 'Lutheran' for 'Lutheran's' sake. They don't always confine themselves to the book of Concord as some divine final authority, but look at the catholicity of the Church.
The three that influenced me the most have been Dr. Scaer, Dr. Just, and Dr. Rast. Great men of God.

Dave