A Faith of Continuing and Covenant
A sermon on John 8:31-36 and Jeremiah 31:31-34.
[for an audion recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Fern M. Lomibao on Unsplash]
Today’s sermon will be a little different because it is a Confirmation sermon.
I have been meeting with our Confirmands for about 3 years now, (on and off due to the disruptions of the Pandemic), and I am going to miss our focused time together.
So, I want to take this one last opportunity to talk directly to them about this journey of faith that we are on together.
But this is a Reformation sermon as well, which means it is a chance for all of us to reflect on the way in which God calls us to be a reformation people, always discerning what needs to be reformed in our lives and our faith.
And in that context, our Confirmation students have a chance to teach the rest of us.
During our Confirmation Retreat this past Summer, I asked them to write out their beliefs in response to questions inspired by the Creed – and their answers reflected the essence of a Reforming faith.
I say this because they did not echo back established catechism answers – rather, they shared the meaning of our shared faith in THEIR lives, and that is the whole point of Reformation: to take in the teachings of our faith in a way that actually nourishes us in our lived reality.
So this sermon is actually going to be a sort of dialogue:
Me talking to our youth (although I encourage the rest of you to listen in); and them talking back to all of us through their written words.
With that introduction, let’s talk about the journey of faith.
On a day like Reformation Day the temptation can be to look backward at the beginnings of the Lutheran tradition, focusing on what happened more than 500 years ago to spark the Reformation.
Or, alternatively, on a day like your Confirmation, the temptation can be to focus on this moment – with excitement, or embarrassment about all the attention, or maybe a mixture of both.
But if faith is a journey, then the past and the present are inextricably linked to the future.
The foundation of your faith, that goes back far beyond the Reformation to include all the stories of faith going back to creation…
And the beginning of your journey of faith, when your parents made promises for you in your baptism…
And the affirmation of your baptism that you will make today as you take those promises on yourself…
Are not the end of the story.
And while I cannot predict what hills and valleys your journey of faith will lead you through in the years ahead, I want to offer you two words to travel with you as companions.
The first word comes from our gospel reading:
“Jesus said to (those) who had believed in him, ‘if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples…’” (John 8:31).
What does it mean to continue in Jesus’ word?
First, I want you to notice that Jesus doesn’t say “memorize,” or “obey,” or anything that suggests his word is a static law, with which we have a one-directional relationship of just receiving his instruction.
Instead he uses the word continue, meno in the Greek, which could also be translated as remain, or abide, or sojourn.
It’s a word that is deeply relational.
To remain with his word means that rather than staying put, we stay present to the awareness that Jesus’s life and teachings matter in our day- to-day lives.
To abide with Jesus’s word means that we live with it. It’s a constant companion in our lives – a source of wisdom, comfort, and help.
To sojourn with the word of Jesus means that we travel the journey of faith with Christ’s teachings as our constant companion, able to move with us and speak new life to us as we grow and learn.
In other words, continuing in Jesus’ word means that Jesus doesn’t expect your faith to get stuck here, where it is today.
Just as the faith of Christ’s church has reformed over and over again, finding new ways to understand God’s love, justice, and mercy in changing circumstances, you will do the same.
And although we can all use the reminder, I think you already know that.
Because your reflections on faith embody this relational understanding of faith.
All three of our youth focused on the accessibility that marks their understanding of God. Listen to their wisdom:
Knowing God “shows us we have someone to lean on, and when things go wrong, we know God is with us.”
“I always have a support to lean on & talk to.”
“I believe that God can lead us into the right path, and he cares for us.”
The important thing about Jesus’s life on earth is that “he chose to be human and be vulnerable. He could fall and scrape his knee, just like us.”
Jesus sending the Holy Spirit means that “you can trust that you have a guide and a helper.”
This is the God who calls us into a relationship of continuing – continuing to trust; continuing to follow; continuing to draw near to the one who draws near to us.
The second word I want to highlight is Covenant.
The prophet Jeremiah talks to the people of God about a new covenant, one that will be written on their hearts.
Covenant language was not new to the people. In fact, it is a central theme of the Hebrew scriptures, but Jeremiah stresses that this is a different kind of covenant.
The expected reference for covenant language is a legal context: it describes a conditional relationship where both sides make promises and if either side breaks their promise the covenant is voided.
(This is the reason that one of my seminary professors discouraged me from using covenantal language as a Lutheran – because a conditional covenant contradicts the teaching of grace).
But, in this passage, the prophet is describing a covenant that is relational, rather than legal: “I will be their God and they shall be my people.”
The promise is that God’s love for us is NOT conditional upon our behavior. Even though past covenants have been broken, God is even more committed now – to forgive, and to know, and to be known.
God has made a covenant with us that we cannot break!
And, again, I am conscious that I don’t really need to tell our youth this, because they know it already!
In their reflections on what they believe, again and again they focused on the unconditionality of God’s love – and it is also worth noting that this belief is based in God’s character.
From observing creation, they learned that “God is a strong, loving, caring God.”
“God decided that we were worth saving, and he still loves us even though we mess up.”
“Jesus loves us unconditionally” and “he sacrificed his life to forgive our sins and save us.”
“When Jesus saved us, it meant to me that he cared, loved every single one of us, and that he would do anything to save us again.”
We’ve talked about a lot of different things over three years of confirmation, and I don’t expect our students to remember all of it!
But I know that they understand the most important things:
They know that their faith is about much more than beliefs, it is about a relationship – a life of continuing with Jesus.
And they know that God’s promise of love and forgiveness is unconditional – a new kind of covenant.
Continue & Covenant that is what both Confirmation and Reformation are all about.
Faith is a journey, not staying in one place, but continuing in relationship with God as we respond to an every-changing world.
And that relationship is one of covenant, based on the promises of who God is and what God has promised to us, which gives us the security to face whatever comes.
In other words – although Reformation is built on what comes before, and it is always the activity of the present moment, it also looks ahead with confidence that we are never stuck in one place, for we have a God whom we can trust to lead us forward.
Thanks be to God.