TEXT: Acts 2:1-13
As part of the Confirmation process, we went as a class to visit Congregation Shalom, the Jewish Temple in Chelmsford. At the close of their Sabbath service, Rabbi Perry took time to talk with the class and answer questions. In the process we all learned some new things about each other, including the fact that both Christianity and Judaism have special markers for different stages of our lives.
Shortly after birth, the Jews have the ceremony of circumcision when children are marked as belonging to the Jewish faith. Of course it is not their decision at that point, it has been decided for them by their parents, but they are set on a course of Jewish life and study. Then, as the children reach adolescence, it becomes time for them to make the faith of their parents their own. After years of coming to synagogue twice a week for Hebrew School to learn the Hebrew language and the prayers and rituals of the faith, they make their Bar-Mitzvah (or Bat-Mitzvah for the girls).
Bar-Mitzvah means “son of the commandment.” Bat means “daughter.” It is the time where a child reads from the Torah scroll in public (in Hebrew) for the first time and the time that the child takes upon him or herself the obligation to keep the 613 commandments of Jewish law. Up until that time, the parents are seen as being responsible before God for the sins of their children, but once a child becomes a son or daughter of the commandment, they become responsible for their own actions in the eyes of God.
I take the time to explain all of that because our process in Christian churches is very similar. Christianity comes from Jewish roots, and across the millennia we have followed the example of Jesus in taking Jewish ceremony and giving it new meaning in light of our Christian faith. Even our celebration today of Pentecost, comes from our Jewish roots.
Jake read us the story of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came in a miraculous way to the disciples and those gathered in Jerusalem. The reason so many people were in Jerusalem that day in the first place was that they were celebrating the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the time when Jews remember the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Thousands are gathered to remember that about 50 days after Passover, the Israelite slaves arrived at Mt. Sinai, saw fire and lightning on the mountain, and received the law of God. And on that day of remembrance 1500 years later, God shows up again, with more fire and a great wind. This time, however, they receive not more laws, but the Holy Spirit, the power of God placed within them to help them keep the commandments of God. As Christians we still call that day the festival of Pentecost, but now for us it has a different meaning. It is the birthday of the Church…the day when the followers of Jesus were given God’s own power to keep the commandments and spread the Gospel.
And so now, when a child is born into a Christian home, we follow our Jewish heritage and have a ceremony to mark that child’s identity. We call it baptism and we use the symbol of water to identify the child as Christian and to call for Jesus, as the source of living water, to begin to work in the child’s life. Like with circumcision, it is a decision of the parents, not the child, and the responsibility lies with the parents to provide religious education and spiritual training to help the child grow.
And then, when the child reaches adolescence, as our confirmands today have, the responsibility shifts back to them. Now they are old enough to decide whether Christian faith is something they want to take upon themselves...it is time to decide whether they will confirm for themselves the vows taken for them at their baptism.
Jewish children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah…sons or daughters of the commandment…at that age. And certainly there are parallels in Confirmation. Just because God will forgive our sins when we repent, doesn’t mean that we aren’t expected to try to live the way Jesus taught us. The Ten Commandments are not null and void, and Jesus reminds us that it is even more important to keep other parts of the Law of Moses…the part in Deuteronomy that says to love God with all our heart, soul and strength, and the part in Leviticus that says to love our neighbors as ourselves.
But in the Christian tradition, we mark this stage of Confirmation not by remembering the commandments, but by remembering the Holy Spirit. Those of you being confirmed this morning are taking on responsibility for doing your honest best in trying to keep the commandments. But instead of naming you as sons and daughters of the commandments, I think you should be named Bar- and Bat-Ruach…sons and daughters of the Spirit.
The ruach, the Spirit, was there well before there ever were commandments. The creation story in Genesis tells us that the ruach of God hovered and brooded over the waters when the earth was still formless and void. The Spirit of God is the thing that makes creation possible. It is the ruach of God that is breathed into Adam’s nostrils and turns him from a lump of clay into a living person. It was the ruach of God that turned a valley of dry bones into an army in the book of Ezekiel. It was the ruach of God that Jesus breathes into his disciples in the upper room in John’s Gospel and it was the ruach of God that came in wind and flame on Pentecost and turned a bunch of running-scared disciples into a force that changed the world.
In a few minutes, each of you being confirmed will no longer just be the son or daughter of your parents. You will become a daughter or son of the Spirit…the Holy Spirit…the ruach of God. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow the commandments, it means that you have invited the Holy Spirit to work within you so that keeping the commandments becomes both possible and joyful. God has already been working in you since your baptism, and even before. But that was just behind the scenes.
This is different. By saying yes to Confirmation, you are inviting the Holy Spirit to work in you openly…you are even promising to work with the Holy Spirit to become a better person and to become what God is calling you to be. In a few minutes you will be Bat-Ruach, Bar-Ruach, daughters and sons of the Spirit.
You won’t understand all that means right away. I’m still learning new things about what it means to have the Holy Spirit actively at work in my life. You get off pretty lightly in the United Methodist Church in terms of classes. If you were Jews, you’d have been going to classes twice a week for years and would have learned another language. If you were Lutherans you would have had Confirmation classes for three years. If you were Episcopalians, it would have been two years. You got off with 13 weeks.
If we had more classes, you would learn more about Christian faith. You’d memorize a bunch of things, learn more history, and have a better understanding of our doctrines and creeds. But today isn’t really about how many facts you know and it isn’t about having a complete understanding of God. It’s actually impossible for any human being to have a complete understanding of God. God is bigger than our minds.
Today is simply about deciding whether the Spirit of God as you have seen in the life of Jesus is something you want for yourself. Maybe you don’t really understand what it means to love God with all your heart. Maybe it’s hard to sort out the difference between loving yourself and being selfish. Maybe there are times when you’re not really sure you want to love someone who has treated you badly. That’s okay. All of us in this room, including me, are still learning how to sort out those things.
Today is not about how much you understand, but is about whether you are willing for God’s Spirit to enter your heart and begin to actively teach you how to live in a way that is pleasing to God. That’s a life-long process. Today doesn’t mean you’ll never sin again, but it does mean that you will try to live in a way that pleases God and that when you mess up, you will confess your sin to God, accept God’s forgiveness, and honestly try to do better the next time.
And so on this Pentecost Sunday, I invite the nine of you to come to the front to receive the free gift of God, to become the sons and daughters of the Spirit.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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