Let me speak first to our confirmands. Of course, you all should listen. Sadly, many think of today as sort of graduation. You’ve come to the end of a period of training, specifically biblical training, what the Church calls catechesis.
You’ve been asked questions and given answers. You memorized passages and chief parts. You grew in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. You’ve learned about God’s great mystery, the sacrament of his body and blood, so that today, for the first time, you receive it.
Not that you’ve never received forgiveness from God before. You received that from the Lord at his font when he washed you and gave you rebirth in Baptism. You’ve heard it in words, probably already from the womb, so that, perhaps like John, you leapt for joy in your mother’s womb when you heard about your Savior Jesus. So today isn’t a graduation into anything that you haven’t already had. You fully joined the Holy Christian Church years ago.
Yet now a deadly battle begins. Forces tug you in the direction of graduation, separation, and individuality. At so many commencements speakers tell students to be who they are, to blaze paths and trails, to conquer the world with their own specific gifts and talents. You go your own way, whatever it may be. Don’t worry if you’re not a part of the group.
That is not the way of Christ, nor the way of the Church. Already in the earliest days of the New Testament Church we read how the apostles, the few dozen faithful, and then that three thousand newly baptized “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” They didn’t get baptized and go their own way. They devoted themselves to something, because the Holy Spirit through the words they heard and the Baptism they received, gathered them into something greater than themselves: the Church, the Body of Christ. He made them Christians.
Today in Acts 11 we heard about origins of that name. When the enemies of Christ murdered Stephen, it led to a more general attack upon the Church. Acts 8 tells us that everyone except the apostles scattered. We hear about Paul “breathing out murderous threats” against followers of Jesus. Soon he acquires those letters that allow him to go to Damascus, that allow him to haul believers in Christ out of their homes, that allow him to bring them under a sentence of death.
We read about some of those who fled persecution here in Acts 11. They went north and west. They went to the coast and points beyond. Here we find them in Antioch. And we find them doing something incredible.
Even though it brought them under suspicion and report, they spoke the Word of God. Everywhere they went these followers of Jesus talked about Jesus. They told Jews about Jesus. They told Greeks about Jesus. They told everybody about Jesus. And? “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” God be praised.
Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. We saw the Word work at Pentecost. We’ve seen the Word work among us. As Luther would say, if he were still alive, the proof of it is in all the Christians gathered here today. All, or nearly all of you, were baptized as babies. Now look. We find children, young adults, and adults who still believe in Christ. Because the Word works.
It works even among the most hardened. Paul spoke among the people of Athens who had gods and altars for everything. And they believed. You may think the deck wasn’t stacked against you quite so strongly, but it was. Remember David’s words: “sinful from the time my mother conceived me”? We read verses in catechism this year about being dead in sin, hostile to God, blind and ignorant. That was all of us.
Still, these hunted followers of Jesus preached the Word and the Word worked. They didn’t just preach it, they lived it. They devoted themselves to the teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer; and they devoted themselves to helping those in need. The Jerusalem church pooled their resources to aid everyone. When a famine struck, part of Paul’s journeying was to collect an offering for the affected.
In Antioch, when people looked at this strange new religion, a religion that sounded Jewish, that used Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), and yet wasn’t Jewish, when they cast about for a name, they settled upon, “Christian.” These followers of Jesus were so obviously friends of Jesus, that they could only be called by his name.
My dear friends in Christ, I started by speaking to confirmands, though you all listened. Now listen, parents and family; and the rest. Things are about to get worse. Maybe not persecution worse, but maybe so. Your children are going to the ends of the earth. Some to Great Plains Lutheran High School. Some to Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, Brandon Valley or elsewhere. After that, off to SDSU, USD, maybe Martin Luther College, the Ivy League.
Life isn’t getting easier. Life only gets tougher. We think as parents that the early years of raising children are the hardest. They’re not. Then, at least, we have total control. We run when they eat, when they sleep, when they go to school (and where), when they go to their friends’ houses, and we discipline at will. Plus, there’s the whole church thing. They have no choice, they’re going to church, Sunday School, and confirmation.
But now…. Now these kids will go to school, get cars, get jobs, and get independence. You’ll give it to them, rightly. Will you also give them independence from Christ and his Word? From his Church, to which Christians devote themselves, to the teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer? If you do, you’ve failed as a parent. You’ve rejected God’s own Word and caused sin (and recall Jesus’ words about adults who cause children to sin: better to jump into the ocean). You’ve sinned just as much as the confirmand does who abandons Christ, the Word, the Church, and devotion to the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. And the devil rejoices.
I know things are hard. Many things battle for your attention. Great responsibilities fill your lives. Our fathers and mothers in faith, those who ran, yes, ran from death, to Antioch faced struggles. In addition to jobs, family, friends, and growing up, they faced death for believing in Jesus. And when those things happened to the people following Jesus, they didn’t disappear. They appeared so prominently that they earned a name: “Christian.” What will happen to you?
John warns us that not everyone is a friend of Jesus. Antichrists roam about. They hate Jesus and his Word. Why?
These antichrists hate Christ and hate his word because Christ and his word seize you and snatch you away from them, simple as that. When Paul murdered Christians, they had a word from Christ, “Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies.” When they shut Christians up in dark prisons, they had a word from Christ, “I am the light of the world.” When they put Christians in isolation, still, they had a word, “I will walk among you.” When they tell you that your faith is a crutch, that you’re weak, that the Church is no help because you need money and power and fame and success and friends, still, a word from God, “Be strong and courageous” because in Christ alone “goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,” for we have the first, the last, the beginning and the end, the alpha, the omega standing before us, lighting the path with his word, causing us to grow. All, as John said, done by and through God.
This God snatches us away from death by naming us Christians. He puts that name upon us and in us. In, with, and under bread and wine is the name “Christ,” as in, “Here is my body and blood for you.” In, with, and under that precious water is the name “Christ,” as in, “This name marks you as mine.” In, with, and under that blessed Word is the name “Christ,” as in, “Let me tell you about the one who found you worth dying for, the one who laid down his life for you, the one who calls you his friend.” In, with, and under faith is that word, “Christ.”
You aren’t anything different today than you were yesterday. Being “confirmed” isn’t some new level of holiness. You’re the same Christian today that you were yesterday, and, Lord willing, that you will remain tomorrow. But only by God’s grace, the Lord’s hand, the Spirit’s calling and gathering.
So today, you come forward, some for the first time, some for the hundredth or thousandth time, and receive the body and blood of Christ. You receive the Christ who with this body and with this blood bought you from sin, atoned for your sin, stood between you and God’s wrath and anger and took it, who placed an amazing name upon you, “Christian.” You belong to Christ. You are his. He is yours. You bear his name.
You bear the name of that Christ who didn’t just die. You don’t feed upon a corpse in this sacrament. He rose. This is the body he gave into death and removed from death. This is the blood that he poured out for you and reclaimed in the tomb. This marks you as his as well. You’re not merely an individual Tom, Dick, or Harry. You are “Christian.” Bought with a price. Marked with his blood. Made one with his body. Come, come to the feast, continually, for all things are ready. Made ready by our God, for you, to make you and keep you Christians. Amen.