Week after week I arrive at some Episcopal church and there they are seated in a semi-circle. Frequently, younger and older confirmands plus baptismal candidates are included. I usually begin with “Good morning. I am here because you are so important to God’s mission in God’s world. You are important and I am ‘significant.’ I am a sign of the reality that the faith you are claiming is the faith of the Apostles. I am a sign that the community you are claiming is larger than this local expression of it. And I am a sign that our baptismal life is so important to God’s world that the same minister who ordains deacons, priests and other bishops is here to empower your baptismal ministry in God’s world.”
Then I ask, “How many of you remember your baptism?” In the Virginia Diocese, few actually raise their hands, but some do. “For those of you who do not remember, I want to give you an analogy that might strengthen your understanding of what is about to happen.”
At this point, I usually select the youngest man or woman sitting closest to me as my living illustration. I then tell them that all I say, for the sake of the analogy, is true. I am an old bachelor with no family, and I am worth three million dollars! And Mary is so great; she is my next-door neighbor and she actually thinks I am worth talking to. When we had the big snow, she shoveled my sidewalk. She sees me struggling with groceries and is quickly at my side. I have made a decision, have gone to my attorney, and I have written a will and left my entire legacy of three million dollars to Mary. And then I died. This is so sad, but not for Mary!
Is she a millionaire? Right, but here is the stretch question. What if Mary does not know about my will? Would she still be a millionaire? (They squirm a bit.) She is a millionaire, but in order for my legacy to be operative, it has to be claimed! At this point, the implications of the analogy become clear.
I go on to say that on their baptismal day, the heavens opened and God said, “You are my beloved daughter. I am pleased with you.” God has stuck with you and cannot, and will not ever allow you to fall from God’s embrace. So, in one sense, you are not getting anything from God that you do not already have. But God is getting something from you. You are offering your baptismal life for the transforming of God’s world. You are putting your baptism to work and in the Episcopal family that is so important that we invite the Bishop to come to be a sign of the Holy Spirit’s empowering your decision.
It is my privilege and joy to contextualize my visit in that way because I believe so strongly in the transformative impact of a clear theology of baptism and the claiming rite of confirmation for making intentional disciples.
A part of the body of Christ that celebrates the baptism of infants must, I think, order its life towards the future claiming of such lavish unconditional grace. And so the sponsors and congregation promise to bring up the child in the Christian faith and life and to help her grow into the full stature of Christ. The congregation vows to do all in their power to create a nurturing community that supports life in Christ. It is my lived experience as a person confirmed in such a community and as a priest and bishop, I have always felt that the intentional formation of Christians was the deepest privilege and joy.
The elements of good catechesis involve an immersion in scriptural themes such as creation, covenant, the prophetic tradition, the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the expansion of the Church and that Church in the epochs of history. Elements of Church history should include the Church in the Book of Acts, the Church of the Martyrs, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the modern Anglican/Episcopal tradition.
Grounding in the sacraments, of Baptism, and Eucharist and the lesser five sacramental rites showing how they are related to those sacraments should be focused on enhancing the lives and commitments of the baptized. Catechesis must be enhanced by practice. Mission trips and pilgrimages made up of mature Christians and the confirmands ground the candidate in discipleship.
I also found in my own ministry that the deeply converted sponsor must be deeply invested in the confirmand’s life. I also feel that the liturgy of Baptism and/or confirmation in the presence of a chief pastor must also be an enhancing of each person’s discipleship in church that day. To that end, I ask everyone to take a long breath after saying the Nicene Creed, and then I begin to explicate each vow with these or similar words:
“You have just professed faith in the Triune God and that’s great because once upon a time you were baptized into that Name. The Trinity shares with us their inner life of love and this has implications!
“If you have ever grilled on a charcoal fire, you have observed what happens to the briquette that falls off the pile – it tends to go out!
“We need to be rekindled by each other’s faith. After we get a hard diagnosis, have lost a partner, or a job, or had our faith ‘cool off’ in other ways, we need both to be rekindled and to rekindle each other. So will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?”
When I was Bishop of Kentucky, I ran into folks who were so shocked by post-baptismal sin that they got baptized several times in their life. We Episcopalians are disappointed by our sins or even shocked, but like the Prodigal Son we never lose confidence in the Father’s love and mercy. This vow does not ask us to be perfect, but it asks us to be familiar with the pathway home.
“Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
Our third vow is so critical for a post-Christian world. Half of our friends and neighbors do not know the story – your life may be the first Gospel of Jesus Christ that they hear or read. So . . .
“Will you proclaim by word and example the good news, God in Christ?”
I find it easy to couple the last two vows. They are based on a large concept, spelled with three small letters: A-L-L.
These vows include your sister whom your mother always seemed to favor, the friend who broke your trust, the refugee, gay, straight, black, white, male, female, old, young.
“Will you seek to serve Christ in ALL persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace for ALL persons and respect the dignity of every human being?”
When I administer the rite of confirmation I ask the candidates to meet me at the font. The candidate places their hand on the font and I place my hands on their head, repeat the prayer and have previously instructed the congregation to say a loud Amen at the conclusion of each confirmation. Frequently after the service folks say to me, that felt so real – it was like I was confirmed all over again!
In our Episcopal Church, we have been working so hard to include all within the saving embrace of Christ’s cross. Now it is time to disciple the included. Intentional confirmation, teaching and practice grounded in baptismal theology is the Church’s best opportunity to do that.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2017, Special Issue – Youth Confirmation, Vol. 29, No. 2, page 16-17