This weekend we celebrated another milestone ministry in the life of our congregation – the Rite of Confirmation for 13 of our members. This is one of many “milestones” in our lives: birth; re-birth through baptism; first step; first word; first day of school; 2nd Grader Bibles; first Communion; the Rite of Confirmation; 8th grade graduation; getting a driver’s license; graduation from High School and college; marriage; first job; death of parents; retirement – and we could list even more. These are all “milestones” – significant times in our lives – stepping-stones, rather than stopping stones, as we grow and mature in life.
The Rite of Confirmation is a long-held tradition of our Lutheran Church. In true Lutheran form, I invite you to answer the question: “What does this mean?”
A number of years ago, on Confirmation weekend, an honest question was written on the guest side of the attendance card. I learned that it came from an individual who had been baptized, attended Holy Cross School and was confirmed in the building on 9th & Oliver, but rather than a stepping stone – it was a “stopping stone” – for over a dozen years after his confirmation, he had disconnected himself from the Vine: public worship, fellowship with his church family and the Lord’s Supper.
I thank God that the Holy Spirit led him again to come and worship with us as he wrote the question: “Is a membership lifelong?”
How would you have responded to this question… especially in light of the Words of Jesus we read today in John 15: “I Am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit … No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me. I Am the vine; you are the branches. If a person remains in Me and I in Him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in Me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (v.1-6) Did you notice? Jesus emphasizes “remain connected” to Himself – the Vine.
What does this mean when Jesus says, “you are the branches?” The purpose of the branches is certainly not for lumber (not even firewood!); not for shade (not tall enough!) and not for beauty (grapevine wreathes always have added flowers, ribbons, bows); the purpose of the branches is to produce fruit.
So, again we ask: “What Does This Mean? “to produce fruit?” Pastor Snow talked about this last weekend – “Love like the Savior” – The fruit of putting our love into action – 1 John 3: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18) “Bearing fruit” we offer: “How may I serve you?”
Love, a fruit of faith, is always relational, it “bears fruit” between people. This is shown us so well in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The Levite and a priest pass by a man who is half-dead. The Samaritan, by contrast, unselfishly showed love!
We see another example of “bearing fruit” in the Scripture reading from Acts 8. God worked through Philip to explain the Word of God to the man from Ethiopia. Philip invited: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (“What does this mean?”) And beginning with that Scripture told him about Jesus. (This is one of the goals of confirmation classes: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3)
Philip showed the Ethiopian the connection to Jesus Christ. After some basic teaching, the Ethiopian asked to be baptized and received the blessings of a strong connection to Jesus, the True Vine! Tradition tells us that the Ethiopian went home teaching and baptizing the queen, and Ethiopia is a Christian nation today!
So, how would you answer the question written on the Guest card? Is a membership lifelong? First, church membership is not the same as “remaining connected” / plugged in – a solid connection to Jesus, the True Vine. In this respect, this honest question gave me hope, for God’s Word promises: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out… I the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand (good connection!) I will keep you.” (Isaiah 42:3, 6) Therefore, since Jesus nourishes us through our connection with the Vine – through Word and Sacraments, I answered, “No, a church membership is not necessarily life long. But Jesus is always ready to re-connect and bless anyone who comes to Him in faith. Church membership is not what is most important – saving faith in Jesus means remaining connected to Jesus. (Knowing as Jesus teaches that a disconnected branch withers and dies.) Sadly, if anyone indicates no desire to “remain connected” to the Word and Sacrament ministry of the congregation, we acknowledge their situation and they are removed from membership; but always with the prayer and invitation that God’s greatest desire, and ours also, is that they become connected again – an active, fruit-bearing branch again – with the desire and commitment to “remain” active in hearing God’s Word; receiving the Sacraments AND BEARING FRUIT – using their time, talents and treasures so that others too might be connected to Jesus Christ through His Body, the Church, through His Word and Sacraments; “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” 2 Peter 3:18
Looking forward to remaining connected with you again as we meet in worship and Communion this weekend!