A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.

Scripture:  Acts 2:1-21 and Mark 1:16-20

Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Pastor Jeff started the sermon by singing “Follow Me” by Bryan Sirchio.  You can read the lyrics to this excellent song on his website at http://sirchio.com/index.php?page=songs&category=Justice_And_Love&display=115.  They ask the question, “Are we following Jesus or just believing in Christ?”  You are encouraged to read the lyrics, and maybe even buy Bryan’s CD through the website.
If first heard that song by Bryan Sirchio 15 years ago or so, and it changed the way I teach Confirmation Class – well, that song and a lecture I heard by Marcus Borg.  Borg’s lecture was on the meaning of faith, a lecture that eventually became a chapter in his book, The Heart of Christianity.  In the lecture he talked about four different understandings of “faith.”  Originally, having faith meant having a relationship with God that is (1) rooted in trust and is (2) deeply faithful (like a married couple are faithful to each other), and that leads to (3) a view that world is basically good.  Trust in God, faithfulness to God, and seeing reality as gracious.  The fourth meaning of faith – giving your mental assent to a belief – existed, but it wasn’t the focus.

Then along came science and it began to question things that the Bible seemed to claim – like the world was made in six days and that the sun revolves around the earth.  The focused understanding of faith turned more and more to emphasize the understanding faith as having right belief.  The whole Fundamentalist movement grew out of a desire to list certain fundamentals of Christian faith that one had to believe in order to really be a Christian; things that science was suggesting were unbelievable.

But if faith is more importantly about who we trust and our fidelity toward that being and how that trust and fidelity lead an understanding that the world is basically good, then it is about what we believe, there are implications.  “Am I following Jesus or just believing in Christ?” the song asks.  Am I in a relationship with a teacher who is showing me a way to live, or am I making sure I have the right set of beliefs about that teacher?

For the decade prior to hearing that song and that lecture, I thought of Confirmation Class as an opportunity to pour as much information about Christianity into the kids as possible.  Expose them to as much Bible as possible; have them read all four Gospels (like any of them actually did that reading assignment).  Teach them church history (can you say snooze fest?).  And end it all with each of them writing their own Statement of Faith.  I’d been teaching Confirmation Class in a way that was trying to get the confirmands to be able to articulate their beliefs, hoping that they would be Christian beliefs.

Then I had this musical/lecture “Aha” moment.  Faith is much more about relationship than it is about right belief.  Love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus said these are the two greatest, most important commandments in the Bible.  They are relational commandments.  They’re about love, and you can’t get much more relational than that.

From there forward, my Confirmation Class curriculum became about helping the confirmands reflect on their relationship with God.  And at the end of the class, instead of writing a statement of faith, instead of writing a description of what they believe, I ask them to write a covenant with God.  What is it that they are promising God at this time in their lives?  That seems much more relational, doesn’t it?

And so, today, we come to a moment when we celebrate the commitments our confirmands have made to be in and remain in relationship with God, to stay on that journey into its unknown future.  We do so today, because today is Pentecost.

Each Pentecost, we hear the story from the second chapter of Acts about the birth of the church.  The disciples are in a room together.  It’s some 50 days after Easter.  Their palpable experiences of the presence of Jesus have ended.  The intensity of that experience that they called the resurrection has ended.  It’s as if he’s left them.

It seems that they aren’t scared the way they were those first days after the crucifixion.  There, they huddled together, locked the doors, and wondered if they would be the next to die.  Now, they’re gathering together for some other reason.  Fellowship, perhaps.Maybe because they know that something else is coming; they’re just not sure what it will be.

And then it happens.  Like a rush of wind blowing through the room, they experience of the presence of God so intense it was like their heads would burst into flame.  God’s Spirit pours out on them and the channels of communication open.  Heart speaks to heart and people understand each other in ways that seem impossible.  Emboldened, the disciples become apostles, and begin to carry the good new of Jesus into the world.

It seems to me that there is no better day to celebrate the Rite of Confirmation than on Pentecost.  On this day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on followers of Jesus and the birth of the church.  So it seems appropriate to me to celebrate today the new life given to the church by young people who affirm their baptisms.

At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, after experiencing the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove and coming to terms with his call, Jesus goes for a walk by the lake.  There he sees Simon, Andrew, James, and John, and he says to them:  “Follow me.”  And they leave their nets, and follow.

More important than the specifics of the beliefs these confirmands hold, more important that the beliefs you or I hold, is the answer to that question:  Are we following Jesus or just believing in Christ?