Today, shortly, we’ll receive four new members into our congregation – Amanda, Sami, Lexi, and Steven. They will join a long list of those who have been members here at Franklin Lakes. They, like hundreds before them, through the years, have stood before you and said that they want to be part of this community of faith. These four young people took part in a confirmation program this year using a curriculum called “Making Disciples” – this program pairs confirmands and mentors together, and instead of meeting together as a class as the primary component, they met on their own with their mentors for the most part, supplementing that core piece with group sessions, assignments, and service projects. I especially want to thank Rose, Michele, Rachel, Meg, and Brian who have served as mentors – this program required much more of our mentors than programs we’ve done before, and they were willing to give it a try, and give of their time, and share their own stories with our youth without really knowing what they were getting into. I also thank those of you who were willing to be interviewed by our confirmands for their essay project – I loved reading about your faith stories through their eyes. In a little bit, these four young people will stand before you, and their mentors and families and I lay hands on them, I will say, “the Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and spirit you may live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”
“Born through water and spirit.” Hopefully this language rings a bell – these words, this language we use in baptism and confirmation is lifted right from our gospel lesson today, from Jesus words to the Pharisee Nicodemus. In our text, Nicodemus, a Pharisee leader, comes to Jesus at night to ask him questions. You get the impression that Nicodemus doesn’t want the other Pharisees to know what he’s up to – but it seems he is intrigued enough by Jesus to just need to have more information. Jesus tells him, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus – he seems so sincere you have to smile, so earnest – asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Today we may be familiar with Christian language of being “born again,” but for Nicodemus, this was new and strange talk. So Jesus continues – “very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He continues to talk about flesh, wind, and spirit, the wind blowing where it chooses. Nicodemus seems even more confused. “How can these things be?” Jesus answers, typical in his response to Pharisees, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus wonders how Nicodemus will get heavenly matters, struggling so much with earthly matters. But still, Jesus concludes, the message he has is about love and grace, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Why? Because “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was a person who was an educated man, a religious leader, one known, as Pharisees were, for his understanding, command, and practice of the laws of the Torah, the laws the guided the Jewish people in faithful living according to the commands God has given them. And yet, despite all this, he couldn’t grasp what Jesus was talking about. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus points out with his question how little Nicodemus understands, though he is one who would claim to know everything that was needed for faithful living. Jesus tries to reorient Nicodemus. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” he says. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In other words, though you can’t describe it, you know the wind is there and at work and you know what it does and what effect it has, as we talked about last Sunday. So it is with those born of the Spirit. So God calls us to be.
Among many other things, today is also Trinity Sunday, the day when, if we didn’t have so much else going on, my sermon might mostly be about understanding the Trinity, this God-in-three-persons thing that is unique to Christianity. We might talk about the doctrine of the Trinity – our Christian understanding of God that tells us God is our Creator, God is our Savior in Jesus Christ, and God is the Holy Spirit that Jesus talks about in today’s texts. I could tell you about the history of this doctrine, the technical language, how confusing it is to understand, how much fighting the early church did over “getting the doctrine right.” The Trinity is an important and central doctrine of the church. But our confirmands will be glad to tell you that they didn’t have some test on explaining the Trinity in order to be confirmed today. There is no test with scores and passing or failing in order to be a member of the United Methodist Church. I love for you to know and understand our doctrine and theology. I want for you to know what we believe as United Methodists. But that’s not the point.
For persons to become members of this congregation on the United Methodist Church, we ask them to take vows. We ask them not to declare doctrines and explain United Methodist theology, but we ask them to become part of the community, and to commit to a path of discipleship. Every time a new member joins the church, and every time a person is baptized, and every time a parent takes vows on behalf of a child when a child is baptized, they all answer this question, which to me is more important than getting the doctrines “right”: As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. And now, we’ve decided to add a new word to the list, that our young people will include today: witness. Prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Responding to this question, committing to participate by your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness is, to me, is the spirit of being a United Methodist, a member of this congregation.
Will you pray? Will you be in conversation with God? Will you talk to God about yourself, your dreams, your fears, your worries? Will you listen to God? Will you be open to God’s leading in your life? Will you lift before God the joys and pains and celebrations and struggles of your friends, your family, this congregation, and those beyond it?
Will you be present? Will you show up? Will you be here, be in this place of worship? Will your membership mean that you are a part of the active life of the congregation? Will you be present in less tangible ways – will you be present in your relationship with God? Will you show up for God, and participate in a relationship with God? Will you do more than just go through the motions?
Will you share your gifts? Will you give of your money and resources? Will you give of your time and your talents? Will you give of yourself and use your gifts in service to God in this congregation?
Will you serve? Will you serve God? Will you serve this church? Will you serve your neighbors, near and far? Will you serve those you would otherwise call enemies? Will you serve even those who have done you wrong? Or those who are least, and last, and lost?
Will you witness? Will you share about God’s love with the world? Will you share God’s love not only in words but in action? Will others know about God because of the witness you make with your life?
In my mind, if you can answer these questions in the affirmative, or at least with an honest commitment to try to say yes to these questions, then I’m not sure it matters so much if you can recite the books of the Bible, or if you know who John Wesley is, or if you can draw a diagram of the Trinity. There is a place for all such knowledge. But our foundation lies elsewhere – in our desire for a deeper relationship with God, in our desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ. For “indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn us, but in order that we might be saved through him.” Thanks be to God. Amen.