Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Iconic Stories of the Gospels: 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

Samaritan Woman at the Well - He Qi
When I was just past Confirmation “age,” I attended a large national youth convention. It was memorable for me for two reasons. One, because, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was when I first sensed a call to ministry in the church. Two, because, even more importantly, it was the first time a story from the Bible really came alive for me and significantly impacted my faith. 

In all of the posts in this series, I hope that I have been able to convey the ability of a fruitful confirmation experience to help students experience the Bible and the church in a new way not just for that one year, but for the rest of their lives. Yes, as children and younger youth, we teach them the stories and we help build on their own personal experience of the church, but in Confirmation they are able to ask questions of the Bible, apply the Bible to their own experience, and even gain an appreciation for the beauty that is in scripture and be moved by it. 

All five of these iconic stories from the Gospels are moving and meaningful in their own way, and in Confirmation class we can dig deeper into them to reveal a beauty that goes beyond a Sunday school version of the story. 

It was the story of the Samaritan woman, or “the woman at the well” (#67 in this list) that I experienced and understood in a radically new way at that conference. The story was told through liturgical dance (something that if done well can be very moving), and I for the first time could see myself in the scripture as though it was me who was experiencing this good news of Christ’s living water. 

I have to believe that this was the result of the many in-depth conversations I had as a student in my Confirmation class not just about the Gospels and the message of Christ, but about the representation of women in the Bible and the significance of this particular woman’s conversation with Jesus. 

For that experience and for those conversations I am forever grateful. 

Here is what students should come knowing about these five Gospel stories and how our conversations in Confirmation class can build off of them.

66. Jesus turns over the tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12-13)
This is actually one of the stories from Jesus’ life that most students come to class knowing. Maybe it’s because it is such a short story. Maybe it’s because it is so out of character from the sweet and gentle Jesus they typically learn about in Sunday School. 

In both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matthew’s version is slightly longer) we read of Jesus moving immediately from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) to the temple and casting out the money changers and the merchants selling animals for ritual sacrifice, saying, “My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves” (paraphrase).

In Confirmation class we can ask a lot of questions about this story, some of which we have answers for and some of which we struggle with alongside generations who have come before us. Why does Jesus seem to act so out of character here? Is it actually out of character for him, or do we just not read (or teach to children) the more edgy stories of Jesus’ ministry? What is the point of this outburst? Is he saying that these operations would be okay if they were located outside the temple...just not inside its walls? 

What does this mean about how we handle money in the church? Should the church function like a business? Should the church sell things to raise money? If Jesus walked into your church and saw the youth group running a bake sale outside the sanctuary, would he flip the table over and send snicker-doodles flying everywhere?

67. The Woman at the Well (John 4:4-42)
This story of the Samaritan woman is as long as the previous one is short, which is probably why fewer students are familiar with it. If you are not familiar with it yourself, it is absolutely worth the ten minutes to read it in its entirety. 

But to summarize: Jesus travels into an area usually avoided by devoted Jews because it took one through Samaria, where because of geopolitical struggles over the previous centuries there lived a group of people who practiced a slightly distorted version of the Jewish faith. Jesus is undeterred and even stops at a public well at noon and speaks there with a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water. 

What follows is the longest conversation Jesus has with any one person in any of the four gospels. He and the woman debate theology and in particular the promised coming of the Messiah. He reveals himself to her as that Messiah, and she in turn evangelizes in her local village and brings her community to come and meet Jesus for themselves. 

In Confirmation we can talk about the role of women in the Gospels. Why are so many of them unnamed? How does Jesus treat women compared to how women were treated by others in that ancient culture? What does it mean that Jesus seems to know all about this woman? In our relationship with Jesus, do we feel like Jesus “knows” us as well? How does the writer use the image of water in this story? How do these images of water influence the way we understand our baptism? If we too are touched by the water of baptism will we never be thirsty again? What does it mean that the water of baptism is “living” water?

68. Call of the Disciples (Luke 5:1-11)
Jesus’ disciples are sort of a rag-tag group of men who came to him from a variety of social locations and positions in the community. But despite their diversity we still tend to think of them primarily as a group of fishermen - most likely because of this story of Jesus calling them to follow him and the stories of them fishing together after Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the Gospel of John.

According to Luke, Jesus came to Lake Geneseret (aka the Sea of Galilee) and was pressed upon by a crowd of people who wished to hear him teach. He asked a local fisherman (Simon) who had come in from a full day of fishing to take him out in his boat so that he could teach the crowds from there. At the end of his teaching, he asked Simon to put out further into the water and to lower his nets for a catch. Simon told him that they had been fishing all day and had caught nothing, so there was little hope that this time there would be any fish in the water. But of course his nets immediately filled and more help had to come out from the shore just to pull them into the boat. 

Of course Simon and his friends James and John were impressed. Simon knelt at Jesus’ feet and declared himself unworthy of him, and Jesus invited him to come join him and to now fish for people instead.

When students come to Confirmation already knowing this iconic story of call, it can serve as the foundation for a conversation about their own call both to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to other service in the church either ordained or as a lay person. Does Jesus only call the perfect and the equipped? How does God use the unique gifts we are each given to serve the church and the world? What does it mean to leave something behind, as the fishermen left their nets behind, in order to answer Christ’s call?

69Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (Luke 19:1-10)
In this classic Sunday school story, Jesus comes to the town of Jericho and as always is mobbed by those who want to hear him teach. A short man named Zacchaeus, who is also a tax collector, decides to climb a tree to get a better view. Jesus sees him in the tree, calls him by name, and tells him to come down so that he can give dinner to Jesus and his friends. The crowd is shocked that Jesus would go to the home of a tax collector (sinner). Zacchaeus promises Jesus to give half of his money to the poor and to compensate four-fold any whom he has cheated in the course of his work. Jesus names him a son of Abraham and declares that salvation has come to his house.

In Confirmation class we can dig deeper into some of the more unique cultural elements of first century life. While we may not like paying taxes, we do not have the same baggage when it comes to the morals of tax collectors. Because the Bible often describes the inclusiveness or radicalness of Jesus as a man who eats with tax collectors and sinners, students can learn in class what that characterization would have meant for the first hearers/readers of the Gospels. 

What does it mean that Jesus associates with those who the world calls unclean, bad and immoral? Who would be “tax collectors” in our world? Do we as Christians seek out these people to offer grace and love or do we try to disassociate ourselves from them just like Jesus’ first followers did? 

70. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 - 7:29)
These three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew contain a unified collection of Jesus’ major teachings. Chances are if you think you know something that Jesus said or taught it came from the Sermon on the Mount. Here is where we get our Christian understanding of forgiveness, of prayer, and of reconciliation. The speech contains a variety of examples of how Jesus sought to reinterpret the laws of the Old Testament. Of course, he would probably say it was less of a reinterpretation and more of a corrective interpretation for how the law was intended to be used. 

Again, just like the story of the woman at the well, if you as a parent are not familiar with the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, you should take the time to read it for yourself and together with your child. You will be amazed both at how familiar it all sounds AND at how overwhelming it is to see all of these expectations for the believer in one place. 

In Confirmation class we can spend time looking specifically at what Jesus teaches in terms of how the believer behaves in his or her private and public life. It is not just enough to declare faith in Jesus Christ, but one who chooses to walk this path needs to know that it is not an easy journey - we are expected to love our enemies, to resolve disputes with our friends quickly, to not judge others, and to let our light shine brightly in the world. How do we do all of these things? Are we supposed to do all of these things? Can you call yourself a Christian and choose to ignore some of them? To whom are we accountable? 


We are just two more posts away from completing this list. I am excited to share that the entire list, my reflections on it, and more suggestions and ideas for parents and educators is coming together as a book over the next several months. I will keep the blog updated with news as we get closer to publication. 

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