Monday, May 19, 2014

The Life of the Early Church: The Final 5 Things (out of 100) That Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

After two years of blogging through this list of the 100 Things That Your Child Should Know BEFORE Confirmation Class, I find myself here at the end with the topics that I always cover at the very beginning of this year of preparation for students choosing to become adult members of the church.

While an important part of being Confirmed is making a declaration of faith in Jesus Christ, just as important is making a choice to live out that faith in the context of a particular Christian community. 

Two weeks ago, I shared some of the questions that students are asked to answer in my Presbyterian tradition related to their declaration of faith. Here is the final question they are asked:

Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

While it may sound heretical, this question is just as important to me as all of the others. 

The Christian experience is rooted in community from its very start. To be a Christian outside of community means losing an essential part of how the Bible models faith expression and the practices of faith. 

Unfortunately, Confirmation Sunday sometimes takes on an air of graduation instead of commencement as students (and parents) consider it a day of liberation from the burdens of Sunday School. I have actually had students tell me that their parents promised them they didn’t have to go to church any more once they were confirmed. Sadly, too often students and families do drift away, whether intentionally or unintentionally, after this rite of passage has been traversed. 

Instead Confirmation really should be considered a day of binding - binding one’s heart and mind to Jesus Christ and binding one’s expression and experience of faith to the community.

So on the first week of Confirmation class we always start by reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, as he describes our connectedness as individual members in the singular Body of Christ:

 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 1 Corinthians 12:14-20 (NRSV)
By starting our year in this way we are always mindful of how each of these students will find their place, express their unique gifts, and learn from those who are different, as members not just of one congregation but within the entire Body of Christ. 
When students come to Confirmation class already aware of the following five items, our conversations about the history of the church, the way the Bible guides our relationships within the church, and the ways that the church engages with the world can be deeper and broader and have a more significant impact on a student’s ability and willingness to identify themselves as a member of the Body of Christ.
76. The Gift of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost)
In addition to starting Confirmation class with a reading from 1st Corinthians, I also have students read together from Acts 2, which tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and the mass conversion of visitors to the city of Jerusalem that day. Students should know that the disciples were gathered together in a home when the Holy Spirit comes upon them like a mighty wind and lights upon their heads like tongues of fire. When they leave to go out into the city to preach they find that even though the very cosmopolitan crowd speaks a variety of languages they all seem to understand the disciples speaking in Aramaic. (okay they probably don’t need to know that they were speaking Aramaic, since I had to look that up myself) The Bible says that three thousand people were baptized, which is why we call Pentecost the “birthday” of the church.
When students come already knowing the story of Pentecost, they can start to understand that though Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, there was a point at which the followers of Jesus began to structure their lives and their community in a different way from that heritage. This also provides a great opportunity to talk both about the way that the church developed from this point on and the ways that we still today rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit to inspire our life together as church through the reading of scripture, worship, preaching and the sacraments.

77. The Conversion of Paul
There are several aspects of Paul’s story that students should be introduced to before Confirmation class. The story of his “conversion” (a conversion not “from” Judaism, but “to” the messianic sect later called “Christian”) is one of the most important because it gives a sense of his call to Christian ministry and the development of the early church. The story of Paul’s conversion is found in Acts 9. Paul (or rather Saul as he is known in Judea) is a Pharisee who is persecuting the first Christian converts. During a trip to Damascus he is struck by a blinding light and hears a voice that says, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The voice identifies himself as Jesus and instructs him to travel (even though he is now blind) to Damascus. There he will find a man named Ananias who will care for him. Upon meeting this disciple, who touches his eyes, he regains his sight and is immediately baptized. Paul takes up preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, and his life-long ministry of evangelism and church planting around the Mediterranean begins. 

So much of what we believe about Christian theology and the Christian life comes not from the Gospels but from the writings of Paul (see next item below). It is important as students come to understand the teachings of Paul that they also have a sense of his life and ministry. When they come with this story of his conversion under their belt, students can be introduced to Paul’s struggles as a Christian himself, his debates within the Christian community, and why so much of the New Testament is dedicated to his writings. And, just as Confirmation class provides the opportunity to help students make the connections between the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament, they can also learn how to read the stories of Paul found in Acts alongside the writings and theology of Paul found in his letters.

78. Journeys and Letters of Paul
There are 21 letters (or epistles as we sometimes call them) in the New Testament. Scholars and church leaders have debated back and forth which ones were written by whom. The majority of them - no matter where you fall on the authorship issue - were written by the Apostle Paul. Most likely some that were thought for centuries to be written by Paul were instead written by his disciples and intentionally in his style. Regardless, these letters give us significant insight into both the ecclesiological (church) and theological (beliefs) debates in the early Christian communities. It is here where we learn about the expectations that were put on early church leadership, the ways that the laws of the Old Testament were either applied or abandoned, and the ways that the early church slowly developed unique worship traditions. Students should understand that Paul traveled along the Mediterranean as far as Rome teaching people about Jesus, and that part of that work meant also teaching them how to tell the story of Jesus, how to shape their life together and how to deal with conflict and disagreements within the community.

One of the things that we do in Confirmation is help students understand what it really means to be a part of a community. Sometimes that means arguments, conflicts, change, and disagreements. Together in class we can look at the debates that the first Christians had as they tried to figure out what it meant to share a common faith and even sometimes a common purse and life together. Confirmation is not about painting a rosy picture of the Church but about equipping young people to be engaged in the choices that really matter in the life of the community, to discern when conflicts and division are happening over non-essential elements of the Christian life, and not to be discouraged when there is conflict in their church experience. 

79. Differences between Jews and Gentiles
There is no other topic I introduce in Confirmation class that causes more confusion and consternation for students than the explanation of the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles in the first generation of Christian converts. I know that they come understanding what it means to be a Jew. What I think they get caught up on is the idea that there would have been an actual name for anyone who was not a Jew - or what we refer to as a Gentile (our word comes from the Latin translation of the Greek and Jewish words used in the Bible for non-Jews, which mean “nations”). It may be because they themselves ARE Gentiles and never knew it. I am not sure. It is certainly not a complex concept, but one that if introduced early and often should not be as traumatic as it winds up being.

In Confirmation class we can talk about the very complicated history of the early church wrestling with maintaining a Jewish identity while also opening the community to Gentiles. What traditions were retained? What practices were set aside? What was lost and what was gained? What does the Bible tell us about what it means to practice our faith, to identify ourselves as disciples, and to spread the Good News outside of our community? 

80. The Book of Revelation
And so here we are at the very end. The end of this blog series (kind of) and the end of the Bible. I am not sure that The book of Revelation really fits in this group of five, when we think of it in terms of how Confirmation helps to shape students in their understanding of the Christian community both today and over the past 2,000 years. But it does relate to how we understand Christianity to be in relationship with the world around it. The book of Revelation (or in full, The Revelation to John) is often described as “apocalyptic literature,” a type of writing in which otherworldly beings reveal secrets about the future and/or the cosmos to ordinary mortals. Though it is the most easily identifiable exemplar of that biblical genre, it is not the only apocalyptic story in the Bible. Revelation describes the vision of John (probably not the disciple) on the island of Patmos and describes the coming of Jesus Christ again to the earth and all that goes into the final judgement of the world.

We don’t spend much time at all on the Book of Revelation in Confirmation Class. But here is one of the reasons that I think students should be aware of it and have a general understanding of what it is, even if they have never actually read it themselves. Confirmation has to be a place where students can bring the questions that are burning within their hearts or their brains - for many of them they have not had a safe place like this before where they can be pretty sure that they are going to get an honest answer. It is totally within the realm of possibility that in a group of ten students that one of them has been reading through Revelation and is either a little freaked out by it or maybe intrigued by it. It would be very normal then for them to ask about it in class. I love it when students bring these kinds of questions and I love taking the time to answer them. The thing that is frustrating to me is when I have to spend just as much time getting the rest of the class up to speed on what the question is all about. It is one thing to help students think about Revelation more deeply than they have before. It is another thing to need to spend extra time making sure that all students understand the minimum information about Revelation needed to get anything out of the conversation. 

Basically, this is the goal of this list, and it is why this list is not the maximum but rather the minimum that students should know about the church and the Bible before they start their Confirmation journey - the better prepared they are the more they are going to get out of the limited time we have together, the deeper our conversations can be, and the better equipped they will be for a lifetime of faith. 

Today marks the end of blogging through this list, but not the end of the conversation that I want to continue both about how we prepare children to be youth who engage fully in their own Christian Education and how we can continue to do a better job at church and at home to increase their biblical literacy. 

Later this week I will share more about how this list and my journey through it will be coming together in a book over the next few months. Stay tuned!

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