From a confirmation sermon I gave a few years ago.
What did Martin Luther (1483-1546) have to say about confirmation? Confirmation is what we are here for today and our congregation traces it roots to Martin Luther. So what did Luther have to say about the Rite of Confirmation?
Well, for the most part, he ignored it. In all the 120 volumes of his writings, Luther says very little about it.
However, when Luther does speak about the Rite of Confirmation, he has three very special words for it. He calls it ‘gaukelwerk,’ which is German for ‘mumbo-jumbo’; he calls it ‘lugenstand,’ which is German for ‘fanciful deception’; and he calls it “affenspiel’–which is German for ‘monkey-business.’ Confirmation, according to Martin Luther is mumbo-jumbo, fanciful deception, and monkey business. This is perhaps not what you expected. But maybe Luther was having a bad day when he said those things and perhaps he did not really mean it.
So let’s look instead at what the Book of Concord says. The Book of Concord is the defining book of Lutheran doctrinal writings that came out of the Reformation. It is understood by Lutherans of all brands to be an accurate interpretation of the teachings of the Bible, and, as an ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church, I am required to pledge my allegiance to this Book of Concord. The various sections are written either by Luther himself or by his colleagues and successors, and it is, to this day, the widely accepted and respected book of basic Lutheran teachings. It is the book that defines who we are as Lutherans and what we believe. In 715 pages, the Book of Concord mentions confirmation only twice; once to say it is not necessary, and the other time to call it ‘humbug.’ Well then, what are we doing here? I’ll get to that later.
First of all, I have to tell you what else Martin Luther says. You see, we use the same word, ‘confirmation,’ for two different things. First of all, there is the ‘confirmation instruction,’ which our confirmands have been attending for the past three years; and then, there is the ‘Rite of Confirmation,’ which we are here for this morning. The two are related, of course, but they are not the same thing. Martin Luther and the Book of Concord had some problems with the Rite of Confirmation as it had come to be practiced in the Middle Ages. But Martin Luther was very concerned about and in favor of confirmation instruction. After all, he wrote the book for it, didn’t he? He wrote the Small Catechism in 1529, and for the last five centuries young people have been studying those words, with their pastors and parents, in Lutheran churches around the world. Martin Luther was primarily a teacher, and it was out of his classroom preparation that he began to develop the thoughts that led to the Reformation. He was a teacher throughout his life, and his lectures and sermons now fill those 120 volumes of his collected works. And at the heart of that tremendous output of Christian teaching is this one small piece that was most treasured by Luther himself and most widely used by Lutherans ever since; this Small Catechism which was written for the instruction of the young.
So when Luther called confirmation ‘monkey business’ and ‘mumbo jumbo’ he was not referring to confirmation instruction, but to the Rite of Confirmation, a rite that in the Middle Ages had become for many people an empty ritual. Luther wanted to emphasize the instruction, and he did so to such an extent that he chose to ignore, and even denounce the rite. Those following Luther, a couple generations later, restored the use of the ritual, and it is for that ‘ritual’ that we gather here today.
However, we do need to be careful that we do not make the same mistake that was made in the Middle Ages. We have to be careful that we do not put the main emphasis HERE, on this day. Sometimes, the confirmation instruction is seen by some as nothing more than a necessary evil one must endure in order to get to this day, and then be done with it all. But that certainly does make it all monkey business and a fanciful deception. If that is your approach, then it would be better to be honest about it and leave it alone entirely. But for Luther, and for us too, this day must not be a graduation, but merely a step along the way, the continuing way of walking with Jesus. It is a milestone, perhaps, but still just one step in a lifelong process of learning and living the faith.
Now, to return to the question I asked earlier: what are we doing here today? The rite of confirmation, as we know it, is not mentioned by Jesus, it is not commanded anywhere in the Bible, and it was intentionally ignored and discarded by Martin Luther. As I said, it was later rediscovered by the Lutheran Church, polished off a bit and reinterpreted, and is now a part of a long and cherished tradition. But now it has a different meaning than it had in the Middle Ages and it would be good for us to briefly review that meaning.
The meaning of Confirmation has to do first of all with Baptism, Baptism which is a main event in the life of Lutheran Christians. Baptism, unlike confirmation, is spoken of quite extensively in the New Testament, it IS specifically commanded by Jesus, and it receives a great deal of emphasis by Luther. It is in Baptism, Luther says in the Small Catechism, that God “forgives sins, delivers from death and the devil , and gives eternal life to all who believe, as the word and promise of God declares.” Confirmation adds nothing to that. What more can be added? We receive the entire promise of God right from the start. So what is confirmation and what part does it have?
The answer is in the name now given to confirmation in the Lutheran hymnal. It is now called ‘Affirmation of Baptism.’ That is a good name to call it, because the name itself includes a proper definition of confirmation. To affirm is to agree to or with something, to say YES to something. In confirmation you say YES to what happened to you in your baptism.
Each of this year’s confirmands was baptized as an infant. Most Lutherans are. And they did not know 14 years ago when they were baptized what was happening to them. They understood no part of it. But their parents and sponsors were there, and they spoke in the infant’s place. For this reason, some people say Lutherans have it all wrong and we should not baptize infants who do not understand what is going on. But is God’s ability to love and make promises any less than that of human parents? Human parents love and care for and commit themselves to their baby long before that baby understands anything about what parents are or even calls them mommy and daddy. In the same way, God gives his promises and love and care right from the start; and then God gives to parents and sponsors the job of making sure that the little one hears about God and hears about God’s promised future for him or her. This takes place in bed-time prayers and Bible stories, in Sunday Schools lessons and church services, and then in confirmation instruction. And then, after 14 years, you, the confirmand are ready to speak for yourself. At the center of the confirmation service are the same four questions that are at the center of the baptism service. At baptism, your parents and sponsors were asked, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?,” and they said, “I do.” They were asked “Do you believe in God the Father?,” and they said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” They were asked, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?… and.. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” They said, “I Believe… in Jesus Christ… I Believe…in the Holy Spirit” and so forth. Now, at confirmation, instead of God giving you the promise as he already did in Baptism, now, in confirmation, YOU make a promise to continue to live in the promise God has given you, to continue in the faith that you were instructed in.
Today the confirmands will answer the same four questions asked of their parents and sponsors 14 years ago, this time speaking for themselves, saying what amounts to, “Yes, I understand now what I did not understand before; and I realize that for a long time already I have been God’s child; and now I make my promise to remain faithful, never leaving or abandoning this faith given to me.” Confirmation is not in any way a graduation from, or an end to, anything. It is just the opposite. It is a promise to continue. When properly understood and honestly undertaken, confirmation is a wonderful opportunity to publicly thank God and affirm your faith in Him.
But if confirmation is in any way understood to be an end of anything, and if the promises are made without any intention of carrying through on them, then it is certainly a ‘fanciful deception’ and ‘monkey business.’ It is up to you which it will be.
Proverbs 3:5,6 — Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths.
Colossians 2:6-7 — So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Lord God of our ancestors, we thank you for what you have done and will continue to do with our sons and daughters. Walk with them in life, and keep the evil one from obstructing their path. You see all; you know where the water is deep. Keep them from danger. Order their steps and guide their feet while they run the race of faith. May the good work that you have begun in them be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen. (ELW, page 83)