Oreo Goodness: It’s All About the Middle
First-Centenary United Methodist Church, Chattanooga, TN
May 31, 2009
John 20: 19-23
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Today is a day full of milestones. First and foremost, today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the “birthday of the church,” the coming of the Holy Spirit among that first gathering of believers. One of the ways the church has traditionally marked Pentecost Sunday is through the Confirmation of new professing believers and reception into membership. So, here at First-Centenary, today is also Confirmation Sunday and we will later celebrate together as 11 of our youth claim their faith in your presence and become full members of this congregation. On a more personal level, I stand before you in this pulpit for the final time today. In just two weeks, I will be ordained and only one week after that I will begin a new appointment. Today we mark many transitions, but we also celebrate “milestones” along the “journey of faith.” As I anticipate my ordination in just a couple of weeks and as these confirmands celebrate their Confirmation on this day, I am going to have a conversation with these young minds, and I invite those of you who are young or just young at heart to eavesdrop, to listen in as we reflect together on this journey of faith.
So here we are, each of us at a significant milestone in our great journey of faith. In just a few short moments, as soon as I’m done preaching (which knowing the way preachers go could actually be more than just moments), you will affirm your faith in Christ and be welcomed into the membership of this congregation. Likewise, in only two weeks, I will affirm my calling into full-time church ministry and be welcomed by the other clergy and laity of our Annual Conference as an ordained leader of the United Methodist Church. Your Confirmation and my Ordination are both significant milestones that we celebrate in our Christian lives. We have worked hard to get to this point. For many of you, since you were children, you have been learning about God, and Jesus, and the Bible, and the church. And in the last several months, each of you has been even more intentional in that learning. You have faithfully participated in the Confirmation classes, you have gone on a retreat, you have done special work at home with your families and fellowship friends, and so many other things. Likewise, I have been very busy in the past few years learning and preparing for Ordained ministry. I have gone to seminary to learn more about God, Jesus, the Bible, and leading the church. I have had to go to many interviews and write many papers, take tests, and go to meetings. And now, with all of that preparation behind us, we are ready to celebrate our growth through Confirmation in your case, and Ordination in my case.
But here’s the thing, Confirmation and Ordination are just brief moments in our faith journey. These services are the ways that we as humans mark and celebrate our continual growth in the faith. And that’s the key, our growth is continual. Certainly, our Confirmation is very significant, just like our baptism, or even sharing in communion with fellow believers. But what I want us to celebrate on this day, as much as Confirmation, is what happens in the in-between times. The things that go on in our lives between baptism and confirmation, or following our confirmation, or even in between Sundays, because that is where the significant moments really happen.
How many of you like Oreos? I have to confess that I LOVE Oreos. I don’t eat them as much as I used to. But I remember that when I was a little kid, I had Oreos and milk as a bedtime snack almost every night. My mom would go down to the kitchen and she would put two or three Oreos on a paper towel and then she would poor some milk in a little glass and we would go back upstairs to my parents’ bedroom. I would sit down on the floor in the middle of the room, and we would watch TV together while I ate the Oreos and milk. I can remember that almost as if it was yesterday. I can also remember that I didn’t always eat the Oreos the same way, at least not for a while. Sometimes I would just devour an Oreo in two or three bites. Other times, I would dip the Oreos in the milk and savor them a bit more. And then, over time I discovered that good stuff in the middle. And I started pulling off one cookie and eating it, then eating the cream out of the middle before finishing off the second cookie. Now here’s what’s significant about that method of Oreo eating. I am a chocoholic. I love anything and everything chocolate, it is my most favorite food, hands down. But when it comes to Oreos, it’s not the chocolate cookie that I love so much, it’s the creaminess in the middle. I mean, I think that many of you would agree that when it comes to an Oreo cookies, its all about the middle! And the same is true in our life as Christians.
These milestones that you and I are about to celebrate, Confirmation and Ordination, they are great and they are very important, just like the chocolate cookies in an Oreo. But the things that really make us into Christians, the really good stuff about us, are those parts in between these milestones. If we are to really follow Jesus’ charge in our lives, and are to live in the world as sent people commissioned by Christ, then we have to get to that stuff in the middle. You see, baptism is not an ending, it’s the way we mark God’s claim on our lives. Likewise, Confirmation is not the end of an intense period of learning and study, it is the beginning of our journey as full members of the body of Christ as expressed through the church. Ordination does not mark the finish of a bunch of paper-writing and interviewing, it signifies the beginning of ministry as one yoked in service to Christ and Christ’s church.
An Oreo would not be an Oreo with only two chocolate cookies. Likewise, our lives as Christians do not consist only of a baptism here or a confirmation or ordination there, or even just a Sunday in this very room. Our lives as Christians are marked by what happens beyond these moments. And this is where Pentecost and Jesus’ charge heard today become so important. On Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit among the gathering of believers. Pentecost is the birthday of the church, the day that Jesus’ followers were empowered to continue his work in the world. We heard earlier John’s account of Jesus coming among the disciples and saying to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then Jesus breathed on them. This was the giving of his spirit, the Holy Spirit, through which all disciples of Christ are enabled to carry out Christ’s work in the world. John even very specifically writes here that Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit allows us to forgive or not forgive sins just as Jesus does. But we are called to even more than just that. Christ expects that we will go forth as he sends us to do, just as the Father sent him. Jesus has commissioned us, the faith community, to continue the work that God sent him to do. The whole world does not yet know Jesus. They did not know him when he walked the face of the earth, nor do all know him today. We are to be about the work of making Jesus known the world-over. We are to love others as Jesus loves and in so doing, we reveal God to the world. And as God is revealed through the faith community that is embracing the “in-between,” it is possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love that we profess together today. Our mission as members of the body of Christ is not to be arbiters of right and wrong, but only to bear constant and faithful witness to the love of God in Jesus.
The world will not know the profession that you Confirmands make here today and that we celebrate as a community unless we tell them. The world will not have an opportunity to see the love of Christ if our Christian lives consist of only gathering here on Sunday mornings. The justice of God cannot be known unless we are the ones out in the world fighting for it. And the unconditional love and grace of God cannot be experienced unless we are the ones offering it.
When I was a young child, I went to church because my parents took me. Actually, if I’m being honest, it was more like they dragged me. I remember my confirmation Sunday. I was excited about being confirmed because my grandfather, a minister himself, would be a part of that milestone. But I didn’t understand the significance of that event until almost three years later. That’s when I finally learned what it meant to be forgiven and loved by Christ, and that’s when I finally understood that the acceptance of God’s love and forgiveness is also the acceptance of a call to service, sharing those gifts with others. This is also when I first discerned that God’s call on my life might involve full-time ordained service in the church. I did not know when I was confirmed that I would be ordained 17 years later; it took living in the middle to figure that out and to get to this point where I am about to be ordained. I had to continue to be intentional about studying God’s word and learning about the church. I had to seek communities of believers to challenge me and nurture me in my continuing walk. I had to immerse myself in prayer everyday, many times a day. I had to get out in the world and help feed the hungry and give voice to the voiceless. I had to step out in complete faith and surrender, hoping only that somehow my life might be useful for God’s purposes in this world. And still I am not there yet. None of us are. But we are on this journey together. We will leave this building today, as we do every week, with a “sent” people, commissioned by Christ to be in ministry in every part of our lives, with every person in our life.
I am not saying that we are all called to ordained ministry, but each of us has a ministry to offer that grows out of the gifts and graces which God has blessed us with. And we should bring that ministry to life as God calls us to do. This is discipleship, this is the stuff that Christians are made of, this is the goodness that fills out our lives and makes us who we are in relationship to Christ. My prayer for each of you on this day is that this profession of faith that you make before this, your church family, and their affirmation and welcome of you as fellow members of the church is only the beginning for you, even more a new beginning for each of us. Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples is a breath of new life that marks this beginning; not only for the Confirmands on this Confirmation Sunday, but for the whole body of believers on this Pentecost Sunday. I pray that each of us will not stop with the chocolate cookie, but that we will go for that great and wonderful creaminess in the middle; that our lives as Christ-followers will extend beyond this moment and this place, bringing God’s goodness to the whole world.