Confessing & Shining

Scripture  |  Matthew 5:13-16  |  Romans 10:5-15

Back when I was in seminary, as you might imagine, amongst the future professors, missionaries, and chaplains, there was great number of us students who were on the track to become ordained as ministers. 

And a big part of the process to become ordained as pastors, was to write up a faith statement that we would take back to read in front of our home presbyteries. 

And, for whatever reason, almost all of us took this 1-2 page faith statement INCREDIBLY seriously. We bit our lips in concentration, and sweat and bled over almost every word. 

We would finish a paragraph of our writing and share it immediately with each other before starting the next paragraph just to make sure we weren’t offering up some terrible heresy that would cause our presbyteries to bar us from ministry, or worse, that there might be something in our statement of faith so awful that they might kick us out of the church altogether.

I may remembering it with some exaggeration but to some extent we did believe that this would be the document that would seal our fate, and that we had to have just the right words, and just the right theology to prove ourselves worthy of our calling.

It felt like an audition for a play, where it was just you alone with a spotlight, putting yourself out there, completely open and vulnerable to criticism or whatever else you may receive, laying your faith on the line and then you just have to wait and see if you were good enough. 

And I think anytime we share our faith, whether it is written down, or just speaking casually to a friend, a family member, or a complete stranger it can have this sort of feeling. This sensation that somehow in exposing our beliefs, we are letting people in to a privately held place of our heart and in doing so we are risking a whole lot.

I was recently curious about why we call statements of faith, “Confessions”  at all. How is this word we use to describe both admitting guilt to a crime and also a statement about our beliefs. 

So of course, I googled it, and was brought to the general wikipedia article on “Confession” as a concept, and the first line defines the word with this statement “A confession is a statement - made by a person or by a group of persons - acknowledging some personal fact that the person (or the group) would ostensibly prefer to keep hidden.”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confession)

So in general a confession is this vulnerable thing we do, where we acknowledge something that is personal to us, we share that which we would prefer to keep hidden. Our own book of confessions says it this way in its introduction:

“Many people are confused by talk of “confessing,” “confessions,” and “confessional”churches. Both inside and outside the church confession is ordinarily associated with admission of wrongdoing and guilt: criminals “confess” that they have committed a crime; famous people write “true confessions” about their scandalous lives; persons visit a “confessional” to tell of their sin. In Christian tradition, however, confession has an earlier, positive sense. 

To confess means openly to affirm, declare, acknowledge or take a stand for what one believes to be true. The truth that is confessed may include the admission of sin and guilt but is more than that. When Christians make a confession, they say, “This is what we most assuredly believe, regardless of what others may believe and regardless of the opposition, rejection, or persecution that may come to us for taking this stand.” (Book of Confessions, The constitution of the PC(USA) Part I, pg. v.)

Confessing our faith, sharing what we believe has this ingrained nature of risk and vulnerability. It is against our nature to want to do, and we are naturally afraid of… and yet as Paul says in Romans. All we have to do is say the words of our faith admit what we believe with our hearts with our mouths and we open the floodgates to discipleship. 

Reading this passage didn't make it any easier for my seminary self, anxious and frantic over my faith statement.  I wish I could go back and talk to myself sitting before my first draft, just to be able to share that every time I shared my faith statement with someone, whether it was my home church, my presbytery, or ultimately with the presbytery here in Ohio, and with you all here at this church. I wish I could go back and tell myself that all of these times have been some of the most grace-filled experiences of my life.

Every time I have spoken about my faith, whether it was with my faith statement printed before me, or just talking with a friend, a stranger, or a whole room of people, I have been shown nothing but love. Even when sharing my faith with someone with completely different beliefs than me, even if I was confronted, and had to defend what I believe, the conversation has always ended in a place of respect, and understanding. 

There is some deep inextricable link between the words of our faith and the very core of our being that invites people to listen in a completely different space. I think it has something to do with what Paul says to the church in Romans…

The word that saves is right here near you
on your lips and in your heart.
— Romans 10: 8

Confessing your faith, is the vulnerable act of bearing your heart.  When you share what you believe with someone, you invite them to meet you at the level of your heart. And, anyone who has ever met me at that level of my beliefs, even if they disagree with my beliefs, has always responded with respect, and with love.

This is what our confirmands are doing today, entering into that vulnerable space, confessing their faith in Christ, and inviting all of us to meet them there.

It is an incredible moment of faith in the life of the church, and in the life of any disciple on the journey of faith, and it can feel like a milestone or some ultimate accomplishment that we've worked for. We do all of this thinking, and prayer, and reading, and finally we are able to put into words what it is we feel in our hearts. And it feels like we can take a break and rest because we have reached the end of our faith.

But as many of you here might attest to. Saying the words of our faith it is not the end of the journey but perhaps only the beginning. The next step is figuring out how to live it out.

Paul gets at this in the Romans passage when he goes on saying,

This is the core of our preaching.
You say the welcoming words to God
“Jesus is my Master”
And then embrace it, body and soul…
Embrace God’s work …of doing in us… what he did in raising Jesus from the dead.
— Romans 10:9-10

We say the words, we enter into that sacred confessional heart-level space together, and then we begin the life-long work of embracing it body and soul… we begin the work of living out what we believe in everything we do. This is when Faith becomes Discipleship.

Our lives become the sermon, and we start to want to preach Christ’s resurrection words with every action, with every choice, with every moment of our life.

This process is often a hard thing to understand. First, We hear what God did in Christ’s Resurrection, then we understand it in our hearts, then we understand its meaning with our heads, then we confess this with our words, and then those words of belief echo into the rest of our life.

People have come up with images throughout history to understand this move from faith into discipleship. Almost every image falls short, but I think they are helpful to understand how we are called to live once we have confessed our faith in community.

The confirmands were drawn to the idea that we come to this church community as disciples to hear Jesus’ word and then we absorb it until we are so saturated that as we go into the rest of our lives we are dripping with Jesus’ Grace. I love this description, I find it beautiful and rich for how we are called to live out our faith, but this isn't the image that I'd like to offer today for the confirm ands or for the rest of us journeying in faith.

Matthew describes discipleship using Jesus image in the sermon on the mount, that we are like a lamp shining with Christ’s light. Christ says that we shouldn’t cover up and hide our light, or turn them off, or let them be blown out, but to let that Christ light shine on everyone we encounter, through our actions, and through our praising of God.

A "Fresnel Lens" is how a lighthouse is able to magnify and direct light"

People have taken this scriptural image of discipleship and run with it landing ultimately on the image of the lighthouse, There are two things that I find particularly meaningful about lighthouses.

The first is that lighthouses don’t need to have the biggest, brightest bulb in order to work, They are significant because they are able to magnify whatever glimmer of light that is within them and reflect it out onto the whole area that surrounds them. 

The second thing that I find significant about lighthouses is that every single one, even the most modern ones have to rely on caretakers. They need other people who are willing to regularly check in on them, to periodically notice build up on their lenses and clean them up, to stay with them andevery now and then replace their bulbs.

Moving from internal personal heart level belief to outward discipleship means regularly being a part of the community that you were built into.  A community that can nurture and support you so much that you can let whatever amount of faith that is within you shine out in your words and in your action.

Wherever you are in this process today,
whether you are hearing God’s word for the first time, 
or letting that word take hold at the level of your heart
or confessing your faith with your word and joining the church,
or whether you have been burning your light so long that you are in need of some care taking…

Wherever you are in this process,
May Christ light shine out into your heart, 
May your words be soaked with God’s living word,
And may your life become a beacon to the world, shining out into the darkness with Christ’s light.

Amen.