SEPTEMBER 30, 2012
Confirmation Sunday

“Resident Aliens”
Ezekiel 36:24-28; Romans 5:1-8; Mark 1:9-11

If you were to go home after church today and Google the title of this sermon, what you would get is several thousand references to the current national worry about immigration; you would get, at the top of that list references to taxation and resident aliens. If you look closely, you may find one reference to a book from which I have stolen this sermon title.

This book, Resident Aliens, is by two professors from Duke. In it, they make the case that being a Christian necessarily puts you at odds with society, and American society in particular.

In Resident Aliens, Stanley Hawerwas and William Willimon stressed that Christianity is a communal tradition that gives us the skills, habits and practices that enable us truthfully to know the world in the way of Christ, and subversively to resist the toxic pressures of the world’s godlessness.

These authors got more specific about how the church does that in a sequel, Where Resident Aliens Live, which bore the subtitle Exercises for Christian Practice. A constant theme in the second book was the necessity of developing practices commensurate with the peculiar demands of Christian discipleship in North American culture. In a chapter titled “Practice Discipleship” they even quoted from a Wall Street Journal article in order to praise the U.S. Marines for demonstrating that, if one desired to transform the character of drug-dealing or racist young adults, one could do so only by teaching them practices that were different from the practices of modern American culture.

Willimon and Hawerwas did not introduce the idea that Christianity is a set of countercultural practices. Søren Kierkegaard in 1850 wrote Practice in Christianity (sometimes translated as Training in Christianity). Kierkegaard attacked the idea that one becomes a Christian simply by accepting intellectually some supposedly rational set of arguments for the validity of Christianity. He asserted that the challenge of being a Christian is not to understand Christ or devise some philosophic system based on Christ but to obey Christ, to follow him, to put one’s trust into practice. Kierkegaard based his approach on the peculiar nature of Christ himself and on the way that Christ taught—through parables rather than abstract ideas, through miraculous actions rather than metaphysical speculation. As Kierkegaard said, Christ calls people not to admiration but to discipleship.

As I read Kierkegaard, practices are those ways that one must live if one is convinced that Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God.

It occurs to me, now that I am talking about it, that it wasn’t Kierkegaard who came up with this idea. See, the life that Paul speaks of and that Jesus taught is radically different from what you hear about today. Salvation’s purpose was action that encompassed all of life. The far right may look off into the hereafter. The far left may look at injustices today. Jesus, instead, spoke about the Kingdom of God being something that you live in both here and hereafter. The salvation that Paul preaches in Romans 5 is a new order of life. Through it we have “…access to this grace in which we stand.”

Practices, in and of themselves don’t mean much. They can be as routine and wooden as any other aspect of repetitive action; These activities are worthless without the God who makes Christian practice interesting in the first place.

One of the things that first appealed to me about the discovery of Christianity as a practice was that the practices of any faith are so wonderfully specific and odd. They tend to be incomprehensible without reference to the specific experience of God that has occurred in that faith. The goal of these practices is the re-formation of our very selves, more and more, into the glory and goodness that is God in Christ.

That is why the scholastic maxim, actio sequitur esse, reminds us that action is always in accordance with the essence of the person who acts. The point of Paul’s preaching in Romans 5 is to insist that the grace that is available in Jesus Christ to change our status with God is also available to overcome our difficulty in following this same Jesus in our daily lives.

In an hour or so, at the late service, we will be asking some young folks to confirm their baptism. Baptism, by its very nature, is an act whereby the church recognizes this central promise in Romans 5, and remembers it in a very specific way, an exceptional way, with a particular ‘child of God.’ In most of Christianity, at least those of the non-antibaptist variety, we ask these same people to affirm their baptism when they ‘come of age.’

This process of preparation for Confirmation is not unlike what each of us does as a disciple. Although we may have confirmed our baptism long ago, each of us remains charged to grow in the faith. Faith formation (a popular term these days, but just as easily could be described as discipleship) is something we go at indirectly. We cannot, you see, increase our faith directly. It isn’t as if you can come to church and say fill up the tank. It doesn’t work that way. Neither can we grow by direct effort. Instead, through practicing our faith we open ourselves up to God’s ability to re-program our hearts. God takes this little offering of some attention, some behavior, some activity and produces in us things far greater than we could ever ask or think. This is what Ezekiel promises when he speaks of God transforming our ‘hearts.’

Remember, we are not trying to teach these young people how to live Jesus’ life; we are trying to introduce to them a way in which Jesus can transform our lives, in ways that might serve God’s Kingdom here and now.

One of the problems with the transformation is that it produces people with values and characteristics that are quite different than those around them, in school, on the sportsfield, or on a given Friday night. It is particularly hard, I suppose, for young people to accept this what with peer pressure what it is. Still, you and I are kidding ourselves if we believe that our journey is any easier. Just because we are adults does not mean we are immune to the pressures of the market place or the pace of society.

Discipleship means that you will be different, a ‘resident alien’ even. But that doesn’t mean you are alone. In his transforming power, Jesus is with us. That is pretty company to be in.