Too many pastors say they hate Confirmation Sunday. They love the Catechism, and they love teaching students. They have no problem with the white robes or the class photos, but they hate the rite of confirmation itself. Why? Because they know that too many students are promising to continue in communion with the church, with no serious intention of doing so. I daresay my colleagues are missing out on the miracle and joy of the occasion.
This Trinity Sunday, I will see my twelfth group of ninth-grade confirmands confirmed. For years, I have asked students what confirmation means, and often heard the response: “It’s when you confirm your faith.” That sounds good, but it misses something important. Throughout scripture, when someone speaks of confirmation, it is God doing the confirming.
A confirmation is a way of verifying your words. If you call a restaurant to confirm a reservation, you are establishing that their promise to set aside a table still stands. In scripture, God makes eternal promises to us, and then he confirms his word by delivering what he promised.
One vivid example takes place at the end of Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 16:16, Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Big promise. By baptism and faith, we are saved from sin, death, and the devil. But what if Jesus doesn’t mean it? What if he doesn’t have the authority to make such promises? Those doubts are why he continues in verses 17–18: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Jesus offers these signs as proof that what he says goes. At the end of the chapter, Mark says, “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” Jesus makes a promise, and then he confirms it.
The Book of Acts tells stories of these signs. The disciples indeed spoke in tongues. When Paul was bitten by a viper, he shook it off into a fire with no harm. Various people received healing in Christ’s name. These signs are God’s, something God is doing to verify his word. All of these signs confirmed the message. They showed that Jesus meant what he said. He has authority to make promises such as, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
What about today? Does God still confirm his promises? You bet. I have never seen someone survive a snakebite or poison, but I have seen something just as miraculous. For twelve years, I have watched confirmation students stand in front of their congregation and say, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Who are these students? Some were pious. Some completed their assignments and memorized their Catechism with little hassle. Some have attended church their entire lives. Others, however, were irreverent. For some, memorization was like pulling teeth. Many were uninterested in the things they learned, or at least they wanted us all to believe that. Some attended church very little before confirmation classes. Far too many have attended little since. But the miracle is that they have all confessed faith in Christ with their own lips—in public no less! Before tens and sometimes hundreds of people!
A pastor who hates Confirmation Sunday fails to appreciate the miracle of confessions, especially when those confessions come from the impious or the insincere. Consider the centurion at the crucifixion, confessing that Jesus was God’s Son. Did he know what he was saying? Don Juel suggests that the centurion’s words, “Surely this man was the Son of God,” were uttered in sarcasm, but that the centurion said more than he really knew (1994, 74 n. 7). Pilate asked, “So you are the King of the Jews?” To which the Lord responded, “You say so,” not, “Do you really mean that?” St. Paul is adamant that no one says “Jesus is Lord” unless the Holy Spirit inspires him (1 Corinthians 12:3). The smart aleck confirmation student might respond that he can say whatever he wants without the Spirit’s inspiration, but can he? Every time I hear “Jesus is Lord,” I will say the Spirit has been at work, especially in the smart aleck’s case. The Spirit must laugh when he can bring smart alecks to this point, extracting the truth despite themselves, inspiring articulations of Christ from unlikely sources.
Not only are these confessions miraculous, but they confirm the promise that Jesus made to these students when they were baptized: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them.” Jesus promised to make them disciples, and he kept that promise. And it happened in the way he said, through baptizing and teaching. When they stand before us on Confirmation Sunday and say, “I believe in God, the Father almighty… I believe in Jesus Christ… I believe in the Holy Spirit,” it is God himself confirming his promise to make them his disciples, and he is confirming it with the miraculous sign of the students’ own Spirit-inspired, public confession.
The body of Christ includes many members, including ones we don’t see very often. Like shoulder blades, they aren’t often visible, but they are nonetheless attached. Christ’s body is a complex organism, and you get to know it better over the course of time. As a pastor, it helps to spend more than a few years in one parish. You come to recognize people who don’t appear on Sundays, but who attend every funeral. You see students confirmed who don’t return the following Sunday, but who end up as groomsmen in weddings, or who bring their own children for baptism. They have not stopped hearing the Word. They have not been cut off from the body of Christ.
One of my earliest confirmands was a real piece of work. He was interested in snowmobiles and demolition derbies. Catechism? Not so much. He disrupted class with jokes and side conversations, and in the days leading up to Confirmation Sunday I spent a lot of time with him in my office, reciting the Catechism over and over again, until he could say enough of it by himself to pass. After he was confirmed, I didn’t see him in church. Then, about a year later, he showed up one night. It was a Wednesday evening, and I was preparing for class. He looked lost. He had ridden his four-wheeler to our small country church and then wandered into the classroom, curious if there was class that night. I invited him to join us. He didn’t make a habit out of it. I didn’t see him again on Wednesday evenings, and I saw him only occasionally on Sundays, probably less than Christmas and Easter. But the Word had gotten hold of him.
We are nearly at the five-hundredth Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Since 1517, how many students have stood before their congregations and confessed the Apostles’ Creed? Millions? It would be a pity to despise such a miracle. How many never attended a worship service again? Probably fewer than we suspect. How many heard a lot more of God’s word than they would have otherwise, because their parents or grandparents expected them to attend class for a couple years? Many of them might have forgotten the Catechism they memorized, but in their cramming, on the Wednesday drive from home to church, how many had to recite the words Christ and forgiveness in such close proximity and with such repetition that those words will be forever linked in their minds? Or the words Baptism and salvation? It would be wonderful if every confirmand spoke the Apostles’ Creed from a genuine heart, but it is more miraculous when such words come from the lips of genuine sinners.
Jim Nestingen recalls a comment from fellow seminary professor Gerhard Frost: “For years, the catechism glowered at us menacingly. Then it went behind trees and hid, peeking out occasionally. Now we’re hoping that it will come out and smile again” (1990, 33). Perhaps the smile has disappeared because we have been too impatient. We haven’t given the Catechism enough time to do its work. It works best, of course, when parents read it at home over the course of years, when it is displayed as Luther intended it, as a poster on the wall where fathers can see it from the dinner table and teach it to their kids. But even if students only ever see it for a couple years in confirmation classes, we don’t have to lose heart that it has failed just because the week after Confirmation Sunday they are gone. Jesus compared the kingdom to seeds and yeast, things which operate imperceptibly and slowly. We are ready to cut down the tree, but the vinedresser wants more time (Luke 13:8).
St. Peter had his own Confirmation Sunday, and just like the old tradition, it was also his First Communion. Like every other confirmand, he promised that he would never desert Jesus, that he would lay down his life for him. Jesus knew better, and told him so: “You’ll deny me three times.” A week later, Peter was missing from church, hiding behind locked doors. And our resurrected Lord showed up and announced peace. Not long after that, Peter decided to go fishing for fish, instead of fishing for men, as Jesus had instructed. Once again, Jesus showed up, full of so much forgiveness that he cooked Peter and the other disciples breakfast.
On Confirmation Sunday, when you hear them promising to continue in communion with the church even though it is more likely the next Sunday they will be fishing, shopping, or sleeping in, then feel free to smile, knowing that despite the hollowness of their intentions, Christ has a way of pursuing his sheep. A
Paul Koch is pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Howard Lake, Minnesota.
Juel, Donald H. Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.
Nestingen, James Arne. “Preaching the Catechism.” Word & World, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1990): 33–42.