Fifth Sunday of Easter
This weekend marks the arrival of a long-awaited milestone. Given, some of you have probably been looking forward to it more than others. In fact, some of you might not have even been aware that anything exceptional was going to be happening this weekend. And though that may be the case, we find ourselves at a time where years of effort are now coming to fruition. Many people have put in hours upon hours of time and effort into this milestone. Years in the making, there have, no doubt, been many highs and lows along the way. Starting this weekend, there will be new peaks and valleys. Friends and family will come together to support one another. New challenges and unforeseen struggles will emerge. This could be an epic experience! You've probably already figured out what this long-awaited milestone is: the arrival of Spider-Man 3 at the local movie theater.
If you're not familiar with either the comic book or the movie series, here's the executive summary: Peter Parker, an awkward high-school student, comes into fantastic, spider-like powers when he is bitten by a scientifically-altered spider. Shortly after Peter begins to understand the scope of his gift, his dearly loved Uncle Ben is killed by a robber, a man that Peter had opportunity to stop easily before the fact. After that tragedy caused him to realize how he should use his newfound power, Peter now battles evil as the costumed superhero Spider-Man.
Peter Parker falls into his gift - or, you might say it fell on him. He was not particularly prepared or polished, and you probably would not have pegged him as "superhero material." It all came to him unexpectedly, and now he's left in alien territory. Peter is all alone. There's no one really like him. There's no one to show him the ropes, no one to teach him - the spider bite didn't come with an instruction manual. There's no one that could truly understand what he'll face.
But let's look for a minute at another Peter: Simon Peter, from our reading in the book of Acts. Peter had been called by God to journey to a foreign land, alien territory, and to share the Good News with an alien people. Peter had not been anxiously awaiting this assignment. It came unexpectedly. Even so, he went where God sent him, visiting the people, speaking the Gospel message. And as Peter began to share the Word of God with them, God poured out His Spirit upon them, just as He had upon the Jewish believers at Pentecost. God did not make a distinction between the people of the Old Covenant and those would be made one under the New Covenant in Jesus. They are all equal partners in the Gospel.
Christians are gifted. The Spirit has been poured out on us in the waters of Baptism, through which God is at work. The Holy Spirit is at work in you. You are joined together with your fellow believers as members of the body of Christ. Not just here at St. John's, but with other believers all around the world and throughout time. You are part of something truly epic.
Baptism is the beginning. Once we have been joined to Christ, we are called to grow. Grow in faith, grow in knowledge. Our congregation offers opportunities for this from very early in youth, working with families to educate and disciple their children. Parents, adult guides, and junior guides bear witness to the faith with which we've been gifted. Sunday School and youth groups lead up to what some might call the pinnacle of the Lutheran educational experience: Confirmation. But that's not what Confirmation is. This is not where your education should end. You are now members of the body of Christ, both in the church catholic and here in this congregation. In Confirmation, you are welcomed as a partner in the mission of the Church in this time and place. You are a member.
So what does it truly mean to be a "member?" We share the same faith that God have to the Gentiles to whom Simon Peter spoke the Gospel. The Spirit is at work. But beyond that, we might look at church membership in the same way that we view so many other things in our life: it's just something else that we do. We get to spend time with people that with whom we share something in common for an hour - maybe two - each week on Sundays. We hear some things, we do some things, and we go home. But let me tell you: membership means so much more than that. It's not just getting the key to the front door, or getting a card that entitles you to bonuses or benefits. As members, we are called to gather together around the Word in worship. Called to gather together around the gifts that God gives us in Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Called to be in fellowship.
Going back to Peter Parker's life for a moment, we learn that things started to look up for Peter. His confidence began to grow as he became more familiar with his gifts as Spider-Man. But after some time, he came across what might be called his arch-enemy, the greatest of his nemeses: Venom. The executive summary of Venom's origin goes something like this: Peter unknowingly came into contact with an alien life form, one that developed a symbiotic relationship with a host creature, and it began to bond with him. At first, this was a pretty good thing for Peter. It enhanced his abilities, making him stronger and faster, not to mention that it took the form of a new Spider-Man suit - in stylish black! But it also began to bring out Peter's darker, selfish, aggressive side. Ultimately, at a point of crisis, Peter was forced to make a choice. Would he embrace his newfound power at the cost of his identity, his soul? And although Peter ultimately rejected the suit, that's not the end of the story. The symbiote found a new host in Peter's personal and professional rival, Eddie Brock, and Venom was born: Spider-Man's mirror image, with all his powers and abilities but none of his conscience and upbringing. Peter's Uncle Ben taught his nephew an important lesson: with great power comes great responsibility. This lesson would shape Peter's life. Venom's outlook is decidedly different. For him, great power brings great opportunity for gain, for satisfying his own desires.
Venom isn't just confined to the pages of Peter Parker's life. Venom can be found in our lives, too, tempting us to use the gifts and abilities that we've been given for our own good, selfishly. Venom is there, asking why you should bother to take fifteen minutes a day, or even five, reading the God's Word and spending time in devotion. Venom is there when you wonder to yourself, "Why should I stick around or come early for a Bible class before or after service when there are so many other exciting things I can do, like going to brunch or sleeping in?" Venom is there whenever you think that you should just go it alone.
At seminary, we used a fancy, theological term to describe this: sin. Sin is at work in our lives, calling us to live for ourselves, to forget the Giver of our gifts. "Just go on and use your abilities and time and money however you see fit." "Forget about that fellowship of believers, that membership into which you've been called." "You're fine on your own. They'll just slow you down." Sin calls us to abandon the learning of God's Word.
In our sin, we choose not to live responsibly before God, to go our own way. At this point, I invite you to turn and look around at the other people in the pews behind you. All these people, everyone you see, has fallen victim to Venom - to sin. They have all fallen short. Now look up front, at those here in the white robes, those leading the worship service. We, too, have fallen victim to Venom, to our own sin. We have fallen short of the lives that God would have us live. Even pastors are tempted not to make time to study Scripture.
Does this leave us without hope? Has Venom won the battle? No! Jesus has beaten back this arch-enemy. He has conquered our sin. He did so on the cross. In the epic fight between good and evil, God is the victor. In his victory, Jesus gives us his gifts, forgives our sin, and teaches us. He gives us the gift of the things of God: His Word and His Sacraments. He gives us the gift of fellowship. Turn again and look around you. Do you see these people? They are a gift. God has given them to you. As members of the body of Christ, we share in this fellowship. Unlike Peter Parker, you are not on your own. Even though the gift came unexpectedly, without your choosing, the gift of faith has been given to you and to them. In the dark times and during times of joy, this group of believers is here for you, to build you up and to work with you in God's mission. You are equal partners in the Gospel. Most importantly, we have that gift that God gave to the Gentiles to whom Simon Peter spoke: we have the gift of repentance that leads to life. God has freed us - God as freed you - to live a new life.
Confirmation is not graduation. It's not the end of the story, but the conclusion of the prologue. The rest of the story is just beginning.