May 2, 2010 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 13:31–13:35
The Fifth Sunday of Easter and the Rite of Confirmation
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
What’s inside you? That’s the question that we’ll consider today as we reflect on our Gospel text from John 13. This weekend, we’re going to celebrate the Rite of Confirmation for eight of our congregation’s young people. And conveniently enough, Hollywood has continued to provide blockbuster superhero movies for the past several years round about Confirmation Sunday. The big movie opening that will have people flooding the theaters later this week is Iron Man 2, the sequel to the wildly successful and highly acclaimed debut picture for this franchise.
In case you didn’t see the first Iron Man movie or just aren’t all that familiar with this character, here’s a little bit of his back-story. Tony Stark is an exceedingly brilliant and equally wealthy man. His multinational company develops cutting-edge technologies, thanks in part to Tony’s genius. But something happens. Depending on the retelling of the Iron Man origin story, the exact details may vary, but the short of it is that Tony suffers a life-threatening injury as he his kidnapped by persons wanting to use his genius for evil purposes, to create weapons that they might use for themselves. Clinging to life, Tony develops a device that keeps him alive. What’s more, he builds a powered suit that allows him to escape from his captors – the first Iron Man armor. But once he’s returned to the life that he once knew, he discovers himself to be a changed man. Tony decides to build an improved version of the armor to fight the evil of the world. And so, the crimson-and-gold avenger that we see in the comics and the movies takes flight, his super strength and repulsor blasts at the ready, as Tony seeks to do some good.
What we’ve learned from the Iron Man story over time is that it’s not really the suit that makes the man. It’s what’s inside that really matters the most. Tony has had to face a number of issues over the year, including a number of inner demons. He has struggled with addiction and its consequences. His genius, good looks, riches, and power have made him prone to narcissism. He’s not the best human being you could imagine. And beyond these issues, Tony suffers from a physical weakness, too: the injury that led to the development of the Iron Man armor has left him with a heart that is indeed broken. Without the technology that makes his superhero pastime possible, his heart would no longer function as it should. And as we see the next episode of Tony’s life unfold in Iron Man 2, he’ll have to contend with opponents motivated by revenge: a man who feels that he has been cheated out of what he deserved takes out his frustration on Tony and the world, causing destruction and death. The question of purpose is asked as Tony looks at his life, wondering how he must use the power available to him. And what about identity? Does it matter who’s underneath the armor, operating the suit? Does the pilot make a difference? If the Iron Man story was just about some guy in a high-tech suit, it wouldn’t have held an audience’s interest since the early 1960’s, when it first debuted. It’s the man inside the suit, the one who pilots it, that matters.
This weekend, as we confirm these young people at this altar, we’re again reminded again that what’s inside really matters. In the Rite of Confirmation, these boys and girls will speak out the faith that you and I share. They will give voice to that Creed which has expressed the teaching of the Christian Church since its earliest days. They will speak what they believe, what we believe, proclaiming what’s inside them because they lay claim to the promise that has been given to them. It’s no longer their parents speaking on their behalf, but they themselves that are taking personal stewardship of their faith. And as confirmed Lutheran Christians, they will be living out that faith as they go from this altar back out into the world, living in the new commandment.
This “new commandment” that we hear about in our Gospel text – is it really new? It sounds like something that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Jesus himself affirms that this commandment is grounded in the one that God gave to His people after He brought them out of captivity in Egypt. When a lawyer tries to test Jesus, the Lord in turn asks the man to express the summary of the Law, then approves of his answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) But this commandment is new because it is made new through Christ’s connecting it with himself. It is made new because we are now to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
It’s easy enough to memorize the new commandment, even for the very young, yet it is difficult enough that none of us could ever fulfill it. But the commandment is based on the cross; it’s not all on our shoulders. This commandment comes through Christ: we can love others as he has loved us because his love is inside of us. This is a gospel thing! God has given us His Son, and the Son living in you and me makes living out the new commandment possible.
There are challenges in the world for us who would live openly as Christians. But the Christian faith is meant to be lived out: that’s how it’s built, from the ground up; that’s how it’s designed! This faith is intended for use in the field. The new commandment is for us, just as Jesus gave it to his first disciples on that evening of Maundy Thursday.
So, what’s inside you? Because outside or inside, challenges just keep coming. For Iron Man, the challenges outside his armor often take the form of supervillains or terrorist plots, even government conspiracies and alien invasions. You and I don’t usually have to face those kinds of things. But the challenges that Tony battles on the inside of his armor are more often the same faults and failings with which we contend. Sometimes we fall to addiction, taking things to excess. We might be tempted into narcissism, putting ourselves above all others, or revenge, trying to get back at others who may have injured or slighted us. We don’t love God fully. We don’t love others as Jesus has loved us. Again, it’s what’s inside that matters, because what’s inside shapes what’s outside.
Faced with challenges, Tony Stark is constantly driven to improve his Iron Man armor, to upgrade it. It looks like we’ll see several new versions of suits in Iron Man 2. But what about us Christians? Where’s our upgrade? It comes through the waters of Baptism. God gives us an upgrade which lasts for a lifetime and beyond. It doesn’t need to be replaced or repaired, no matter how many times we might fall short, failing to live out the new commandment. It is a once-for-good thing. When our Confirmands stand up at the altar and speak out the faith that is inside them, they’ll be remembering their baptism, because it is there that God put a new heart in them, a new power source to drive their life – just as He has for the rest of us washed in those waters. Before that upgrade, our hearts were dying and broken. They were not functioning as they should. But now, we go from day to day in as people who God continues to power. Upgraded, we live. God makes our faith deeper and deeper and gives us power to overcome the challenges that come as we grow and get new responsibilities and new roles in life.
Confirmation is not graduation; not for our Confirmands, and not for the rest of us. Every day as Christians, we learn more about what it means to live out Jesus’ new commandment. New opportunities to love one another keep coming our way. We might find ourselves in unexpected or exceptional circumstances, challenged to do or to be more than we’d previously thought possible. More often than not, we’ll fall short. We won’t always love others as Christ has loved us. And that’s a huge part of why all of us – even confirmed Lutherans – really need to come together like we do here at St. John’s. We hear and experience God’s forgiveness. We learn more about the love that our Father gives us through His Son, Jesus, as we study His Word. The Holy Spirit builds us up in faith for the challenges that we face, especially for that great challenge of actually loving one another. Each of us, confirmed or otherwise, needs the gifts that God gives to us here.
You and I might not be Iron Man, but God sends each of us out on a mission. Equipped with the faith that God has given us, the faith that gives us the power to live in His love and the power to love others as Jesus loves us, we go out into the world prepared. What’s inside really does matter.