Confirmation Day 1919 (one hundred years ago)
From a confirmation sermon I gave a few years ago.
What did Martin Luther (1483-1546) have to say about confirmation? Confirmation is what we are here for today and our congregation traces its roots to Martin Luther. So what did Luther have to say about the Rite of Confirmation?
Well, for the most part, he ignored it. In all the 120 volumes of his writings, Luther says very little about it.
However, when Luther does speak about the Rite of Confirmation, he has three very special words for it. He calls it ‘gaukelwerk,’ which is German for ‘mumbo-jumbo’; he calls it ‘lugenstand,’ which is German for ‘fanciful deception’; and he calls it “affenspiel’–which is German for ‘monkey-business.’ Confirmation, according to Martin Luther is mumbo-jumbo, fanciful deception, and monkey business. This is perhaps not what you expected. But maybe Luther was having a bad day when he said those things and perhaps he did not really mean it.
So let’s look instead at what the Book of Concord says. The Book of Concord is the defining book of Lutheran doctrinal writings that came out of the Reformation. It is understood by Lutherans of all brands to be an accurate interpretation of the teachings of the Bible, and, as an ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church, I am required to pledge my allegiance to this Book of Concord. The various sections are written either by Luther himself or by his colleagues and successors, and it is, to this day, the widely accepted and respected book of basic Lutheran teachings. It is the book that defines who we are as Lutherans and what we believe. In 715 pages, the Book of Concord mentions confirmation only twice; once to say it is not necessary, and the other time to call it ‘humbug.’ Well then, what are we doing here? I’ll get to that later.
First of all, I have to tell you what else Martin Luther says. You see, we use the same word, ‘confirmation,’ for two different things. First of all, there is the ‘confirmation instruction,’ which our confirmands have been attending for the past three years; and then, there is the ‘Rite of Confirmation,’ which we are here for this morning. The two are related, of course, but they are not the same thing. Martin Luther and the Book of Concord had some problems with the Rite of Confirmation as it had come to be practiced in the Middle Ages. But Martin Luther was very concerned about and in favor of confirmation instruction. After all, he wrote the book for it, didn’t he? He wrote the Small Catechism in 1529, and for the last five centuries young people have been studying those words, with their pastors and parents, in Lutheran churches around the world. Martin Luther was primarily a teacher, and it was out of his classroom preparation that he began to develop the thoughts that led to the Reformation. He was a teacher throughout his life, and his lectures and sermons now fill those 120 volumes of his collected works. And at the heart of that tremendous output of Christian teaching is this one small piece that was most treasured by Luther himself and most widely used by Lutherans ever since; this Small Catechism which was written for the instruction of the young.
So when Luther called confirmation ‘monkey business’ and ‘mumbo jumbo’ he was not referring to confirmation instruction, but to the Rite of Confirmation, a rite that in the Middle Ages had become for many people an empty ritual. Luther wanted to emphasize the instruction, and he did so to such an extent that he chose to ignore, and even denounce the rite. Those following Luther, a couple generations later, restored the use of the ritual, and it is for that ‘ritual’ that we gather here today.
However, we do need to be careful that we do not make the same mistake that was made in the Middle Ages. We have to be careful that we do not put the main emphasis HERE, on this day. Sometimes, the confirmation instruction is seen by some as nothing more than a necessary evil one must endure in order to get to this day, and then be done with it all. But that certainly does make it all monkey business and a fanciful deception. If that is your approach, then it would be better to be honest about it and leave it alone entirely. But for Luther, and for us too, this day must not be a graduation, but merely a step along the way, the continuing way of walking with Jesus. It is a milestone, perhaps, but still just one step in a lifelong process of learning and living the faith. (continued…)