June 8, 2003: it was two weeks after I graduated from high school. It was also when Disney’s Finding Nemo was topping the box office charts. It’s also the day when Gregory Peck, the Oscar-winning actor who famously played Atticus Finch in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, died at age 87. But most important of all, on June 8, 2003, Andrew Reins Semenak was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For us Lutherans we have gradually moved away from understanding the sacrament of baptism as this eternal life insurance policy and more so as the uniting of the baptized to sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world; as well as the time when our Lord and Savior calls the newborn child of God to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, no matter how proud we Lutherans can get about ourselves, Andy was not baptized a Lutheran. He was baptized a Christian, a child of God. And today, as much as we would like to keep Andy to ourselves for the rest of his life, in the end, he will not be confirmed as a member of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baroda, Michigan; but instead, yet again, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: superseding all divisions we Christians have come up with these last two thousand years. This morning he will affirm his baptismal vows, to ultimately love and serve this God of everlasting paradise.
That word has to be mentioned because it will come up in Andy’s life verse that he chose for this day. The verse is taken from the story of our Lord on the cross as He endures the most horrible pain and unbearable agony. One of the crucified men facing his own certain mortal demise, in a last chance effort for hope, begs Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into His kingdom. And while suffering through the most horrendous torture, facing death itself, Jesus somehow, someway, still manages to offer mercy, still unleashes the most awe-inspiring love: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Now I know we often interpret that verse as heavenly paradise: that the crucified man beside Jesus would miraculously have life beyond death; but I believe Andy lives day-in and day-out an important reminder that we Christians so often forget: Paradise has already come. When our Messiah, our Savior, walked up that Calvary hill with that cross on his back, inside that very soul that loved the men who hanged with him, and loved all of us to the point of death, inside that soul that took it all on, was Paradise, ready to be unraveled on this broken world. What Jesus did on that very cross and out of the empty tomb has already set us free from sin and death’s ultimate power over us. What Jesus did for us long ago has already ushered in a paradise of life and joy that can never be taken away.
But of course that doesn’t stop us from getting bogged down with all the evil in the world, all the cynical attitudes that plague us: it carries over into the church as well. So we need all the Andy Semenak’s we can get: for their enthusiasm, for their zest for life, a not so subtle reminder how much beauty this God brings to us each and every day that we overlook far too often: the immense beauty of family and friends and the Creation surrounding us, just to name a few.
Today is one of those days in the church year when we can so easily overlook the amazing beauty of God. In addition to it being Confirmation Sunday for Andy, it is also Holy Trinity Sunday; so that we do not forget we worship this triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God united in majesty beyond our comprehension. And yet that doesn’t stop plenty of people from trying to figure out the Trinity in the most precise detail. Countless books have been written over the centuries about it. But our obsession most certainly doesn’t stop there. We obsess over our differences in the wider church from worship styles to building structures. We pride ourselves not just over our denominational affiliation, but the congregation we worship with time and time again.
And yet God will say yet again as Andy confirms his baptismal calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, God will say, “Andy is mine, not St. John’s’, not the Lutheran church. Andy is mine!” After all, the church did not save Andy. Jesus did that. The church did not unleash a paradise of passion and joy and excitement about this life into Andy’s soul. God took care of that. And the church cannot make a promise to Andy that beyond this life he will enter an even greater Paradise beyond anything he could ever imagine. Only Jesus can make that promise, and He most certainly did. Because those words that Jesus spoke from the cross, that love He brought to life on Calvary, that triumph out of a grave, was not just for that man hanging on the cross beside our Lord. That was for Andy; that was for all children of God forever. And so for that ultimate hope that unites us all, and for Andy to make sure we do not forget that today and for the rest of his life, we give thanks to God indeed! Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Dennis Smith, Interim Pastor
Office: Tue - Fri: 9 a.m. - Noon