I pulled the biography of a very famous American off my shelf this week and reread the opening sentence: “He would always remember the day he joined the church.”
It was a Sunday morning in the spring of 1934. The man about whom the biography was written was five years old. He was sitting with his grandmother and sister Christine, as he did every Sunday, because his daddy was the pastor and his mother was the organist in that church. An evangelist had come down from Virginia and was conducting a spirited revival.
They sang old gospel hymns and old folks shouted “amen” while the preacher rolled on about the glories of salvation and the joy of membership in the church of God. At the end of the sermon, people were invited to come down to the front if they wanted to join the church. His sister Christine was the first person out of the pew. Like any five-year-old boy worth his box of Cracker Jacks, he was determined not to let his big sister get ahead of him, so he got up and went down there, too.
It wasn’t much, when you think about it: just a five-year-old boy following his big sister down the aisle. He had heard the preacher describe what it meant; he had grown up in a church where he had seen folks do it over and over again. I suspect he knew that one day he would make his profession, but that day it was because he didn’t want Christine to get ahead of him.
It wasn’t much; just a kid who was half the age of the kids who sit on these front rows today. He didn’t have any understanding of theology, hadn’t studied much of the Bible, but he went forward that day, and years later his biographer would say, “He would always remember the day he joined the church.”
The biographer goes on to write:
“the church was his second home. All his close friends were in his Sunday School classes. … The church defined his little-boy world, gave it order and balance, taught him how to ‘get along with people.’ Here he knew he was … somebody special.”
And I guess you could say he was somebody special. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. He became one of the people God used to change the shape of life in this nation.
Come with me to the scripture lesson for this morning. Paul is an old man now, crotchety, with gnarled hands. If he has any hair left, it is thin and grey. His body is worn out from the years of travel, hardship, persecution, ministry. He is an old codger who is fixing to die.
He sits down to think about all the places he has been, all the people he has seen, all the things he has done. Looking back across it all, he remembers a boy who showed up at one of his meetings in Asia Minor. At the end of the service he gave an invitation for anyone who wanted to follow Jesus to come down to the front. And this boy came forward. Just a kid, just a boy named Timothy. He said he wanted to be a Christian. Paul baptized him and brought him into the church.
Now, years later, Paul writes this letter back to his young friend, and reminds him of the day he joined the church.
“Run your best in the race of faith, and win eternal life for yourself, for it was to this life that God called you when you professed your faith before many witnesses.”
Paul seems to be saying, “1 Timothy 6:11-16, when the going gets rough, when the road gets long, when you are ready to throw in the towel, remember the day you professed your faith in Christ, before all these folks; always remember the day you joined the church.”
One of the things which caught my eye when I read this passage was the way Paul addressed Timothy. He calls him “man of God.” Which is to say, “Timothy, you are not just an animal running through the forest of human life. You are somebody special. You are a person for whom Jesus Christ died. You are a man of God.”
I want to say to each one of you, that you are somebody special. You have a unique identity. By God’s grace, you are a man or woman of God. You are so loved by God that He gave His only Son for you. You have a special identity in this world. You are a man or woman of God. You belong to Jesus Christ. And it makes a big difference in how you live your life if you know who you are and where you belong.
I want you to know that, contrary to public opinion, the biggest question you face during high school is not: “What am I going to wear to the dance?” Or, “Who will take me to the movie on Saturday night?”
Contrary to your parents’ opinion, the most important question you face right now is not, “What will my final grade be in algebra?” And contrary to all of the advertising, the hype, the “glamour” magazines, the most important questions you have to answer have nothing to do with what you wear, what you drive, or how you smell.
The most important single question each of us must answer during adolescence is simply this: Who am I? Not “Who do my parents say I am?”, or “Who do my friends think I am?”, but “Who do I say I am? What kind of person will I be? And I hope that when you begin to answer that question, you will begin by saying, “I am a man or woman of God; I belong to Jesus Christ.”
That’s what we say in Baptism. When the water was placed on your head, whether you remember it or not, you were marked, a Christian disciple. You were branded, you were sealed with the trademark of God’s love in Christ, you were given a new identity as a follower of Jesus and a member of the family of God. My favorite line in the baptismal service we are using today is when I say to the entire congregation, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” Remember that you have been marked as a follower of Jesus Christ. You have been given a new identity. You are a man or woman of God.
That’s what we are saying in Confirmation. When we hang this cross around your neck, it is a sign that you belong to Jesus Christ. I don’t expect that you will wear it to school on Monday. Parents tell me that most of these crosses end up hanging on the corner of kid’s bedroom windows, and that’s fine by me. That way, every morning when you are combing your hair or putting on your clothes, you can see it there and it can be a reminder to you of who you are. Whether or not you wear it, I’d like you to imagine that you still feel its weight hanging around your neck; imagine that you can feel it thumping against your chest as you walk down the street.
To be a Christian, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ means that you have been marked by the cross. You have been given a new identity. You have a special mission in this world. You are a man or woman of God. You belong to Jesus Christ. You have been bought, purchased, redeemed by the love of God in Christ.
Do you remember the wonderful story Jesus told about the prodigal son and the loving father? The son took his inheritance, ran off to the far country, squandered everything he had in crazy living, and ended up in the pig sty, filling his belly with the garbage the pigs left behind. But then, Jesus said, “He came to himself.” He remembered who he was. He remembered his identity. He remembered that he had a loving father. And he picked himself up, turned around, and headed home where he belonged.
That’s the story of all of us, because all of us wander away from the love of God, all of us blow it and end up living in ways which are less than God’s best for us. The Bible says that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And all of us need to come to ourselves, to remember who we are, and reclaim our identity as men and women of God.
I want you to know that it makes a big difference in the way you live if you know who you are and where you belong. In my first appointment I worked almost full-time in youth ministry, and was the chaplain for the high school football team, the DeLand Bulldogs. I spent every Friday night with the team: eating dinner, riding the team bus, dressing out in the locker room, walking up and down the sidelines during the game. My great moment on the field came one night when they let me carry the water onto the field.
We had a fine coach, a pretty good quarterback, a wonderful chaplain, but we kept losing games. I remember one night, after a rough game with one of our biggest rivals, the coach gathered the team together in the locker room before getting on the buses to go back home, and said, “Now, men, I don’t know what you have planned for after the game tonight, or what you plan to do this weekend. But I just want you to remember that wherever you go in this community, you are a Bulldog, you are a member of this team, and I don’t want you to do anything that would not make the rest of this team proud that you are a part of it.”
I have no idea what those guys did that weekend, but I suspect that some of them were like me, and they never forgot that speech. It makes a difference in the way you live if you remember that you are part of the team, you are a man or woman of God, you belong to Jesus Christ.
The biographer said that Martin Luther King, Jr., would always remember the day he joined the church. It was the church which ordered and shaped his world. It was from the church that he was sent by God to change the world in which he lived. And who can predict what God intends to do with your life as a man or a woman of God?
I heard the story recently of the president of a Fortune 500 corporation who was so impressed by a book entitled Men and Women of God that he called a downtown Chicago bookstore and ordered 350 copies of it to give to all the executives in his company. The bookstore sent back a message by computer which read: “We cannot find 350 Men and Women of God in Chicago. Try Los Angeles.”
I don’t know if they had any better luck in L.A. than they did in Chicago. I just know that in this world men and women of God are sometimes hard to find. I pray that you will be among them.

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