Ancient Christian Baptismal Preparation

I’ve been thinking about Lent and the early Christian practice of preparing catechumens for baptism at Easter. The word “catechumen” itself implies that teaching and learning were part of the process of preparation. The church taught the faith it had received and the catechumens learned. Catechesis is instruction.

Catechumens were also expected to put what they learned into practice. The so-called Apostolic Tradition once attributed to Hippolytus sets out this requirement.

When they are chosen who are to receive baptism, let their lives be examined, whether they have lived honorably while catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, and whether they have done every good work. (20:1)

Along with instruction, the church practiced prayer and fasting as a means of preparation. Circa 155 AD, Justin (called “The Martyr”) wrote this in his First Apology or defense of the Christian faith.

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.

The catechumens fasted and prayed for the remission of their sins, as did the church.

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Schmemann on the Devil, Baptism and Exorcism

I’ve been running across the name of Alexander Schmemann recently, an author with which I was unfamiliar. In a Lenten sermon on Jesus’ temptation, the pastor at the church I visited on the first Sunday of Lent briefly quoted Schmemann when he was discussing the power and reality of evil. I traced the quote to a work from 1974, Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism. Here is a longer section of that quote from Schmemann’s chapter on baptismal preparation and the Orthodox practice of pre-baptismal exorcism.


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Christian or Jesus Follower

Some American Christians want to disown the name “Christian.” They think it has become politically tainted and want to replace it with “Jesus-follower” or some other phrase. I’ll stick with “Christian.”

In the first centuries of the church’s existence, Rome treated those who claimed the name “Christian” as enemies of the state. Tertullian’s  Apology makes it very clear: the word “Christian” itself was the basis of the accusation. Believers were torn apart by animals and put to the sword rather than surrender the name.  That alone would make me slow to give it up.

The word “Christian” captures the totality of my life in Christ better than “Jesus-follower.” I follow Jesus, but I also worship him, believe his word, give thanks for his victory over sin and death, live in sacramental union with him and look for his return. “Jesus-follower” highlights only one aspect of a Christian’s life.

And when I say that I follow Jesus, I don’t just mean that I follow his teachings and imitate his life. I mean that I offer him my personal allegiance no matter the cost. I put all my time and resources at his disposal and I do my best to stay in his presence. In our culture, most people are going to hear “follow”only in the ethical sense.

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See How They Love One Another … And Live Disciplined Lives

What did ancient Romans think about Christians? On a number of occasions, I’ve heard these words attributed to early church’s neighbors:

See how they love one another.

I wondered where the quote came from and I found it in the writings of a North African Christian named Tertullian. In 197 AD he wrote a letter to the Roman authorities to plead for justice for the church and to stand up for the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of cruel opposition.

The letter, known as Apologeticus, is 50 chapters long, with over 35,000 words in the English translation. It describes the injustices Christians endure, refutes the popular charges against them, establishes the value of the Christian church to the empire, argues against idolatry and explains Christian beliefs and practices. The quotation in question comes from the beginning of chapter 39, which describes Christian assemblies.

The chapter begins with this affirmation.

We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.

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Leaders, Tasks and the Mission of Making Disciples

The Bible is nowhere near as interested in the abstractions of leadership theory as contemporary organizational theorists, but there may be some value in looking at the church through that lens.

I spent more more than a quarter century in an organization where mission accomplishment was central to all that we did. To plan operations, we learned to receive the mission, analyze the mission, restate the mission, develop and evaluate courses of action to accomplish the mission. Units of the organization trained repeatedly on their “mission-essential task list” (METL). Leaders led the organization using the principles of “mission command”.

Leaders lead organizations to accomplish their missions. Insofar as the church in the world shares the characteristics of all organizations, church leaders lead the church to accomplish its mission. The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The UMC mission statement is a Wesleyan riff on Jesus’ “Great Commission” that closes the Gospel of Matthew.

Then Jesus came to [the eleven disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

The church needs its leaders to direct their energies and talents to accomplish that mission.

Having said that, I also need to frame the mission of the church within the mission of God. Before disciple-making is human work, it is God’s work. “I will build my church,” Jesus declared. All authority in heaven and earth belong to him, and he will be present with his church until he comes in glory at the end of the age. The Book of Acts portrays the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church as the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel of John reminds us that the wind of God blows where it wills.

As a Wesleyan Christian, I also see this  work of God through the lens of the Wesleyan order of grace:

  • Prevenient Grace: God’s work to prepare his way in the human heart and open the way to repentance and faith.
  • Convincing Grace: God’s work to convince people of sin and lead them to repentance.
  • Justifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from guilt and restore a right relationship with God.
  • Sanctifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from the power of sin, restore the image of God and perfect believers in love

Within the Wesleyan framework, discipleship is always communal or social. Making, baptizing and teaching disciples is the work of the whole church, takes place within the church and unites people to the church. Discipleship is not a solitary endeavor or experience.

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