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.
I envision a worship space that I know I will never see in reality. It’s the product of a number ideas rolling around in my head. Central to my vision is an understanding that worship is a physical act, not just a mental and emotional reality.
1. In the Eucharist, the baptized join the whole church on earth and the whole host of heaven to sing the song of the seraphim. I take that almost literally. At the table of the Lord, a door opens between heaven and earth so that we can see what Isaiah saw – the Lord, high and lifted up. At the table, we can see what John saw – and the Lamb who was slain at the center of the throne, with all the elders falling on their faces before him.
I envision a worship space that portrays that reality artistically, and which allows Christians to live it kinetically.
Reorient – address obstacles to faith and holiness
I listed this as part of the second mission-essential task:
Integrate Disciples into the Community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
By “addressing obstacles to faith and holiness,” I mean that repentance and liberation from sin characteristic of Wesleyan theology. The church helps its new members begin the process of reorienting their lives away from enslavement to the world, the flesh and the devil toward freedom for joyful Christian holiness.
The early church addressed this aspect of making disciples with its extended catechumenate. Catechumens not only learned the basics of the faith, they were liberated from the power of the world, the flesh and the devil by prayer and exorcism. The church watched over the catechumens in love, encouraging them, exhorting them and holding them accountable for the commitments they were making.
Early Methodism accomplished this same task with its system of classes and bands. Methodists met together in small groups to hold each other accountable to life under the General Rules and to seek perfection in love. They exhorted each other and prayed for each other as they sought to lay aside all known sin.
Cyril gives a dramatic account of the sacramental life, an account which grasps the imagination, which unveils the mysteries as participation in the Mystery. It’s a rich, vivid understanding of the sacramental life, in which Paschal Mystery, communion of the Holy Spirit, and participation in the divine nature are present realities, experienced now, in lives “on whom the end of the ages has come” (I Corinthians 10:11). It is difficult not to conclude that this powerful sacramental drama lay close to the heart of what attracted Cyril’s catechumens to the Church’s faith – and that its meaningful, imaginative recovery, could have significance in renewing the Church’s mission amidst the flattened, disenchanted landscape of postmodernity in the West.
Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica is generally considered to be the oldest document in the New Testament. It is usually dated around the year 50 CE, or 17-20 years after Jesus’ resurrection. It is the earliest written witness, then, of what the Christian faith meant for the Gentiles who first heard it preached in the Greco-Roman world.
As I looked at the text of 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, the material coalesced for me around four words: comprehension, conviction, conversion and commission. Now I would not ordinarily organize the text around four alliterative points. “Points” are not generally my thing; I think a narrative approach is generally preferable. However, as a worked with the text, these four words kept coming back to me as a way to describe how the church in Thessalonica received the apostle Paul’s’ preaching of the gospel.
The first thing that strikes me is that Paul’s message included specific assertions about who God is and what God did.
The “living and true God” (1:9) is “the Father” (1:1, 1:3). By implication, all other deities are “idols” that Paul condemns in 1:9.
Furthermore, Jesus is the “Christ” (1:1, 1:3) [or “messiah” or “anointed one”]. He is “the Lord” (1:1, 1:3) and God’s “son” (1:10), whom God raised from the dead (1:10). In the future, Jesus will come again from heaven to save “us” [the church, whom Paul addresses] from the wrath to come [presumably on those who still cling to idols] (1:10).
So Paul proclaimed a faith that encompassed God the Father, and Jesus Christ, his Son, the Lord, who died, who rose from the dead, and who will come again when God judges the world.