Word is Near
A sermon on Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4: 1-13 & Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 by Nathan Nettleton, 25 February 2007
The Catechumenate, and the annual Lenten journey, are about writing the Word of God into our hearts so that it can protect us from evil and bear fruits of righteousness.
It is no coincidence that we enrol new people in the Catechumenate as we begin the season of Lent. Historically, it was the Catechumenate that gave birth to the season of Lent. In the churches of the third century, and probably earlier in some places, the Feast of the Resurrection, also known as Pascha or Easter, was the church's preferred time for celebrating baptisms. The strong baptismal symbolism of dying, being buried, and being raised to life with Christ made baptism a natural focus for the Paschal celebrations. With the development at that time of the catechumenate, as a way of preparing candidates for baptism by training and shaping them in the practices, beliefs and virtues of the faith, the weeks immediately prior to the Feast of the Resurrection thereby became the final and most intense period of the preparation of new believers for baptism. Picking up on the biblical imagery of God's people's forty years in the wilderness before entering the promised land, and Jesus'forty days in the wilderness before embarking on his public ministry, this final intense period of disciplined formation and discernment came to be focussed over forty days. A little more evolution of the practices, and the pattern emerged of the whole congregation returning to the Catechumenate each year for these forty rigourous days, to re-examine, renew and strengthen their own faith and discipleship, and to accompany the candidates in their final preparations for baptism. And that, as it became established as an annual practice for whole congregations, is the origins of the forty day season of Lent which leads up to and prepares us for the annual celebration of the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is appropriate, then, to say that, while not identical, Lent and the Catechumenate are both on about the same thing. And what they are both on about is converting our hearts, minds and lives, and forming us in the image of Christ so that we might be more fully immersed in the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection and live all the more to his glory. All our readings this evening have something to say to this.
In the reading from his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul speaks of who will be saved and gathered into the life and mercy of God. It is all those who call on the name of the Lord, he says, but he also explains a bit more about what he means by that. If you acknowledge with your words that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. And it is well worth noting, that it is believing "in your heart", not believing "in your head" that he talks about. Believing in your head would probably correspond to what he means by confessing with your words, so he is saying something about integrity here. What you say and what is going on inside you need to correspond, or else the words are just words. We sometimes say things like, "my head is saying one thing, but my heart is saying another," or, "I understand that in here (head), but getting it in here (heart) and putting it into practice, that's another matter." We are recognising that there is often a lack of integration between what we know in our heads and what we do in practice. Sometimes it is just a time lag; changes can be accepted by the brain before their implications are worked out in practice in other areas. But sometimes it is also a problem with the way we have have been taught. I think it is especially true in the church that too often we are simply provided with knowledge — facts, beliefs, information —as though that was all that is needed to convert our hearts and lives.
The Catechumenate seeks to take seriously the reality that the conversion of our hearts and lives is not just about acquiring information. What changes our lives is not mere facts, but stories and experience. We learn by doing, by participating. So although our Catechumens are expected to undertake some "studies", the aim of these studies will not be to learn facts, but to reflect on our stories, our real-life experience, and to consider what we do; how we participate in the practice of the faith. So, for example, instead of having a session on defining the nature and uniqueness of God, there will be a session on how to pray "Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name."Christians are those who pray that prayer and whose understanding of God emerges from the praying of that prayer. Approaching God in prayer is the task of all Christians. Defining God is the task of the theologians. The Catechumenate is about forming Christians, not producing theologians, and while some Christians will go on to become theologians, the progression properly happens in that order.
As well as the practices and disciplines of the faith, the catechumenate is about stories. Sharing stories and acquiring stories. The reading we heard from Deuteronomy was a wonderful example of this; of the religious ritual use of stories. It told of the beginnings of an annual religious ritual that was to become associated with the harvest time each year. Essentially, then, it is the harvest thanksgiving, an annual ritual still practised by congregations in most farming districts. But in Deuteronomy, the prayer of thanksgiving that the people are taught to pray when they bring the first fruits of their harvest as an offering, is not a prayer about the lovely cycles of nature. It is a prayer about God. It is a prayer that tells the story of God's people and how they ended up in slavery, and how God rescued them and gave them this land that is now bringing forth its harvest. By learning this story-prayer, and praying it every year, they are learning who they are and who their God is, and being immersed in a spirit of gratitude for both God's powerful acts of liberation and God's gentle blessing of the crops. By continuing to pray this story-prayer, they are praying it into their own sense of identity and weaving it in to their own here-and-now stories. And that's what we seek to pass on in the Catechumenate too: both sharing the foundational stories of our ancestors in the faith, and sharing our own stories of how we experience God's liberating and blessing activity in our own lives as the old stories and our stories are woven into the one great tapestry of God's story.
Every year, the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is one of the accounts of Jesus going into the wilderness and facing all the temptations that the devil threw up at him during those forty days. The temptations were all designed to throw him off track; to get him to adopt more pragmatic and user-friendly approaches to getting his message out, but ultimately approaches that would thereby strip it of its power to transform people's hearts and lives. The devil doesn't mind the message getting out, so long as people don't have the opportunity to let it put down deep roots in their hearts and change their lives. It is a story full of both warning and promise. It warns us to take seriously what we are up against. The temptation to subtly water down the faith into something more manageable and palatable and ultimately superficial, is always present and waiting for us to drop our guard. But the story also shows us how wise and resilient people can become when they have allowed God's stories to rewrite the stories they live by, and have allowed God's word to be engraved on their hearts, on the very rock at the centre of their being. The goal and purpose of the Catechumenate, and of its annual Lenten renewal, is to form us in the image of Christ, in the image of the one who is the image of God and the very embodiment of God's living Word. And although that transformation is a year-round and lifelong one, the Catechumenate aims to lay the foundations of it, so that in it we might receive the initial equipping and formation that will protect our hearts and minds from every devilish temptation and sow the seeds that will bring forth a bumper harvest of justice, integrity and fullness of life. And our annual Lenten return to the catechumenate aims to continue building on those foundations so that we all might be strengthened and renewed in our task of walking the way of the cross and be agents of God's love, mercy and peace. May the Lord - the God of our ancestors, who brought us out of slavery into the promised land of his love and grace - bless us all as we embark on this journey together.