The Catechumenate in a Nutshell

Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2015
Easter 5B
Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21

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Audrey and Bishop Gates

Yesterday one of Trinity’s members, Audrey, was Confirmed by Bishop Gates at the deanery service held at the Church of the Advent downtown.  It was a beautiful service and a wonderful day for Trinity.  And I’m going to get back to talking about Confirmation and the tools we used to help Audrey prepare – tools that are useful for all of us – but first I want to talk about Studebakers.

Every Tuesday I drive my son Shaw to Dorchester for a choir rehearsal at All Saints, Ashmont.  Almost every Tuesday, parked across the street from the church, is a 1963 Studebaker Lark.   When I first saw it, I was incredulous:  a Studebaker, parked right on the street in Dorchester!  Even though Studebakers ceased production shortly before I was born, I recognized it instantly as a Studebaker.  It has that Studebaker grill:  an open “mouth” canted ever so slightly forward and set between horizontal pairs of headlights.  The body is so “Studebaker:” a little too short in length for its height – but still dignified, not unlike a porkpie hat.  And then there is the slightly rounded and squished trunk – on the Lark, looking like the back half of a giant hamburger bun – that is so Studebaker-y.  Even though I hadn’t seen one in years, the moment I saw it, I knew it was a Studebaker.

(When I said, “Look, a Studebaker!”  Shaw said, “A what?”)

studebaker

1963 Studebaker Lark

Just as I might instantly recognize a Studebaker from its distinctive features, so does John’s gospel say that others can recognize Christians by one distinctive feature:  the love we have for one another.  John writes in the 13th chapter of his gospel, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

In the epistle for today, John tells us more about that love:  that that love comes from God, and we can love only because God first loved us; that “perfect loves casts out fear;” and that we cannot truthfully say “I love God” if we do not love our brother or sister. But it is today’s lesson from Acts that I want to focus on this morning, because today’s lesson from Acts tells how we Christians might develop the love that is our defining characteristic.

For centuries, practitioners of the catechumenate have looked to today’s lesson from Acts for inspiration, for today’s lessons gives us the pattern of the catechumenate in a nutshell. The pattern goes like this:  the Holy Spirit invites a person into relationship with Jesus; the person hears and responds.  The person explores scripture and asks questions.  There is discussion; there is mentoring.  Finally, there is a sacramental act, in the Eunuch’s case Baptism, in Audrey’s, Confirmation.  John 3:16 may be the “gospel in a nutshell;” Acts chapter 8 is the “catechumenate in a nutshell.”

Philip and the Ehtiopian

The purpose of the catechumenate – indeed, the purpose of our faith – is to help us grow in love for God and for one another.  The love in which we grow may be along the lines of “love” as we see it in John: as a love for God or a lessening of fear or a greater love toward our brothers and sisters.  Or it may be more along the lines of “love” as we see it expressed in Luke (and Acts):  that is, a generosity in responding to the movements of the Spirit, and a willingness to go wherever God may call.

Today’s lesson from Acts gives us three tools that we can use to help the growth of that love within us:  1)  scripture, 2) community, and 3) sacraments.

Scripture.  It’s a wonderful discipline to read scripture regularly.  The Scripture is God’s word, and because it’s “living and active,” it works in us and over time develops our capacity for love.  If you’d like a helpful reading plan, The Book of Common Prayer has an excellent one beginning on page 936.  [Show it; walk us through it.] As you read, you might want to take the Ethiopian eunuch as a model and notice what questions you have.  Maybe keep a journal with your reactions and questions.  At some point, if you’d like to discuss your questions with others, maybe check out the catechumenate.  In each session, we do a shared scripture reflection and take time to ask questions about the faith.

Community.  Like the Ethiopian eunuch, if we wish to make progress in the spiritual life, it’s helpful to make the journey with others.  And so I encourage us to keep coming to worship on Sundays.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his book Life Together, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer…  The believer… yearns for the physical presence of other Christians.”  The presence of others encourages us, and our presence encourages others.  I encourage us, then, to keep coming here on Sunday morning. The presence of others is good for our soul, and our presence is good for theirs.

Sacraments.  The Ethiopian eunuch desired the sacrament of Baptism.  I think all of us, deep-down, desire the sacraments; that is, we desire to be nourished by God’s grace.  The Eucharist in particular is effective in feeding our souls.   And so I encourage us to keep coming here, not only to be encouraged by the presence of our fellow Christians, but also to be nourished by the Eucharist.  The life that that was planted in us in the sacrament of Baptism needs the sacrament of the Eucharist in order to flourish.   I’ve discovered that the more I receive it, the more I want it and the more it means to me.

At the end of my time in seminary, one of my seminary professors told us three things that one of his professors had told him at the end of his time in seminary – I think while they were in line ready to graduate – “Gentlemen,” (because at the time they were all men), “you’ve learned much  here at Virginia Seminary, but I want you to be sure to remember three things:  polish your shoes, clean your fingernails, and at the end of the service always remember to turn off your wireless mike!”  I hope that you have learned or will learn a lot during your time here at Trinity, and I hope, too, that you remember three things –  scripture, community and the sacraments.   If used regularly, these tools will help us grow in love.  Not just any kind of love, but the love with which Jesus first loved us, the kind of love this world very much needs.  We may not always see this growth in ourselves, but as we with God’s help are faithful in these practices, others will see the growth.  And by our distinctive feature of the love we have for one another, they will instantly recognize us as Christians.

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