During Lent of 2014 I was invited to serve as the Sunday morning preacher at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston. There was interest in the parish in the catechumenate and mystagogy (instruction in the sacraments). The Gospels in Year A of the Roman and Revised Common Lectionaries are the preferred readings if the parish has an adult catechumenate.1 In any event, 2014 was Year A of the Lectionary. I share here my sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, which is one of the Sundays of the Scrutinies in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. This is the Sunday on which the Gospels and the Creed would be handed over to the elect. The Lord’s Prayer would be handed over on the Fourth Sunday and these texts would be recited back on the Fifth Sunday. While I invited the congregation to imagine catechumens being present, this sermon would be preached in the hearing of the baptized and actual catechumens as well as any seekers who might be present.
If there is children’s time or a children’s homily in the Service this would be a good time to introduce to the children the iconic images of the four gospels: the man for Matthew, the lion for Mark, the ox for Luke, and the eagle for John. Posters of these images may be available to download from the internet. Sometimes these images are visually present somewhere in the worship space: on pulpits or lecterns, on a book of the gospels, on a banner, in stained-glass windows. They are usually portrayed with wings. These symbols are taken first from the Prophet Ezekiel (1:1-21). They are replicated in the Book of Revelation 4:6-8. The second century church father Irenaeus of Lyons first likened these figures to the four gospels. St. Matthew is represented by a winged man because the Gospel highlights Jesus’ entry into this world, first by presenting His family lineage. St. Mark, represented by the winged lion, begins with the voice crying in the wilderness, like a lion’s roar. The winged ox represents St. Luke because oxen were used in temple sacrifices and that’s where the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, was serving when the birth of his son John was announced. St. John is represented by the rising eagle because its prologue “rises” to pierce most deeply the mysteries of God, the relationship between the Father and the Son, and the incarnation.
A script can be developed in presenting these gospels to the catechumens and to the children simultaneously. If there is a free standing altar, have an assisting minister vested in an alb standing at each corner reading in turn the script for each gospel, explaining the symbol. This would be a good time to present Bibles to the catechumens and youth in the confirmation class. This would done just before the Creed. The presentation of the Apostles’ Creed, the baptismal creed, can be done by reading each article and having the catechumens and youth in the confirmation class recite it back. It should be explained that the Creed is the rule of faith that outlines what is most important in our understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on the basis of the Scriptures and the Holy Gospels.
Third Sunday in Lent. Year A. March 23, 2014
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Last week we imagined adult catechumens in our midst being enrolled as the elect—that is, as candidates for Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil. I would like you to imagine that these candidates are with us again today. They have been enrolled as the elect; they are on their way to take the plunge into the death and resurrection of Christ. But they need some equipment to sustain them on this faith journey. That would be presented today in the scrutinies. And they would be exorcized.
Scrutinies? Exorcisms? It sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? Perhaps it should, too, but it would be a good idea if we make sure we are feeling daunted for the right reasons and not because the names sound like they come straight out of horror movies. It might also be a good idea if we look at how these daunting rituals fit within the overall picture of our life in God. Fortunately, our readings today are helpful in this regard.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes a lot about the struggles of living the Christian life. Here in the passage we heard today, he speaks of weakness and suffering, and holds out the hope that at least suffering will produce endurance, and endurance will produce character, and character will produce hope. So at least suffering has some side-benefits. Paul isn’t offering any sort of explanation for the existence of suffering. He’s just saying it’s not entirely bad news.
He acknowledges that struggle and suffering continue to be part of our experience. This implies that God’s salvation of the world is still a work in progress. We are living in the in-between time—the time in between God’s decisive victory over the powers of deathly evil and the final coming of the reign of peace and joy made possible by that victory. And in this time in between, we’re living with a foot in both camps. We have embraced the life of the coming kingdom, but we are trying to live it out in a world that runs according to other agendas and other interests, a world which continues to dole out suffering, misery, futility and death.
Now these special rites which the elect experience on this day are all about what it means to live as committed followers of Jesus Christ in this tough in-between time. Those who have been catechumens, who are now enrolled as the elect, are getting close to the climax of their journey. Over the course of their time as catechumens, their catechists did their best to share with them the faith and life of the community of God’s people in Christ, and have asked of them that they immerse themselves in that faith and life and listen for the call of God in their lives, that they might know whether God is calling them to commit themselves to living out the fullness of baptismal life in the company of God’s people. But here, in this season of Lent, we are all together facing up to the fact that living out the fullness of baptismal life is at times an arduous and costly journey. As the Apostle says, the struggle may have some benefits, but it is a tough struggle nevertheless.
There was an old African-American spiritual we sang in my college choir, “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel.” One of the stanzas said, “Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out.” People who come into the church with great enthusiasm and an instant conversion experience find that after a while the experience fades into memory and other realities take hold of their lives. Soon they’re not so regular any more, and eventually they just drift away.
The early church must have had experience with these kinds of converts, and the catechumenate with its scrutinies and exorcisms was designed to toughen them up for the long haul of the life of faith amidst the competing claims of life, such as careerism, consumerism, and familyism.
John’s Gospel tells us that many of those who flocked to Jesus decided that what he was asking was too tough and they turned back and returned to normality. It’s always been this way. That’s why in ancient times the Church endeavored to make sure that its baptismal candidates were going into the baptistery with their eyes open and the word of warning in their ears. Actually, an important part of this annual Lenten season is to remind not just the candidates, but all of us, of these realities, so that we might examine ourselves, and steel ourselves and seek renewed strength and resolve from God for the continuing journey ahead.
So here’s what the scrutinies were all about. They were about handing over texts to the elect that had to get into their minds: the four Gospels, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer—the kind of stuff that was put into Catechisms. They were given this stuff by catechizing. “Catechesis” means “what is sounded down.” The texts were read and the candidates committed them to memory and on the Fifth Sunday in Lent they had to repeat them back.
St. Augustine tells us in his Confessions that when he had to repeat back what he had heard and learned in Milan he was a nervous wreck, even though he was a teacher of rhetoric. Those who went through a Lutheran confirmation program in the days of my youth had to stand in front the congregation and answer questions asked by the pastor. We had to commit the Catechism to memory.
The reason for the name “scrutinies” is two-fold. In part, it is because the candidates are being scrutinized. If they are to be baptized and admitted into the membership of Christ’s body, the faithful had to know that these newcomers were serious in their intentions. And they would be prayed for with the laying on of hands. Some of those prayers were exorcisms.
So the second reason why the rites were called scrutinies, is that these prayers are tough prayers which invite the candidates to scrutinize themselves, to examine their own hearts and minds and call on God to strengthen them on this journey toward the font. In particular, these prayers invited the candidates to confront the powers of evil and sin which so easily entangle us and take us captive.
Our modern prayer books don’t provide exorcism prayers. They reflect the rationalism of our modern age. But don’t you think we need them? Every time we turn on the television, open our mail, check our emails, or search the internet we are assaulted by messages, beliefs, values, and temptations which would seek to invade and colonize our hearts and minds, taking on a life of their own, and drawing us into conformity with the demonic greed, fear, and selfishness of the world around us. None of us can escape it, so we must arm ourselves to live with these temptations without succumbing to them or being destroyed by them. So, in the meantime, we use the prayer we have been given by Jesus: “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”
Now probably all I’ve done so far is make the journey of discipleship sound even more impossibly daunting than before. But wait! There is hope! There are wonderful promises in today’s readings, and rather than being a mere dangled carrot, the gospel writer and the Apostle would have us know that all this talk about struggle and hardship are mere blips within an overall story of promise and hope.
In the story of the people of Israel wandering through a thirst-inducing wilderness, even though they grumbled against God and Moses and, in Moses’ words, “put the Lord to the test,” God provided water from a rock that the people might drink and live.
In the wonderful Gospel story Jesus was thirsty and asked the Samaritan woman at the well to draw water for him. He gets into a pretty interesting conversation with her and when his insight into her life becomes too close for comfort, she wants to change the subject and talk about religion. But Jesus will not be distracted. He turns the tables and invites the woman, and in fact all of us, to seek in him the wellspring of the water of life. Those who drink this water, he promises, will never be thirsty again for the water will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
Now when you hear that, the prospect of having to go the distance through the dry deserts where callousness and hostility seek to drain us of life suddenly doesn’t seem nearly so perilous. When you have guaranteed access in Christ to a spring of water that gushes up to eternal life, the fires of hell can do their worst, but we will live and flourish and grow.
Our reading from the Apostle Paul was perhaps even more explicit in putting the whole thing in perspective. Although, as we have noted, he speaks of suffering and the possibility of drawing some gain from the pain, the real point of this passage is in the material that frames those comments and speaks of being put right through faith and finding peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. These comments really do frame the tough realities of this in-between time, because they look back to what has already been achieved and forward to what is yet to come, so that we might live with hope in the here and now.
Paul hammers away on the point that we don’t have to prove ourselves in the midst of the present conflicts before God will accept us and open the wellspring of life to us. It was while we were still weak, while we were still sinners, while we were still impossibly entangled in the corruption and ruthless competitiveness of the world that Christ died for us. Paul is mind-boggled by this, and is trying to awaken us to the same awe and wonder. It was not for those who deserved it that Christ put his life on the line. It was not for those who had earned it or proved themselves worthy. It was for the ungodly, the hard-hearted, the hostile and bitter; it was for us at our very worst. And, says Paul, you can’t imagine a more dramatic proof of love than that. Christ died for us, knowing that most of us would ignore his love, and that even among those who responded to his call, many would drop out and declare it all too tough. But God loved us so much, that he went through with it even knowing that.
And on that basis, Paul looks forward and says that if all that is true, then you can be even more sure, much more sure, that God will follow through on what has been begun in Christ and bring our salvation to fulfilment and give us life in all its fullness. God would not make that level of self-sacrificial investment in us without being able to see the job through and bring us into the promised land of freedom, joy, and living water bubbling up to eternal life.
Those who have been immersed in those flowing waters of baptism that well up to eternal life are all framed within the unshakable promise that God’s love for us would stop at nothing, and that God’s all-conquering grace and strength are more than enough to see us overcome anything and everything that would stop us or harm us or destroy us.
So to the catechumens real or imagined, I said: depart, all you unclean spirits, and give place to the Holy and life-giving Spirit.2 And wear the holy cross on your brow, the seal of him who died, and claims you as his own. Amen.
- ^The Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults specifies that the scrutinies “take place on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent. The readings from series A are used, with their chants as assigned in the Lectionary (nos. 745-747). See The Rites of the Catholic Church as Revised by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, English translation prepared by the International Commission in English in the Liturgy (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1976), 72. This means that at the Mass in which the scrutinies of the catechumens takes place the readings of Year A are used even in Years B and C of the Roman Lectionary. The reasons are the special relevance of these readings to the catechumenal process.
- ^Martin Luther begins his 1526 Order of Baptism with the exorcism and sign of the cross. “Depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.” “Receive the sign of the holy cross upon the forehead and breast.” See Martin Luther, “The Baptismal Booklet: Translated into German and Newly Revised,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 373.