Summer Sermon Series, 2014 – The Catechism: 1. Who gave you this name?
“Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” Acts 18:24-25
If we think back to our first days at primary school, we recall there was a lot of learning; there were things that had to be taught to us in order that we might learn more. Letters and numbers were things to be learned; the teacher would take us through the alphabet, would count up through the numbers. The basics of literacy and numeracy were taught to us. In our primary school, once we had learned the numbers, we began on the multiplication, the whole class would say aloud together the times-tables. Learning the basic things by heart enabled us to take on the more complicated things, like spelling words and doing sums.
From its earliest days, the church understood the importance of believers learning the basic things of Christian teaching by heart so that they could then think about more serious things. The New Testament word for this teaching and learning was “katecheo”, from which comes our word “catechism”, so we read in Acts Chapter 1 Verse 4 of Luke writing so that Theophilus may “know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed”. The word used for “instructed” is the word “katechethas.” Later, in Chapter 18 of the Acts of the Apostles, we read of Apollos, “He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” The word used for “instructed this time is “katechoumenos”; “katechethas” and “katechoumenos,” both come from “katecheo”.
Teaching and instruction, catechism, then, did not appear to give schoolgoers a difficult time, (I remember our old Rector coming to our village primary school in England and trying to teach us and telling us that we needed to know this in order to be confirmed and thinking, “I don’t need to know it because I am not being confirmed”). Catechism was something that was part of the life of the church. If we look at the literal meaning of the Greek word “katecheo,” it means “I will make resound”, in the active sense, in the sense of it being something that we do, and it means, “I listen” in the passive sense, in the sense of it being something that is done to us.
If we think of the word “catechism” in the sense of it meaning “I will make resound”, I will make people say back to me, we see can see how it developed in the way it did. In New Testament times, learning the Scriptures would have been a matter of a teacher reciting lines and his pupils saying the lines back to him, and so learning them by heart.
In the centuries that followed, catechism became vital to the life of the church because people would have had no access to the Scriptures for themselves; Bible passages and teachings had to be something that were learned. Even in our own times, when Bibles are plentiful and when books are readily available, there is still great value in learning verses of Scripture. Dr George Kovoor, formerly principal of Trinity College, Bristol used to talk of how in the days of his theological training in India, they were encouraged to learn, every week, ten Bible by heart. This meant having learned a hundred verse by heart at the end of each term, nine hundred verses by the end of the three year training; a knowledge that was to prove invaluable in ministering to people.
As church doctrines developed over the centuries, churches came to believe that it was not just Scripture that should be learned by heart, but church teaching itself, and so we reached the point where people would have printed catechisms from which they were to learn, and to be able to say back, what was being taught to them.
To be able to learn something by heart is very useful, but to be able to understand it is even more important. Saint Paul is dealing with the issue of people speaking in “tongues” in church, an experience that began on the Day of Pentecost, when he says in the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 14 Verse 19, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct (katecheso) others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
The church catechism is written in traditional and difficult language and, while people might have learned it by heart, it did not meet the need for people to be able to understand what it was that was being taught. In times past, the church seemed content for people to be able to simply recite the lines from the prayer book, but the world changed, and even if people were content to learn lines in the way an actor might learn a script for a play, such a way of learning would not equip them to be able to hold on to their faith in challenging times—understanding must come with learning.
Over the summer, we are going to look again at the catechism to try to develop a greater understanding of the faith about which we learned.
The catechism begins with two questions, “What is your name?” and “Who gave you this name?” It begins with the individual person. Our faith is about our own individual response to Jesus, no-one else can believe for us, no-one else can have faith for us.
Our name marks us out as individual people and the catechism tells us that it is as individual people that we are special to God. Angus Buchan tells a story of a man who realized how special he was to the Lord,
“The late William Duma, a Zulu preacher from Durban, South Africa, was a small man in stature but a mighty man in the Spirit. He was on his way home one night in his little motor car when he was stopped by gangsters. They had put a big log across the road and when he stopped the thieves ran at him with steel pipes, knives and revolvers. They told him to hand over the keys of his car and were about to kill him, when he looked up at them and said with fire in his eyes, “Do you know who I am?” He spoke with such authority that the thieves dropped their weapons and ran as fast as they could back into the bush. The little man moved the log, got back into his car and drove home safely to his house. He knew who he was in Christ. He knew that Jesus Christ was his Defender, his Lord and his God”.
William Duma could shout at his would be murderers, “do you know who I am?” because he knew Jesus loved him enough to die for him, that he was someone infinitely precious to God.
Being given our name in baptism was a recognition of our dignity and our worth before almighty God. The Catechism asked, “Who gave you this Name?” and those being instructed answered, “My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism”. Baptism was a recognition of what Christ had done for us, and the way we became members of his church. The Catechism says of our baptism, “wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven”.
Our baptism is about God’s grace going before us. The Letter to the Romans Chapter 5 Verse 8 says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” and the First Letter of Saint John Chapter 4 Verse 19 say, “We love because he first loved us”. It is called “prevenient grace” by Jacob Arminius and John Wesley, grace that goes before us.
“Do you know who I am?” asked William Duma and we can ask the same question of all that confronts us, not because anything we have done, but because of what God has done for us.
The Catechism begins with an acknowledgement that God saves each of us as individuals; it recognizes each of us as one of God’s people, each one of us as sinners of his own redeeming.
“Who gave you this name?” Each time we hear our own name spoken, let us remember how dear we are to God, dear enough for his son Jesus to die for us.
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