“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23
Looking back at last week, we saw that learning things by heart was very important in our primary school days, letters, spelling, numbers, sums—it was necessary that we knew the basic things by heart if we were going to take on more complicated things.
When we looked at the early church, we saw that the word for teaching and learning of things by heart was “katecheo”, a word meaning “to make resound”, literally, to “echo down”. If we think of our word catechism as meaning “making echoes”, we see how it captures a sense of learning by repetition. Teaching by making people say back lines would have been familiar 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 before the invention of the printing press, the only access to the Bible that would have been available to most ordinary people would have been the verses they had learned by heart.
Such knowledge of the Scriptures enabled the evangelisation of Europe, those who went out to tell people about Jesus had to depend on the Holy Spirit and the teaching they had received, without catechism style of teaching the church would not have grown.
We began our look at the catechism by thinking about the first two questions, “what is your name?” and “who gave you this name?” The answer to the second question was, “My Godfathers and Godmothers in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.”
The next question asks what was done for us in baptism, what commitment was being made on our behalf, “What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?” asks the catechism and the answer comes in three parts. “They did promise and vow three things in my name: First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh; Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith; And Thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life”.
The questions and answers at baptism have continued essentially unchanged, baptism has been, and is, about a renunciation of evil and worldliness and an acceptance of the way of Christ.
If we look at the first promise, it says, “I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh”.
The devil sounds a very old fashioned idea, now; people will even make fun of it, dressing up in costumes at Hallowe’en. Renouncing the “devil and all his works” can seem no more serious than laughing at someone wearing horns and dressed in a red costume. In a year that marks the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, we do well to listen to the words of someone far more worldly wise than ourselves, When he returned to Canada from Rwanda in 1994, having been commander of the United Nations’ force at the time of the genocide, Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire was asked by a Canadian Forces padre how, after all he had seen and experienced, he could still believe in God. Dallaire writes, “I answered that I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know that the devil exists, and therefore I know that there is a God”. Dallaire’s book is called, “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda”. At a time when many churches prefer not to talk about the devil, perhaps do not believe in his existence, a seasoned international soldier is prepared to declare his belief in very plain terms.
In the catechism, we are reminded that our Godparents renounced the devil and all his works, and also renounced the temptations of this world. If we trivialise the devil, we also trivialise temptation—it has become associated with eating chocolate or cake, or buying things we don’t need, its power to destroy lives has been forgotten. If we recall the three temptations faced by Jesus in the wilderness in Saint Matthew Chapter 4, we remember there was a temptation to turn the stones into bread, to put himself first; there was the temptation to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, to look for easy popularity; and the temptation to have authority over the nations of the Earth through bowing down to Satan, to compromise his principles in return for power. Temptation was not trivial, it was a turning against God and it was destructive. The pomps, vanity and lusts in the catechism are not the silly things that don’t really matter, they are the things that divide us from our family, our friends, our neighbours, and ultimately the things that divide us from God.
The second promise at baptism that the catechism recalls is “that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith”. The early centuries of the church were times of debate, and sometimes open conflict, about what it was that Christians should believe. In retrospect, the debates sound obscure arguments about points that few people could understand, but the church began a long tradition of telling people what it was that they should believe. When Christianity became the religion of the rulers, the people were expected to believe what the rulers believed. To disagree was called “heresy” and became something punishable by death. Faith became about being able to recite the right words, and was not something about inner change.
The catechism speaks of Godparents promising that the child should believe “all the Articles of the Christian faith”, but there must have been, and must still be, many, many times when the Godparents themselves do not believe. If we are honest, we have to ask ourselves how meaningful such a promise could be, and what faith means if it is reduced to a series of articles. When we look at the story of John Wesley, we see a man brought up in accordance with Godparents’ promises, a man who would have known every article of faith, but a man whose conversion only came on that moment in a church in London when he felt his “heart strangely warmed”. Knowing and believing are very different things—something which the catechism did not acknowledge, and something our church still needs to learn.
The third promise, “that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life” is as difficult as the second. If we were asked this evening, “will you keep God’s law and walk in his ways for the rest of your life?” how would we answer. If someone asked us, “do you promise from this evening forward that you will do everything God requires?” an honest answer would be that we cannot make that promise. We can say we will try, we can say that we will do our best, but if we really were able to “keep God’s holy will and commandments”, if we really were able to “walk in the same all the days” of our lives, then we should be doing better than the people of Israel in the Old Testament or the disciples in the New Testament. When we read the Bible we see people who learned that faultlessly walking only in God’s ways was not something that they could achieve, that even the best of people sinned, and that no-one could reach perfection, that we all depended on God’s grace. The promise would better have been phrased so as to ask whether the person would endeavour to keep God’s holy will and commandments, whether they would try to walk in his ways. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, says Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans Chapter 3 Verse 23, we all sin and we all fail to be the people who could keep the promises made.
The question, “What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?” challenges us, to think about the devil and the temptations of this world; to think about the what is essential to our faith; and to think about walking in God’s ways.