Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
On the past two Sundays, we saw how the Lenten Collects and the Scripture Lessons appointed by the Church are meant to be an organized course in Christian faith and practice, leading up to a renewal of our commitment to our crucified and resurrected Lord on Easter Day. In the first instalment of this course, we were reminded that the self-sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ is the heart of the Christian religion. In the second, we were taught that our own self-sacrifice, in response to that of Jesus Christ, is the chief means by which we practice Christianity, demonstrating that our faith and trust in our Saviour are real, rather than mere lip service.
Today, on the Third Sunday in Lent, we can see just how ancient this Lenten course in Christianity truly is. In the early Church, except in emergencies, converts to Christianity spent three years preparing for Baptism, which was usually administered on Easter Even, as Lent gave way to Easter. Those getting ready for Baptism were called "catechumens," from a Greek word that means "to teach by repetition." What the catechumens studied was their "catechism," a constant repetition of certain Biblical truths. There is still a catechism in our Prayer Book, intended to perform the same function.
On this Sunday before Easter, and through the following week, the candidates for Baptism would be tested on their knowledge of the Christian catechism in a process called "the scrutinies," from the Latin for "a careful and searching examination for flaws." Also, in recognition that knowledge without grace is useless, the baptismal candidates would be exorcised, so that cleansed of any influence of the devil, their hearts and minds would be free and open to the indwelling grace of God.
Thus, if we look at today’s Gospel from St. Luke, we will find both a lesson from our Lord on the casting out of devils and an assertion that only those who "hear the word of God, and keep it" are truly blessed (Luke 11:14-28). Likewise, if we study today’s Epistle from St. Paul to the Ephesians, we will be taught how those who have been cleansed of darkness and made the children of light, and the adopted children of God by grace, must behave to remain in the light. These, and similar passages from Scripture, are the actual lessons that those ancient converts were taught before their Baptism.
Today’s Collect is almost as ancient as the Scriptures themselves. It begins, "We beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants." Those "hearty desires," meaning "desires of the heart," were simply called "vows" in the original Latin of this prayer. And those "vows" were the vows of Baptism, which you can still find in the baptismal service in our Prayer Book.
These vows are both negative and positive. In our negative vows, we renounce the devil and all his works, along with the vain pomp and glory of the world and the sinful desires of the flesh. In our positive vows, we declare our belief in the Christian faith as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed; we swear that we truly desire to be baptized, holding nothing back; and we solemnly announce our intention to follow God alone, keeping his holy will and commandments, and walking in the same all the days of our lives (BCP 276-277).
Our own experience of living in a fallen world ought to teach us, if nothing else, that these are hard vows to keep. That is why the candidates for Baptism were exorcised, and why we still pray to God in our Collect "stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord." These words connect us to those ancient converts, since we have the same spiritual enemies that they had, and because we still need, as much as they ever did, all of God’s help in maintaining our life in him.
We still pray for that help, and we still receive that help, only through our Lord Jesus Christ. And so, although we may already be baptized, we can only maintain our faith and our new, God-given life in Jesus Christ by constantly remembering the truths of the Christian Faith; by daily renewing our efforts to keep the vows of our Baptism; by renouncing the devil and his works just as often; and by keeping a holy Easter as the memorial of our rescue from sin and death.
The Church’s general message this morning, meant for all believers, is, first of all, that the constant study and repetition of the truths of the faith is an indispensable part of any Biblical life. The second part of her message is this: we each must be exorcised of the devil to live a godly life. This sort of true exorcism, however, is not just some sort of ceremony. It is to become so filled with the things that belong to God, to live a life so full of truth and so completely taken up with righteous behavior, that there is no room in our lives for the devil or his works.
The Church did not invent these principles of good living. God did. We find the evidence in today’s Old Testament Lesson from Deuteronomy: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (6:4-5). These words are the oldest written Creed of God’s true religion. They are still recited daily by Jews and tied to their bodies in little boxes call "phylacteries" so that they will never forget them. We say them, too, at the Holy Communion, because it was only natural that our Lord, when asked to summarize the Law of God, should have used these same words, adding to them the words of Leviticus 19:18, wherein we learn our God-given duty to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Christ used these words because his Father had commanded them to be used. God told the chosen people through Moses: "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
This commandment of God delivers to us the pattern by which Biblical Christians are meant to live today, and the pattern by which such faithful Christians have always lived. We say more than the words of Deuteronomy because God has given us more than Moses could deliver. God has given us his Son Jesus Christ to fulfil all the Law and prophecies of the Old Testament, and to be the centre of our belief and understanding of his Father’s will in the New Testament.
God has not changed. He is still, and he will always be, One Lord. Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, has revealed to us that the One Lord of the Bible is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. More than this, Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to live in communion with the One Lord God by dying on the cross and by making us members of his own Body. If we belong to the Son, we necessarily belong to the Father and the Holy Ghost.
The Church teaches us today what God has taught us through his Living Word. The Church teaches us how to belong to God and how to remain in the communion of God the Father, through God the Son, and by God the Holy Ghost. We must drive out the devil by the grace and power of God, made manifest and available through the Truth that God has revealed and the righteousness he has commanded. We must keep ever before us the Truth of God’s love and our salvation, repeating that Truth to ourselves, to each other, to our children, and to a needy world.