Monday, April 9, 2012


The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan

Hello My Friend and Welcome. 
Before we leave Easter behind, this seemed like the opportune time to examine the Early Church’s process of formation leading to Baptism. This post was also motivated by research findings from my Seeds of Christianity Series.  

Somewhat surprisingly, the preparation required for acceptance into the Church has varied over time. In APOSTLE, the third book of the Series, the Church at Antioch was preparing to celebrate the Pascha, or Feast of the Lord’s Resurrection. This was the time when new catechumens were baptized and brought into full fellowship with the congregation. Like the current Mass, early worship was divided into parts, principally the Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Prior to their Baptism, catechumens left after the Liturgy of Word —the Scriptural Readings. Since they were not yet full members, it would have been inappropriate for the catechumens to participate in the profession of faith, or Creed, and the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup, as St. Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians. 

It should be clear that we are speaking of initiation into the Church via Baptism, not the Jesus Prayer which has become popular in recent years. The Jesus Prayer was developed by traveling evangelists for their tent meetings as a method of formalizing a person’s commitment when Baptism was either unavailable or inconvenient. Unfortunately, this prayer has begun to supplant Baptism in some circles. Historically, the Church has always adhered to the Great Commission as expressed in Matt. 28:19 “…Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”  

During the period immediately after Pentecost and in the earliest years of the Church, acceptance into the Church was quick and simple. Many examples can be found in Acts of the Apostles. For instance, Acts 2 tells of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and, in its concluding verses says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” The apostles started the morning still awaiting the Paraclete; they clearly hadn’t developed any program for the formation of catechumens.  

Early in Acts 4 we find Peter preaching in the Temple and it says, “But many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” From this passage it’s unclear whether Luke is giving us a cumulative total or the number of new converts. Either way, at the very least they’ve added 2,000 more.  

Let’s skip to Acts 8:5, where we find Phillip, the evangelist, not the apostle, in Samaria preaching and baptizing.  In Acts 8:26-39, Phillip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch, preaches to him, and the eunuch says, “See, here is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” He baptizes the man without hesitation. In Acts 10 Peter is in Caesarea. He’s called to the home of Cornelius the Centurion and baptizes his whole household. 

If we fast forward a bit, we find that the Church has instituted a systematic process of formation prior to baptism. Rather than what we’ve seen in Acts, aspiring Christians must first become catechumens (those who were under instruction). The candidates enter this state when they present themselves to the catechists (instructors) and their names are inscribed on a list kept by the deacons. During this act of enrollment the aspirants are accompanied by some of the believers who testify to their right intentions and true commitment to grow in the knowledge of the Christian faith. Thus the candidates’ first steps were not taken alone, but in full sight of the community thanks to the presence of these witnesses who much later came to be known as godparents.

After the enrollment of names and presentation of the candidates, they went on to examine their lives, the occupations they followed and the motives which animated them. The questioning, often rigorous, was intended to assure the Church that the practical conditions existed for actually living the Christian life, uncompromised by pagan customs and immorality.  

A detailed list of activities incompatible with being a Christian is furnished by a Third Century text called the Apostolic Tradition. “The trades and occupations of those being brought for instruction must be examined. If they run brothels, they must give them up or be sent away. If they are sculptors or painters they be told not to make representations of idols; they must give this up or be sent away. If they are actors, they must give this up or be sent away. If they are racing charioteers or participate in the public games, they must give this up or be sent away. If they are gladiators or train gladiators to fight, or are officials involved in arranging gladiatorial games, they must give this up or be sent away. Prostitutes, lechers, the dissolute and others we cannot speak well of, must be sent away because they are impure. Magicians must not be taken before the examiner. Forgers, astrologers, diviners, interpreters of dreams, charlatans, liars, makers of amulets, must give these up or be sent away. He who has a concubine must give her up and take a wife according to the law; if he won't he must be sent away.” 

So what is going on here? Several things are in play, actually. One might ask, “Why didn’t the apostles scrutinize baptismal candidates in the initial stages of the Early Church?” Or, turning that around, “What changed that required candidates to be scrutinized so carefully?”
Let’s retrace our steps back to the Acts of the Apostles. The very first believers on Pentecost were all Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, as it was called. Judaism had its own well-developed system of formation. Young men attended school at their local synagogue where a Rabbi trained them in the Torah―the Law, the Nevi’im―the Prophets, and the Ketuv’im―the Writings. At the time of a boy’s Bar Mitzvah he was questioned on his knowledge and expected to be able to respond and debate intelligently. These new converts had already gone through an extended period of formation. 

Consider also that in the very earliest of times, adherents to The Way of Yeshua still considered themselves Jews. It was only after the continuing persecutions and arrests by the High Priest and Temple authorities that they began to distance themselves from Judaism. These initial converts were not being asked to change their beliefs as much as they were being asked to expand them. In Matt 5:17 Jesus himself says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Phillip Baptizing the Eunuch
Despite any bad blood between the Jews and the Samaritans, the Samaritans were also trained in the faith and devout in their practices. That leaves us with the eunuch and Cornelius. Both of them were what the Jews called a God-fearer, someone who accepted and practiced the tenets of Judaism without formally converting. Reading between the lines of Acts, we might conclude that when the eunuch asks Phillip, “What is to prevent my being baptized?” It may have been his oblique way of asking, “Will you discriminate against me because I am a eunuch?” The Jews strongly disapproved of castration and had laws preventing eunuchs from the priesthood and other offices. 

Contrast the situation Peter faced on Pentecost to what the Post-Apostolic Church had to contend with. They have now become dispersed among gentiles who worshipped pagan gods. People of that era had few scruples. They routinely divorced and remarried multiple times, engaged in extra-marital relationships, practiced homosexuality, exposed unwanted children to the elements, and countenanced abortion. These people knew nothing of the Ten Commandments, the Prophetic writings, the Psalms and so on. 

The Early Church clearly had their work cut out for them. They not only had to find people of good moral character, but they had to take them from ignorance of God and his Laws to knowledge of, and a belief in, the message of Jesus Christ.  

As time progressed, Christianity became a legal religion, then the official religion. Years of instruction and teaching resulted in a populous that had a general understanding of the tenets of the Christian faith. Once this was accomplished, the period of preparation was gradually diminished since the catechist had more familiarity, and therefore, less to master.  

During the 1940s C. S. Lewis spent time meeting and discussing religious doctrine with new recruits in the British Army. In his book, Mere Christianity, he laments their woeful lack of understanding of even the most fundamental Christian beliefs. Things have certainly not improved in the intervening years. We live in a Post-Christian world driven by a Secular-Humanist approach to life. We cannot depend on converts coming from a Christian home or having the same understanding they once did. The only response is to make our processes of formation increasingly more rigorous. Perhaps we have more in common with the Early Christians than most people realize. 

Last week we visitied the Jewish Passover. Tomorrow, we'll be looking at the Samaritan Passover.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings. 

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