Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Lesson of St. Matthias Day and of Lent: No Phonies!

Today is both St. Matthias Day and Shrove Tuesday, the eve of Lent.

During private Morning Prayer, even I could not miss a big message of St. Matthias Day – No Phonies!

The first lesson (REC BCP) was 1 Samuel 2:27-35, in which the Lord condemns corrupt priests, namely the sons of Eli. The second lesson was Matthew 7:15-27 in which Jesus warns against false prophets and false professions of faith.

Then the Collect:
O ALMIGHTY God, who into the place of the traitor Judas didst choose thy faithful servant Matthias to be of the number of the twelve Apostles; Grant that thy Church, being alway preserved from false Apostles, may be ordered and guided by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is indeed hard to miss this message of St. Matthias Day – No Phonies!

It so happens that is a message of Lent as well. I’ve been discussing evangelism with my youth Sunday School class. And in reviewing some of the history of the origins of Lent, I noted a stark contrast with the easy conversion policies of most churches today.

As many of my erudite readers know, Lent came out of the early church’s preparation of candidates for baptism. By the Third and Fourth Centuries, it is clear that the church took pains to ensure that adults to be baptized were the real deal. Practices varied at different places and different times. But catechumenates lasted as long as three years! In Jerusalem, Egeria reported that one had to be closely examined by the bishop simply to become a candidate for baptism at the beginning of Lent. Those who didn’t measure up were “told to go away” and get their act together before coming to the font.

Those accepted as candidates were then expected to attend frequent, even daily and lengthy, instruction during Lent and to fast. In at least some places, the fast included abstaining from the pleasure of the marriage bed and of bathing! And there were further frequent examinations as well.

I went through such history with my class to bring home the following -- in evangelism, we are not to manipulate people or to make conversion easy in order to add to our soul-winning tally list or membership rolls. And, yes, that goes against the grain of many modern church practices. The ancient church made more than a little effort to avoid phony conversions -- for the spiritual health of both the church and candidates.

One of my younger students, without prompting (I swear!), noted that such efforts to be sure converts are the real deal help avoid false priests and bishops.

Bright kid! It’s sad modern churches have not been that wise. Doing little to nothing to weed out phonies in initiation and in ordination has resulted in such absurdities as a Buddhist bishop and clergy not only lacking in faith but hostile to it.

One need only glance at modern church history to see it is not for nothing that the lessons of St. Matthias Day and of Lent include “No Phonies!”

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