CHAPTER TWO: SHARING THE VISIBLE WORD
There is one part of the Christian service which does not come from the synagogue service. That part has something to do with the question, “why do Christians get together to worship at all?”
After all, some religions do not have weekly group worship services. In Chinese religion, for example, worship is an individual affair: a person can go to a temple at any time in order to perform a worship ceremony. It is not necessary for anyone else to be there. Another aspect of Chinese worship takes place in the family. Twice a month, and on festival days, the family performs ceremonies directed to the ancestors or to the gods. Sometimes an entire village of families will do this at the same time, but they are doing it separately. And a few times a year, there are processions or temple rituals for an entire community. Christians also take part in individual worship, family worship, and festivals, but there is no question that the regular weekly gathering of believers to sing and pray is a major characteristic of Christianity. Where did this idea come from?
Does it have something to do with the Old Testament “sabbath day”, or day of rest? It’s true that God gave a command to the Jews to regard every Saturday in a special way. The command was to make it a day o£ rest: using this day to worship together is not mentioned. In Old Testament times, worship took place in the family, and on special occasions in the temple. You will not find a command in the Old Testament that people are supposed to worship together as a community on Saturday. (One can however see that the Jews with no access to the temple who came together to read the Word would logically have done it on a day when they were not working.)
Do Christians gather in order to obey the command to worship? No, we have already seen that Christian worship is a matter of one’s entire life: one doesn’t need to be in a group order to worship God.
Do Christians gather in order to fulfill the command to pray? No. It’s true that there is a wonderful promise attached to praying together:
Jesus said, “Again, I tell you that if two of you on
earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done
for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three
come together in my name, there am I with them”.
But this promise is not a command for the whole community to get together regularly. And the Bible makes clear that Jesus is alwayswith us, not just when we are together in groups: we don’t have to get together as a condition for Jesus to be with us.
Do we get together in order to fulfill the command to be like parts of a body to one another? It’s true that the New Testament does emphasize interaction between Christians:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently…carry each others burdens, and in this way youwill fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
This is obviously a command, but these things are to be done as a way of life, not just once a week. They don’t require gathering together for a ceremony. The worship service doesn’t stem from the commands to care for each other.
Yet it is clear that the early Christians found it natural to gather together, though not necessarily once a week. Acts 2:46 says, “every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” Acts 5:12 says “all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s colonnade.” One can understand why people of similar viewpoints would be drawn together for mutual support. Furthermore, there is an aspect of Christianity that simply cannot be done alone:
WHY DO CHRISTIANS GATHER?
The phenomenon of Christians getting together regularly has an additional basis. On the night he was about to be betrayed, Jesus:
took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “this is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, after supper, he took the cup, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (21 Corinthians 11:24-25).
There are at least two commands implied in these words with which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper: the command to “do this”, and the command to “remember me”. The gathering of Christians for a regular ceremony is in response to these commands.
Eating the Lord Supper is something Christians can’t do alone. You need to be together to do it. And right from the first, when Christians gathered together, the included the Lord’s Supper. Most will agree that the “breaking of bread” mentioned in Acts 2:42 refers to the Lord’s Supper, and that it is the same act referred to a few verses later: “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.”
And when Paul wrote to Corinth, it is obvious that gathering together for the Lord’s Supper was already an established habit there:
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break aparticipation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)
The word “participation” could also be translated “communion”; therefore “communion” is another common name for the Lord ‘s Supper.
WHY DO CHRISTIANS HAVE THEIR MEETINGS WEEKLY?
Note the activity which Luke specially mentions during one of Paul’s travels: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). This couldn’t refer to ordinary eating, since they did that every day. It was the special gathering for the Lord’s Supper, and note that they did it on the first day of the week.
By the second century, meeting for communion on Sundays seems to have been taken for granted. The following quote is from about 150 AD:
It is on Sunday that we assemble, because Sunday is the
first day: the day on which God transformed darkness
and matter and created the world, and the day on which
Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead. (Justin
Martyr, Apologia I, 67)
Without the Old Testament command for a weekly day of rest, there would not have been a seven-day week, so there would not have been a Sunday. In that sense, weekly gathering for worship grows out of the Old Testament practice. It was a voluntary decision, though, not a command.
WHAT WAS DONE AT THE WEEKLY GATHERING?
As the quotation from Justin Martyr continues, it gives details about what the Christians did at those weekly gatherings:
On the day named after the Sun, all who live in city or countryside assemble. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows. When the lector has finished, the president addresses us and exhorts us to imitate thesplendid things we have heard. Then we all stand and pray…When we have finished praying, bread, wine, and water are brought up. The president then prays and gives thanks according to his ability, and the people give their assent with an “Amen”. Next, the giftsover which the thanksgiving has been spoken are distributed, and everyone shares in them, while they are also sent via the deacons to the absent brethren. The wealthy who are willing make contributions, each as he pleases, and the collection is then deposited withthe president, who aids orphans and widows, those who are in want because of sickness or some other reason, those in prison, andvisiting strangers –in short, he takes care of all in need.1 (Apologia I, by Justin Martyr, part 67)
Notice that sometime between 50 AD and 150 AD, the Scripture readings and other elements from the synagogue have already been combined with the Lord’s Supper into a single service, and that it took place on Sunday, not Saturday. We don’t know whether this happened at the same time in every place. It seems that in some places, the Christians continued to attend the synagogue on Saturday, the sabbath day. The sabbath day ended at sunset on Saturday, and that’s when Sunday officially started. The Christians then would continue meeting, andcelebrate the Lord’s Supper together.2 At some point the Christians stopped attending the Jewish synagogue, and when they did so, they brought the pattern they were accustomed to from the synagogue into their already established Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
SOURCE OF COMMUNION WORSHIP PATTERN
What kind of pattern did they use to celebrate the Lord’s Supper? They did not create a new pattern, and they did not just put together some ideas arbitrarily. There was a certain pattern already available that they could draw on. It was not from the synagogue. It was from the Jewish home. It was the pattern used by the father, in the home, at the very beginning of sabbath day (that would be Friday night).3
During this ritual, the father holds the cup, and says a prayer that begins “you are blessed, Lord our God…”. This is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Afterward, everyone drinks a little of the wine. Then the same procedure is repeated with the bread: the father holds it, says a prayer of praise, breaks the and distributes it.
This ritual is lengthened for feast days. For example, the ritual used in the home for Passover (which would actually take place on Passover eve, Thursday night) uses more than one cup of wine. Luke’s account of the Lord’s Supper hints that Jesus probably used this more involved ritual, since it mentions more than one cup of wine:
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “take this and divide it among you. “…And he took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “this is my body, given for you? do this in remembrance of me”. In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:17, 19, 20).
The early church put together the main ingredients from the Jewish family devotion^and from the record of the Lord’s last supper, and came up with aritual that included:
Praise and Thanks
The words Jesus used on that night
(“words of institution”)
A prayer of remembering what Jesus did for us (since he commanded us to remember him).
To these, the Christians added one more prayer, a prayer for the Holy Spirit.
(Click here for two communion prayers from the early church which illustrate the elements described above.)
The word “eucharist” comes from the Greek word for “thanks” and is another name for the Lord’s Supper, since the communion ceremony began with a prayer of thanksgiving. (footnote 4)
The two parts of the traditional Christian worship service then are a time emphasizing the written Word, based on the pattern of the synagogue service, and a time based on what Saint Augustine called the “visible word”, that is, Jesus present in the bread and wine; this part is based on the pattern of Jewish family devotions. Both parts, “word” and “sacrament”, are centered on the person of Jesus himself.
The importance of thus gathering together is seen in Hebrews 10:25:
“Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
THE TWO HALVES OF THE EARLY CHRISTIAN SERVICE:
(1) SERVICE OF THE WORD, FROM THE SYNAGOGUE PATTERN:
|Confession of Faith (creeds)|
(2) SERVICE OF HOLY COMMUNION (in early years, after non-members were dismissed):
|Communion prayer (with phrases from Jewish family prayer over bread and wine)|
|Holy, Holy, Holy (from synagogue service)|
|Distribution of bread and wine|
|Benediction (from synagogue service)|
1. Apologia I, part 67, by Justin Martyer (written around 150 A.D.) Quoted in Lucien Diess, ed., Springtime of the Liturgy, Collegeville, Minn. : Liturgical Press, 1979, page 93.
2. This development is discussed in detail in Sofia Cavaletti, op. cit., page 31
3. A detailed comparison of the Jewish Passover family service and the early Chrisian communion service is found in The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy, beginning on page 17.
4. John F. Baldovin states in the article “Christian Worship to the Reformation” in The Making of Jewish and Christian Worship (Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991) that “most scholars are agreed today that [the origins of the Eucharistic prayer] lie in Jewish prayers, but since the rabbinic sources postdate the New Testament writings, there is little agreement as to precisely how it developed…” He states that during most of this past century attention was centered on the concluding grace after meals, but a more recent suggestion has been rabbinic prayers of thanksgiving. He cites as a reference Thomas J. Talley, “The Literary Structure of the Eucharistic Prayer” in Worship 58 (1984): 404-20.