Worship in the Early Church
My master had some business in the provincial capital. He gave me the required money for the debt to be paid and for the three day trip, trusting me fully. He was right to trust, for on the same day three years ago a man and woman came into our town preaching a peculiar story. We were in the marketplace and listened as they spoke. Something grabbed my heart, something grabbed his heart, and has not even to this day let go. Even though we both knew it was unlawful and we risked death, how could we turn away from such life? On that day we both became Christians. To steal from my master would be to steal from Christ. I am called to serve where I am at, all while trying to find the full wisdom that comes from the power of the Holy Spirit.
It was Saturday when I arrived in the city. In my bags I had a letter of introduction to a man my master knew, another servant of our Lord Jesus who would take me in and introduce me to all those who gather here. If I didn’t know anyone I likely could have still found a church. There are signs, if one knows how to look, and if these can’t be found it is generally not a secret who is a follower of Christ. Not all are killed in the sporadic persecutions. Those who have not yet gloried in martyrdom are watched. People know the Christians and so one simply must ask.
I settled the debt that afternoon and found the man, a city official, who I was to stay with. He greeted me as a brother even though I was a slave and had never met him. I greeted him the same, for he was my brother! We are brothers in Christ, blessed be His name. I was fed a wonderful meal and given a nicer bed than what I slept in at home.
In the morning I joined a small crowd of others in the courtyard. The sun was just cresting the eastern horizon. Birds were singing in the small trees. My host spoke a prayer for the day, this blessed day, and we all sang a hymn to our Lord and Savior. Another man had a message for those gathered, a admonition to be watchful on this day. As a community we affirmed our duties to God and this world. After we all prayed the Prayer of Jesus, everyone went off to their work. I helped my host around his house, and assisted in preparing for the Agape feast that evening.
Around five in the afternoon men and women began to gather, greeting me with a holy kiss and welcoming me as a brother. One man, a tailor, asked how I came to know Christ. I shared my story, and he shared his. We discussed how we had blessed the Name and in what ways we had recently wandered or stumbled in our imperfections. This confession was always like a new baptism for me, washing away that which wanted to stay hidden inside.
It was a warm late Spring day, the sun was still shining into the courtyard, where about seventy men and women (and a good number of children!) gathered in small groups talking with each other. There were some chairs, but most reclined on large reed mats put out on the ground.
After about an hour of this the man who spoke that morning stood up, with a large chalice in his hand with the wine of blessing. Everyone stood up. A man behind me began to pray. He prayed for all those gathered and those who for whatever reason could not make it. He prayed that we would know Christ and the power of his resurrection on this evening. After some prayers for specific issues he finished with an ‘amen’. A woman began singing a hymn of thanksgiving, with everyone joining in after the first verse. Another hymn of worship to the Almighty followed this.
Servants brought out wine and platters of food, beginning the meal itself. We all ate as much as satisfied hunger and drank as much as befits the chaste, enjoying each other’s presence and conversation, finding unity in this meal no matter what we are coming into this gathering.
Then the elder with the chalice raised it up and began to pray. He said, “We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of your boy David which you made known to us through your boy Jesus. Glory be to you for the age.”
He picked up a large loaf of bread and tore it into two still large pieces. He then prayed, “We thank you, our Father, for the life and the knowledge that you made known to us through your boy Jesus. Glory be to you for the age. Just as this broken loaf was scattered on top of the hills and as it was gathered together and became one, in the same way let your assembly be gathered together from the remotest parts of the land into your kingdom. ‘For yours is the glory and the power through Anointed Jesus for the age.’"
Each person drank from this chalice and ate from this holy bread, following the custom all churches share in celebrating the supper of our Lord on the night he was betrayed. In this is our real unity, in this our purpose for gathering is honored.
The sun was down by this time and so servants brought in lights to illuminate the courtyard. The elder stood and prayed once more, “We thank you, holy Father, for your holy name, which you made to live in our hearts, and for the knowledge and trust and immortality which you made known to us through Jesus your boy. Glory be to you for the age. Almighty master, it was you who created all for the sake of your name. You gave both food and drink to people for enjoyment, so that they might give thanks to you. But to us you have freely given spiritual food and drink and eternal life through your boy. Before all things, we are thankful to you that you are powerful. Glory be to you for the age.
"O Lord, remember your assembly, remember to rescue it from every evil and to make it complete in your love, and to gather it from the four winds into your kingdom which you prepared for it--it, which has been made holy. For yours is the power and the glory for the age.
"Let generosity come, and let this universe pass away. Hosanna to David's son! If someone is holy, let him come. If someone is not, he should change his mind. Marana-tha. Amen."
A few of the men began singing a hymn to our savior, one I had not heard before, as they had apparently written it themselves that very day. It was inspiring. Others stood and recited a Psalm or sang a hymn for our edification. Some invited everyone to join, while a couple wanted to offer their music as gifts to God and the Church.
Another elder stood and recited the story of Jesus before the crowd of starving people. He filled the stomachs of five thousand that day! Blessed be his work forever!
After he finished speaking from the Gospel a woman stood, a prophetess of note in this community. She admonished us from the prophets of old, speaking words told long ago along with words which were specifically for us. Her words tore into my heart, for it was like she had known my secret fears and worries. It was a great encouragement that nothing is hidden, and God is working in all things to restore his Kingdom.
Then a young man stood up, hardly older than me, who spoke more words of blessing. There were warnings as well, but these were not condemnations but exhortations meant to renew our purpose and restore our eyes onto the prize for which God calls us heavenward.
We finished as we began, with prayer. Some prayed for health and needs, others prayed for the Emperor and for other officials. More than a few prayed for those who they knew, who did not know Christ. These prayers lasted late into the night, but as they continued I felt more awake and more alive. Finally, the elder in charge of the gathering led us as we recited again the prayer of Jesus. With our ‘amens’ echoing off the walls, he blessed us all in the name of Christ and we went to our homes, feeling renewed in the power of God and rejuvenated in our pursuit of Christ even in this world.