With church services currently suspended, I have been thinking about the ways in which our church-going will be different when the lockdown is lifted. Will there be a different seating arrangement, or a restriction on the numbers of those attending, or different liturgical practices, e.g. a no-touching “sign of the peace?” Ultimately, it will be up to our diocese to decide, but in the meantime we can start thinking about what changes are needed to make worship welcoming and safe for all.
I am going to resist the temptation to speculate here on all the possibilities, but do bear in mind that when we gather again – and we will gather again – things will be different. Any changes need to address our basic need to gather and worship communally. While cyberspace has been our means of connection for the past two months, it doesn’t properly replace what Christians have been doing for centuries – meeting in one place to break bread and praise God.
It might be helpful to remember how it all started; how did Christians practice their faith in the early days of the Church? Last Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, written in the first century AD, gives a glimpse of what they did.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:42, 46, 47)
The Church’s religious observance blended existing temple worship with the breaking of bread at home. The basic pattern was being set: of community, teaching, fellowship, prayer, worship and eucharist. Less than a hundred years later, St Justin Martyr (d. 165) wrote a description of a Christian gathering which will sound familiar. It is worth quoting at length:
“On Sundays there is an assembly of all who live in towns or in the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows. Then the reading is brought to an end, and the president delivers an address in which he admonishes and encourages us to imitate in our own lives the beautiful lessons we have heard read.
Then we all stand up together and pray. When we have finished the prayer, as I have said, bread and wine and water are brought up; the president offers prayers and thanksgiving as best he can, and the people say “Amen” as an expression of their agreement.
Then follows the distribution of the food over which the prayer of thanksgiving has been recited; all present receive some of it, and the deacons carry some to those who are absent. Those who are well provided for, if they wish to do so, contribute what each thinks fit; this is collected and left with the president, so that he can help the orphans and the widows and the sick, and all who are in need for any other reason, such as prisoners and visitors from abroad; in short he provides for all who are in want.
So on Sunday we all come together. This is the first day, on which God transformed darkness and matter and made the world; the day on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead. For on the day before Saturday he was crucified, and on the day after Saturday, that is the Sunday, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the truths which we have put before you for your consideration.”
Justin is describing the practice of the Church of which we are members today. The Church has shown remarkable resilience in surviving throughout the centuries, having to contend with, among other things, plague, war, conquest, persecution, schism, reformation, counter-reformation, materialism, the worship of science and now, the coronavirus Covid-19.
When we look back at the first Church, we see the promotion and development of an ideal Christian society. If we turn again to the Acts of the Apostles, we read how:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
This is the first Christian community, the living Church founded by Jesus whose mission was, in the words of Matthew’s gospel, to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations.” In that it was successful, since we read that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
This is no fictional community, because the Roman satirist Lucian pours scorn on the early Christians in a rare non-scriptural reference from the second century AD. He says,
“…these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains their contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them…from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”
The idea of possessions held in common was not original to the Christian Church. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote approvingly in his dialogue Critias, of the early days of Athens, as a time when “none of its members possessed any private property, but they regarded all they had as the common property of all.” The author Jamblicus, in his Life of Pythagoras, describes the sharing of possessions as the perfect fulfillment of the ideal of friendship.
We have come a long way since then, and I can’t remember any time recently when our Church leaders encouraged Christians to hold all their possessions in common. It may strike us today as idealistic and naïve, but as an ideal it remains buried somewhere in the Church’s DNA. It highlights a couple of basic ideas: that material possessions can’t be transferred to the kingdom of heaven, and that if all wealth and possessions were shared around, no one would be in need.
What has continued to this day is the Church acting charitably to alleviate poverty. A Christian church is not meant to be a closed society, but one which looks out on the world. The Church embodies in its attitude and actions the message and life of Christ, who came “not to be served but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28). Christians see in everyone the image of Christ, “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Our roots lie in this early model of the Church which we read about in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of the faithful. In these descriptions we find a spirit-led Church with charismatic figures like Peter and Paul bringing the word of God into the public squares and villages and towns around the Mediterranean. We see that with God’s grace the world is waking up to the good news of Christ, to God’s kingdom becoming a reality in the hearts and lives of his faithful people.
We should keep this history in mind when we come to work out the future path of the Church. Although we may feel that the coronavirus is disrupting our normal observance, which it is, it may be that God is speaking to us in our current situation about a renewal of the Church in a new and necessary way. Time will tell. In the meantime, the basic elements remain, which is to follow Jesus in loving God and neighbor, in building community and in meeting to break bread together. That last one we are without right now, but it will be central to our lives when we have the opportunity to gather once more.
This week I want to mention two events which can involve members of the church in thinking about the Church today and its mission to those in need. The first of these is on Wednesday, May 6 at 7 pm, where there will be an opportunity to discuss some of the above topics in an online forum, under the heading, “What is God saying to the church at this time?” Access is via Zoom and a link can be found on the homepage of our website. I hope you can join us.
The second event is on Saturday, May 9, between 9 am and 12 noon, when we are inviting members to donate food in aid of the Sunday Breakfast Mission and the Community Church Outreach. If you have food or non-perishable items you would like to donate – cereal, dried pasta, pasta sauce, canned tuna, soup, boxed macaroni and cheese, rice and canned vegetables, toiletries, paper Products, wipes, hand soap, homemade masks, band-aids – please pack them in the trunk of your car and drive up to the church, where David and Leslie Walker will be on hand to greet you (safely, from a distance) before emptying your trunk of its contents! Works of charity are the fruits of the Christian faith, which the community carries out as a way of expressing the universal love and care God has for all people. Please support the work of this valuable mission at a time when it is most needed.
May the Peace of Christ be with you all.