Who would be at home in early Christian worship?

How the Apostles taught the earliest believers to worship

If a Christian walked out one morning and discovered a time machine sitting on his porch, his first destination would probably be the first century, to witness the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But if he stuck around to live with the New Testament church, and worshipped with the first of the believers taught by the Apostles, would he feel at home?

The human race doesn’t have time machines, but we do have documents preserved from the first century onward that tell us about the lives, beliefs, and activities of Christians. Among these documents are the set inspired by God and canonized as Holy Scripture, probably originating between 50 and 100 or so A.D., which we know as the New Testament. Other documents survive, not written by apostles but by those whom they taught and who led the Church when they were gone.

One of the earliest detailed descriptions of Christian worship comes from a man known as St. Justin the Martyr of Neapolis. He was a philosopher and an adult convert who suffered death rather than forsake his beliefs, and he was among the first of Christian apologists. His writings come from around 150 A.D., and in his First Apology he describes how Christians worship.

“… Having concluded the prayers, we greet one another with a kiss. Then there is brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of water and of watered wine; and taking them, he gives praise and glory to the Father of all, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and he himself gives thanks at some length in order that these things may be deemed worthy.

“When the prayers and the thanksgiving are completed, all the people present call out their assent, saying: “Amen!” Amen in the Hebrew language signifies so be it. After the president has given thanks, and all the people have shouted their assent, those whom we call deacons give to each one present to partake of the Eucharistic bread and wine and water; and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

“We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.

“… On the day which is dedicated to the sun, all those who live in the cities or who dwell in the countryside gather in a common meeting, and for as long as there is time the Memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read. Then, when the reader has finished, the president verbally gives a warning and appeal for the imitation of these good examples.

“Then we all rise together and offer prayers, and, as we said before, when our prayer is ended, bread is brought forward along with wine and water, and the president likewise gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people call out their assent, saying the Amen. Then there is the distribution to each and the participation in the Eucharistic elements, which are also sent with the deacons to those who are absent. Those who are wealthy and wish to do so, contribute whatever they themselves care to give; and the collection is placed with the president, who aids the orphans and the widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause are in need, and those who are imprisoned, and the strangers who are sojourning with us – and in short, he takes care of all who are in need.

“The Day of the Sun is the day on which we all gather in a common meeting, because it is the first day, the day on which God, changing darkness and matter, created the world, and it is the day on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead. … He appeared to His Apostles and disciples, and taught them these things which we have also submitted to you for your consideration.”

This is the way that the Apostles taught the first believers to worship. Returning to our time-traveling Christian, would he feel at home? That depends on the church to which belonged before he left.

Suppose he found, instead of a time machine, a checklist of these elements of the earliest Christian worship: gathering on Sunday, readings from the prophets and the Gospels, a sermon, a collection of alms, presentation of bread and watered wine, thanksgiving for the same, a Eucharistic prayer, a great Amen, a greeting of peace, and reception of the Eucharist Itself (including the bread and wine being sacramentally transformed into the flesh and blood of our Lord; only able to be received by members of the Church; and carried to those unable to come to the gathering).

If our Christian goes to Mass in the Catholic Church, he can check off every single item. If not, he’ll have significantly fewer – perhaps even none. In that case, it ought to give him pause. He should ask himself, “Why am I not worshipping as the Apostles taught? And how soon can I learn more about the Church that does?”

Justin Martyr’s entire First Apology can be read at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm .

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