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Why Go to Church?



In the early days of the Christian faith, when the Roman authorities were perfectly happy to let Christians believe whatever they liked, just so long as they didn't gather together to celebrate their "religio illicitas", Christians still insisted on gathering regularly to celebrate the Eucharist. The Christians' stubborn insistence on holding these necessarily secret meetings gave rise to all sorts of vicious rumors, that they were cannibals, eating the flesh of infants, engaging in sexual orgies and incest as soon as the lights went out—and yet they continued to do so. Why? What was so important about gathering together to share a bit of bread and wine that the early Christians were willing to suffer infamy, persecution, and even death in order to celebrate the liturgy?


To begin with, the Christians were doing so in obedience to the express command of the man whom they worshipped as the eternal God. "This is my body, broken for you," he told his disciples as he broke bread and gave it to them to eat at the last meal he shared with them before his death. "Do this in remembrance of me." He did much the same with the cup of wine that he called his blood and shared with his disciples, again exhorting them to "do this in remembrance of me." That the disciples understood this as a command to meet regularly to share a memorial meal of bread and wine together is attested to by the fact that they did so daily immediately after the inauguration of the Church at Pentecost, and at least weekly in the scattered churches of Gentile Christians established by the apostle Paul.


So the early Christians' stubbornness was born of the belief that their regular observance of the liturgy was done at the command of their incarnate God. This still leaves unanswered, however, the deeper question of why the commandment was given in the first place. What is it about the liturgy and the Eucharist that made them so important, so central to the practice of the Christian faith? And why was this gathering necessary? Couldn't all this eating and drinking and thanksgiving have been done much more conveniently on an individual basis, with each Christian perhaps offering the same prayers and partaking of the same ceremonial meal at the same time, but each doing so in the comfort and safety of his own home?


The impossibility of this may be seen, in part, in the ancient understanding of worship. Worship was never simply a matter of singing songs or saying prayers, though these were indeed fine things to do and were essential components of worship; in the ancient world, however, whether Jewish or Gentile, worship was always focused upon a sacrifice, the means by which communion with God was made possible. From Cain and Abel to Abraham on Mount Moriah, from the tabernacle in the wilderness to Solomon's temple in Jerusalem, from the rebuilding of the temple under Ezra and Nehemiah to the Maccabbean revolt to the political machinations of Herod and the Sadducees, the necessity of sacrifice for a restoration of communion with God had shaped and defined the act of worship. It was the necessity of sacrifice on behalf of the people that led to the institution of the priesthood, the tabernacle, and the temple. And yet it was at this key point that the early Christians apparently differed radically from both their fellow-Jews and from the pagan Gentiles: they had no temple, no priesthood, they slaughtered no animals for sacrifice—no wonder their neighbours accused them of being atheists!


Of course, if we look closely at what the early Christians believed, we see that, in fact, they had all of these things. As the apostle Peter wrote to the first-century Christians of Asia Minor, "like living stones, be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (I Peter 2:5) Thus, the early Christians saw themselves as the temple ("you are God's temple" - I Cor 3:16), and themselves as the priests ("you are ... a royal priesthood" - I Peter 2:9), and the spiritual sacrifices they offered were again themselves ("present your bodies as a living sacrifice" - Rom 12:1), as they gave praise to God, did good, and communed (Heb 13:15-16) of the body and blood of the one sacrifice for sins offered once for all (Heb 10:12), by all of which they were made themselves part of that sacrifice (I Cor 10:16-17), namely, the body of Jesus, whom they worshipped as Christ (Messiah) and Lord (God).


In all three of these conceptions of themselves, the corporate consciousness of the early Christians comes to the fore. A temple was the place where a god dwelt among his people - up until this point, both Jews and Gentiles had conceived of this dwelling-place as a building: multiple buildings in the case of the polytheistic Greeks, and a single building in the case of the monotheistic Jews. Following the Jewish line of thought, Christians thought of themselves as united by Christ's incarnation and by the presence of the Holy Spirit into a single temple, having become corporately, by partaking of Christ's body, members of the one human body of God and the dwelling-place of God's Holy Spirit. The function of a priestly order was to perform the sacrifices necessary to restore communion with God. As Christians understood this sacrifice to have been performed "once for all" when their high priest, Jesus, "offered up himself" (Heb 7:27), they understood their priestly ministry to be the uniting of themselves with that sacrifice by partaking of it regularly as they offered up both praise to God and their own bodies in holy repentance and good deeds.


This last corporate self-concept, upon which we have touched briefly twice, is obviously the most complex. On the one hand, the Christians did not so much think of themselves as the sacrifice, as they thought of themselves as participants in Jesus' sacrifice. The way in which they participated, however, made them, in a sense, a part of the sacrifice themselves. By corporately partaking of the body and blood of their Lord, they understood themselves as being thus made into that body, and in this way, all their little efforts to repent and do good and praise God as they partook (without which they would only be eating and drinking judgment upon themselves – I Cor 11:27-29)—all of their small "deaths to self" were drawn up into their Lord's ultimate "not my will, but thine, be done" at Gethsemane (Lk 22:42), the perfect death to self actualized on the cross and made transformative and redemptive in the resurrection. In a similar fashion, all their sufferings on behalf of Christ became a part of Christ's sufferings, and, in that sense, similarly redemptive (cf. Col 1:24). And in being thus united to Christ, in death, burial, and resurrection (by baptism – Rom 6:3-5), and in self-sacrifice and the source of their spiritual life (the Eucharist), the Christians found themselves united to one another.


Gathering together, then, was both a physical expression of this unity with Christ and of their corporate unity with one another, as well as a physical necessity for the Christians' collective participation in the sacrifice that was the source of that unity. But there was yet one more reason for gathering even greater than these; one that went above and beyond all obedience, necessity, and symbol. It is instructive that in the account of the Last Supper that is so central to all the four gospels, no mention is made in the most theological of them, the Gospel of John, of the institution of the Eucharist, the main focal point of the Last Supper narratives in all of the other three. Instead, John begins his narrative with an incident mentioned in none of the others in which Jesus washes his disciples' feet, and then, after the revelation of Judas as the betrayer, where Matthew and Mark go on to relate Jesus' institution of the Eucharist, John relates instead an extended farewell discourse beginning with Jesus giving his disciples "a new commandment … that you love one another; even as I have loved you" (13:34). Jesus continues by telling them, if they love Him, to keep His commandments (14:15), and reassures them that, if they do so, He and His Father and the Holy Spirit will dwell with them (14:23-25). He concludes the discourse with a prayer on his disciples' and on all future disciples' behalf, "that they may all be one: even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us" (17:21), and "that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them." (17:26) These themes of humility, love, and unity which, in John, replace the institution of the Eucharist, are themselves the whole meaning of Eucharist, liturgy, and church: to humbly serve and forgive one another, to love God and one another and as wholly and self-sacrificially as He has loved us, and, by so doing, to reflect and participate in the unity and community of the Trinity—this is that to which the Christians were called; this is the purpose for which man was originally created.


Societies and cultures change, and, with them, some of the outward forms and expressions of our worship—but, in the worship of an eternal, unchanging God, the basic reasons for worship and nature of it remain as changeless as His character. If the early Christians could obey and gather to worship in the face of torture and death, how much more should we, who are free to worship, continue to gather to do so? The necessity of sacrifice has not been removed, but rather fulfilled—it is our duty, just as much as the early Christians, to participate in that fulfillment by gathering together to fulfill our God-given role as priests and temple and to partake of God's greatest gift, the one sacrifice offered once for all, His Son, our incarnate Lord. Yet the call to worship is much more than either a call to obedience or duty; as we gather in obedience to praise, to do good, to forgive and be forgiven, to repent, and to humbly sacrifice our own prerogatives on behalf of others, we begin to see that the call to worship as Church is a call to participate in the very life of the Trinity. The call to worship is a call to love.