Hal Taussig, a scholar who specializes in the first two centuries of the Common Era, visited us this year. Maybe the most intriguing part of his talks was how the early Christ communities met, worshipped, and were sustained.
They met once a week. Most people didn’t have large houses – indeed their houses were about the size of my study. They didn’t have dining rooms and usually ate by standing up. So to meet together the Christ followers rented a dining room; or sometimes the community might have had a wealthy patron.
The dining rooms, as the slide shows, were square in shape, comfortably accommodating some 20+ people. Around the sides of the room was a raised platform that one lounged on, ate, and spent the evening on. This platform was covered with straw for comfort.
The Christ communities were not the only groups that met like this. There was a number of what Hal calls ‘supper clubs’. There were supper clubs for interest groups, for work colleagues, or for religious or philosophical purposes.
When a Christ community met the first thing they did was spend about an hour eating. Usually, unless they had a wealthy patron, people brought food to share. Sometimes people were so poor they brought only bread and wine. After eating the dogs were let in to clean up the scraps.
During the eating, and indeed throughout the evening, there was music and singing. In the third slide the characters in the middle are musicians. Music was frequent, and the singing spontaneous and boisterous. Of course very few could read, so what was sung was known by heart.
After eating there would be toasts, or libations, to the deities. So, in our language, they would honour God, and honour Jesus, by drinking a toast - actually quite a few toasts.
Although there was a president of the meal [a different person each time they met], the evening was not ordered like we expect a modern day worship service to be. There would be a variety of conversations happening at the same time. It was more akin to a noisy party atmosphere.
Occasionally there would be travelling teachers – some invited and some who ‘gate-crashed’. These teachers wouldn’t present a lecture but rather engage in dialogue and debate with those present.
As the evening wore on people would lounge upon each other, joke, sing, laugh, talk, and care with each other. Eventually they would spill out into the night, and to their own homes.
The important backdrop to the context of this early worship is that life was hard, miserable, often violent and short. It wasn’t so much that the Christ communities met to be inspired with a vision and passion to change the world. It was rather that they met with the hope of alleviating the suffering of their everyday existence with an evening of fellowship and joy.
And it was out of this context that what we call Holy Communion came about. The words of institution are an early libation – a toast to Jesus.
When learning about what our Christian forebears did there is always the temptation to think there is a right way, a correct way, to order our worship life. ‘If we only worshipped how they did in the New Testament’ someone might say. Well, an interactive rowdy party sounds appealing, but then too does silent meditation or listening to Bach [both of which of course are also part of the history of Christian worship].
For those of us responsible for worship our task is to try to find ways of being church that encourage people in their faith today. There is no one right way to worship; there is what works for us - what brings hope and encouragement in our life and faith.
Some of the aspects of modern day worship that Hal sees resonating with the trajectory of his studies include things like:
Moveable seating in the round
Rich and striking visuals – objects as well as screen images
Food; lots of food
Occasional small and large group discussion in worship
Small meditation spaces available for private prayer within the larger space
Downgrade place of the sermon in the larger worship, no more than 15 minutes devoted to sermon; most of the activity in the worship devoted to singing, other kinds of music than singing, collective meditation and prayer, silence, readings
Children’s presence is celebrated all the time.
You will notice that many of these things we have incorporated into some of our services here, and particularly in the four alternate services we offered this year, and will be offering next year.
More importantly for me there is the question of hope. The striking reality of the hard and violent context that those early Christ communities existed within, and the development of the supper club model of worship that gave hope and relief and sustenance to the participants, leads me to continually consider how we try to do it today.
On Wednesday night I posted on the internet the blessing at the end of our service:
May you be visited by hope;
and may She stay awhile.
May the song She sings
reverberate in all the dark
and lonely corridors of your life.
May your fears and worries recede
in Her presence.
And may you, once again, know peace.
Deep peace and blessing.
I was surprised with the wide variety of people with whom this resonated – people of all sorts of faith persuasions, or no faith persuasion. People, lots of people, have fears and worries and dark and lonely corridors. And they want and need some relief, an angel of hope to visit them and sing her song of balm.
The first reading today,[i] one of the authentic Pauline letters, comes from the early supper club context. Paul, a visiting teacher, is encouraging generosity. Note in v.12 it seems he is encouraging people to be generous in the food they bring along to share with others in their Christ feast. We need to be careful though that the idea that God will bless you for sharing is not reduced to an economic transaction. The blessing of God may simply be the satisfaction of being able to share, rather than an increase in your pantry or bank account.
The second reading from Luke comes out of the Christ communities of the late 1st and early 2nd century. For those like me who enjoy the subject of geography, it is clear the author doesn’t know Israel/Palestine. Even the early scribes realized there was no region between Samaria and Galilee. But Galilee and Samaria are theological categories. They are about insiders [Jews] and outsiders [Samaritans] – and for those Christ communities who tried to reach across this cultural and religious divide they were in the ‘between’ region; the ‘middle space’.
The other outsider category in this story is ‘leper’. In the Book of Numbers [5:2-3] those deemed to be lepers were to remain outside the encampment and they should shout to warn others away from them. Remember what the ancient world considered leprosy most likely meant a variety of infectious skin diseases, and even mould and mildew on clothing and walls, and not just mycobacterium leprae.
So this is an upside-down, subversive story, where the outcast – doubly outcast as both Samaritan and leper – is the exemplar of faith. Like other Jesus stories it turns our normative understandings of heroes and villains, good people and bad people, upside-down. Like other Jesus stories it invites us to rethink our categories in order to open the doors of our hearts and communities to those who are unlike us, and those whom we have been taught to be afraid of.
It is also of course a story about healing and thanksgiving. By returning the 10th leper gained more than clearing up his psoriasis.
Amid the various ecclesial, ethical, and liturgical reforms of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back.
I would like to suggest that in the context of the late 1st century Christ community this story of the lepers was told to affirm the way their supper club was developing as a middle space – outside of the usual racial and religious categories – a middle space with the courage to welcome and include those deemed unhealthy, contagious, or medically suspect.
This middle space ran on the fuel of thanksgiving. Their answer to the harsh realities of their lives, to the suffering and deprivations they knew, was to be grateful. It was a counterintuitive response, a positive psychology response: ‘When you have little, share it’. Which, of course, again takes courage.
It was in this middle space of giving, being thankful, and welcoming the different and diseased, that faith grew. It was this middle space that spoke of hope.
[i] II Corinthians 9:6-12