First Century Worship in Ephesus : St. Paul’s Context

post10In the next few days, before our first Wednesday meeting together, my reading assignment is this:  Acts 17:16-34.  This describes the Apostle Paul’s interaction with philosophically-minded Athenians in about A.D. 52, before he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians.  The people to whom he was speaking here had not forgotten the great philosopher Socrates’ recognition (which cost him his life) that there simply must be an “unknown God” whom we do not know by means of our own philosophizing.

By the end of the first century, Christianity and Judaism had parted ways to such an extent that both Athenians and Romans had become aware of the distinctive lifestyle and worship of those who called themselves followers of Jesus Christ, the man whom they claimed had revealed, and was continually revealing, the nature and Person of the unknown God sought by Socrates and Plato.  And, inevitably, there had arisen great misunderstandings of this “foreign divinity” (see Acts 17:18) and his followers.  “Because they kept aloof from the debauchery that had become the norm in Rome (by the early third century)…Christians were despised as narrow-minded bigots.  Because they held their meetings behind closed doors and in private homes, they were accused–paradoxically enough–of immorality and perversion.  What sketchy details did filter out of their church services were twisted into horror stories;  since they were said to eat the Flesh of Jesus in their Lord’s Supper, they were called cannibals;  because they drank the cup of His Blood, they were held to practice vampirism.  The miracles of healing and deliverance that followed them everywhere were obviously the work of sorcerers.  Their notorious refusal to worship Caesar was unmistakable proof of a secret conspiracy to overthrow the government.” (from Four Witnesses, The Early Church in Her Own Words, Rod Bennett, Ignatius Press, pp.156-57) (Referred to from now on as “FW”)

Fortunately, there were some thoughtful, bright Romans dedicated to philosophy who questioned the standard prejudices against Christians.  One of these was a young man named Justin (later to be named Justin Martyr) who, in about A.D. 150, while remaining a philosopher, began to wield an influence of his own, speaking with great courage about what he had discovered:  “For I myself, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure.  For what sensual or intemperate man, or who that counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments, and would not rather continue always the present life, and attempt to escape the observation of the rulers?” (FW, p.157) Bennett comments, “This, we must say, is an excellent bit of Socratic reasoning, and though his training in the discipline of logic alone may not have been enough to save Justin’s soul, it had apparently done a good job of teaching him to recognize baloney when he smelled it….and perhaps this, too, is ultimately a work of the Spirit.”  (FW, p.157)

Justin is one of the very earliest historical witnesses to the actual form of worship which the early Church had regularly practiced since the time of the Apostles.  Here is his famous description:  “On the day called Sunday all who live in the cities or in the country gather at one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.  When the reader has finished, the one who is presiding instructs us in a brief discourse and exhorts us to imitate these noble things.  Then we all stand up together and offer prayers….When we have finished the prayer, bread is brought forth, and wine and water, and the presiding minister offers up prayers and thanksgiving to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen; after this the consecrated elements are distributed and received by each one.  Then a deacon brings a portion to those who are absent.  Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute what each thinks fit.  What is collected is deposited with the presiding minister who takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who are in need because of sickness or some other reason, and those who are imprisoned, and the strangers and sojourners among us.”  (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Louis Wilken, Yale University Press, pp.28-29) (Referred to as “SCT” after this).

St. Paul and the “saints at Ephesus” regularly practiced this eucharistic worship.  This is important to keep in mind as we study his great Letter to the Ephesians, because as we ourselves continue to practice this same, basic liturgy from week to week, we can sense a deep and strong connection with the earliest Christian communities.  Doing so, we are likely to enter with our hearts into the living Word speaking even to us in our day as we read and study and discuss Paul’s letter together.  JC