Eucharist and Communion-Imagining the First Century Church

Eucharist- from the Greek word euhkharistia meaning thanksgiving. Most often Christianity hears the word and thinks of Communion, the taking of the wine representing Christ’s shed blood and the bread representing Christ’s body broken for us. It is a ritual or a rite we do to remember Christ’s sacrifice the way he told his followers to during the last supper. Most of us know this as Communion, Eucharist being a word used formally in certain denominations of the church.

So I want to focus on these two words, Eucharist and Communion, because together they represent one of the greatest pictures of how the Church functioned during the first century.

So after Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit came to the Apostles and gave them abilities that would allow them to share their story throughout the world) the Apostles took the story of Christ and what he had done for all of humanity and spread it. Even with persecution from the Sanhedrin and individuals such as Paul (at the time called Saul before his conversion after meeting Jesus firsthand), the number of believers grew in number and in geographical area. The story seemed to hit home with the outcasts, the poor, and disenfranchised individuals throughout the Roman Empire. They grew and continued to meet, despite being persecuted and despite Christianity eventually becoming illegal around 70 A.D.

So where would they meet? How would they worship? How did they continue to practice an outlawed faith in what was the most effective Empire in history?

Those two words are the key. Eucharist-meaning thanksgiving; and Communion-meaning the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.  Christians in the first century met together to give thanks, share a meal, sing, talk about current events, give testimony, and to discuss their faith and how they practice it (sharing and exchanging intimate thoughts a feelings).

Often these meetings would happen in individual homes. These congregations were made up of people in all walks of life, social class, trades, and ethnicities. But regardless of differences, they met together as equals under the premise that they were all in need of salvation because of sin. It’s important to note that you could not come to these meetings without showing some commitment. You had to first be baptized to be a part of a congregations. This tradition is often carried out today, but it is often with the misconception that baptism is a requirement for salvation. This is wrong because there are no requirements for salvation, and because that was not the real point of making baptism a requirement to commune with fellow believers. Members of these early congregations were expected to take baptism because it was a defining statement of belief. To take baptism publicly (in the face of persecution and breaking law) one was saying “I am a Nazarean” (the first name for Christians before the meeting of the Apostles in Antioch) and accepting all the persecution that went with that. It was an act of commitment, not just a statement of faith. There was a cost to practicing Christianity.

Once baptized, a member of the congregation could share in this communion and give thanks for their salvation with others. These congregations rarely had agendas, did not have a set way of worship, or a schedule to keep, or little bulletins with outlined sermons (in fact, they probably didn’t have actual sermons, more like moderated discussions). These meetings were a far cry from the multimedia laser light shows and soft rock concerts and motivational messages our church services are today. These meetings were where great intellectual debates and discussions took place, where real worship happened with the knowledge that imprisonment and death were waiting if the authorities chose to pursue them. Ideas were shared and pondered and discussed, not cast out because a leader would not consider them valid or because they did not fall in line with his agenda. There was not a massive choir which required its singers to meet throughout the week to perfect productions. There was not even a true leader to enforce how meetings should be conducted. There was a hierarchy, and there were “leaders” to whom decisions on doctrine would be deferred (see Paul’s letters to the churches he helped found).

Over the past two thousand years of Christianity, we have gone from these simple (yet I believe more effective) congregations and meetings where true discipleship and genuine worship took place to the church as we know it today. The grandiose steeples buildings, the massive booming choir in robes or the three piece rock band with smoke and lights behind them, the professional minister with his well-studied, well prepared life lesson, and the hierarchy acting for its own purpose. No, not all churches are like this and there are still genuine congregations who look like this but have not lost their focus on discipleship. But I think we have all been in a church that meets (or comes close) to the description. However most churches do not start this way, before a building is built and a hierarchy of elders or governors is established, almost every church starts with a group of people meeting in a living room to discuss and share ideas. To worship together through study, or singing. To share a meal while they do this. Almost every church starts out with an identical image of what it was like during this first century, when Christianity was in its infancy, when it was at its closes to its foundation in Christ. What if churches were more like this today? What if instead of owning land and buildings and having a set group of leaders, churches were simple meetings of believers coming together to give thanks (Eucharist) and to share intimate discussions (Communion). Would more people be drawn? Would more people leave? Would we be better versed in our faith, or better prepared for the spiritual battles we face? Is simpler better?

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