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The response to Christ through the
preaching of the gospel has often been overwhelming and
heroic. In every age, discipleship has been seen as a call to
sacrifice and love on a scale which has astounded even the
most cynical of observers. This faithful service or liturgy
of God in Christ is taken as axiomatic and true in this
article. But we shall be concerned about the specific liturgy
of worship and how we need to be assured that, for our own
time particularly, this is securely anchored in that same
gospel which gives us life in Christ Jesus.
Ever since the first recorded comments on Christian worship made by Paul to the Christians in Corinth, history shows that the major problems in Christian worship are how to get over the obstacles raised either by enthusiasm or formalism, or by conformity to a level of understanding which is neither in contact with real life nor the truth of the gospel. In Corinth there appears to have been a mixture of enthusiasm and human weakness over spiritual things. We know very little about the problems of worship in the first three centuries apart from this controversy. We might have been astonished had we been able to experience the worship of the early Christian communities in Palestine! Small groups with a prophet and singing in the Jewish fashion would have been more like the charismatic groups of our own time. Worship was necessarily 'simple' when meetings of Christians were often proscribed. Were the visions of the worship of heaven in the Apocalypse, with music and movement on the grand scale a hankering for something richer? - as Jewish worship must have been on the great occasions in the Temple. But by the end of the third century a change was taking place in the forms of worship which 'took off' a century later. We shall be looking at that revolution later. All through the centuries, whenever the corporate worship of the church got out of balance or surrendered truth for human tradition then the Christian movement went 'underground', so to speak and we get the unique contributions of the mystics, as in the fourteenth century. To a large extent this also happened in the splintered groupings of the eighteenth century, with Quakers, Methodists and all the other non-conformist groups protesting at the Babylonish captivity of the Roman or Anglican Church of the time. The house church movement and the Pentecostal movement today could be saying something of the same nature to the main line churches. Whether or not we are in sympathy with either of these movements it might be as well for us to look to the Christian foundation documents, and see whether our understanding of worship lies with them or with a church tradition which has somehow become divorced from the reality of the gospel.
First of all we shall attempt to uncover the gospel which lies in the gospels and then go on to discuss the relationship between this and our worship today.
The heart of gospel is that God has come to us and that his rule or kingdom is now in being among us, having been inaugurated in the life and ministry, death and exaltation of Jesus. Jesus' parables revealed the character of God - 'in him was no un-Christlikeness at all' - and whom Jesus called Abba, Father. The power and authority manifested in Jesus' life was the Spirit of God at work in him. His vindication as the innocent sufferer, (for long the theme of much of Israel's 'complaint' to God), in his death and resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God, declares him to be truly the servant of God, his Son. There is a sense in which Jesus, the Lord who is present to the world and with his church, is the gospel. He invites us to respond to him by putting ourselves under his authority, turning to him, and in his power following the pattern of his life. So the author of Mark sets out the announcement to the gospel in the well known terms -
'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.'
This, according to the gospel is not a human imitation of Christ but a real following with him. The distinction is important because the gospel is about Jesus' presence to us and with us. Unless we are able to be alongside him all that we are left with for help is a set of new commandments beyond our power to fulfil. As Paul experienced so keenly, the law of commandments can simply lead us further away from God and into disobedience and estrangement. Once we have come to know Jesus as the present Lord we are able to turn to him - or repent as the English version has it. Then the teaching contained in the gospels becomes possible and essential for us, for in turning to Jesus as Lord our eyes are opened. Then we begin to understand that, as with Jesus, we shall not be brought to perfection by some great stroke of God's power but only through an adherence of faith in the obedience of love.
We can see this process happening to the first disciples. They had experienced the desolation of their betrayal of the man in whom they had learned to put their whole trust. His death seemed to have brought an end to the vision of the kingdom and all that he had taught them. But their encounter with him alive gave to them what was virtually new life, a rebirth of faith which would take many of them also to a violent death for the sake of his name. In this experience of encounter and rebirth, the heart of the gospel is encapsulated. Although they remained loyal worshipping Jews, at the Temple and synagogue, their whole outlook had changed. With opened eyes they knew Jesus in the breaking of the bread in their agape meals. The gospel of the good news of Jesus alive became the heart of the memories they recalled in stories recounted in their gatherings in Palestine. These memories became the basis of the gospels as we know them, together with a mixture of prophetic sayings related to their own time and derived, they believed, from Jesus as they pondered, in his presence, the extraordinary depths of his teaching and life made relevant to their own conditions of life. It has become customary to call the heart of the gospel the Jesus tradition, so emphasising the integral nature of his life and teaching, his friendship and healings, his growing conflict with the authorities in Jerusalem, and finally his death and his vindication by his Abba, God. The account of his passion and death is widely believed to be the earliest part of the Jesus tradition to be written down. It expresses not the suffering of Jesus, about which the accounts are very reticent, but his total and unswerving obedience and love for God. Jesus lived out a faith in God which he wished to pass on to his disciples but not even they could understand this utter abandonment. Only at Easter was God's response seen. But what a vindication! Israel's wavering faith throughout the centuries had finally been completed but also passed on to the Gentiles. Mark has a Roman soldier who put an innocent man to death, say, Truly this man was the Son of God.
Paul, the earliest writer, has some early Christian credal statements and hymns in his letters. The introduction to Romans is well known but its importance can be overlooked -
"the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord."
Paul is concerned to proclaim faith in the living Lord whom he has encountered. If Judaisers come in to press for the retention of Jewish law and custom, Paul cannot agree and then shows that Jesus died to the law to make us free and that we might have faith like the faith of Abraham. The passion and resurrection of Jesus taken together are, in other words, an integral part of the gospel Paul had received - "By one man's obedience many will be made righteous."
Unlike a great deal of preaching in later centuries, neither Paul nor the first disciples proclaim a suffering Jesus whom we must imitate and contemplate in order that we may come to God. Everything holds together in the early Jesus tradition of gospel - teaching, healing, friendship, support, betrayal, death and resurrection - as the way of faith and as the true reflection of the Son of man and living Lord who comes to invite me to follow with him here and now.
The period from the 60's to the end of the century was the time when the Jesus tradition was incorporated in the written gospels for the use of the second generation Christians. But, as is well known, the authors of the gospels organised the material both of the early traditions about Jesus and the additions of the first generation Christian communities, in an interpretative framework. This ensured that the pattern of the Jesus tradition remained, pointing to the person of Jesus, the servant of the Lord, vindicated and exalted to God.
Side by side with the developing gospel traditions the worship of the new Jewish-Christian communities also changed as the links with Judaism were broken after the sack of Jerusalem in 70. We shall look now briefly at that centre of Christian worship, the annual Easter festival, and see what the relationship was between typical Easter worship and the gospel as we have outlined it above.
The early Christians were really a Messianic sect within Judaism for some years and worship would normally be at the Temple or synagogue. But their approach to worship, as with their understanding of God, had been dramatically altered. Jesus, their crucified Lord and Master was with them and this was never more evident than at their own agape meals when the blessing, or Jewish berakah was said at the beginning of the meal. It is well known that this turned into the eucharist, the unique worship of the Christian community. It became the expression of gospel. The thanksgiving prayer embraced the whole gamut of the acts of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Within that worshipping tradition, hymns and credal statements have also come down to us from the earliest days. Some of them, such as the hymn repeated by Paul in the letter to the Philippians, emphasise our point that within the particular Christian approach to worship, the whole gospel is expressed -
" ... Christ Jesus ... humbled himself and became obedient unto death ... Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord ..."
This early period was also marked by a belief that the Lord would come soon to complete the Father's work which he had begun. The parousia, or appearing of the Lord would, people thought, come appropriately on the anniversary of the resurrection at the Passover time of the Jews. So the Christian Easter was always marked by this hope. Whether the anniversary was celebrated at the actual time of Passover as some did, or as others did later on the Sunday following, there was always a vigil of watching for the Lord which culminated on the Easter Day with the eucharist. This was the only commemoration in the first three centuries and at it the whole passion, death and resurrection narrative would be read; witnessing most clearly to the person of their Lord who was with them. So at this time the climate of worship was always looking to the future, present already in a measure in the Lord's presence with them and in the extending of the Father's kingdom through their own witness. Worship and gospel were most clearly linked, expressing their faith in Christ which, in daily life could cost them their lives. But a change was coming as the years passed by. The parousia of the Lord appeared to be no longer imminent. Kingdom also became a future hope rather than the rule of God which was already being experienced. The second century challenge of gnosticism and the eastern religions also caused a change in the way in which they looked at gospel. It was no longer so clearly an integral confession of the person of Christ as a collection of his sayings and miracles set in historical and temporal sequence. By the end of the century the dynamism of the gospel as a living reflection of the Jesus who was present to his church, was lost when the gospels and other literature became part of a New Testament canon of Scripture. Literalism became the mode of understanding the gospel and developments in worship in the next hundred years would mirror this change.
Was it was perhaps inevitable that Easter worship would in course of time become more like the rites of other religions and that Christianity itself should be seen as one more religion? Let us see what actually happened.
The emergence of Christianity into the public life of the Empire in the fourth century hastened the change which had begun to take place in the last quarter of the previous century. The ideas which lay behind the early tradition of gospel, particularly in the Jesus tradition, that in Christ we are already participating in the new age of the kingdom of God, disappeared. Now the whole Christ event became split up into the historical events of his life. The loss of this eschatological understanding had begun at the end of the third century when the church began to grow into the soil of the present age. In Jerusalem after the peace of the church it was claimed that the cross on which Jesus had been crucified had been discovered. As is well known, this became the basis for the local service of the veneration of the cross on Good Friday in Jerusalem. This turned the liturgical tide in the direction of historical commemoration. Whereas the Easter commemoration had previously been an integral feast on the Sunday, now the death apart from the resurrection was celebrated on what came to be called Good Friday. Eventually the whole week from the previous Sunday was occupied with following the events of the last week of Jesus' life. All this was in place by 385 when Egeria, a lady or nun from Gaul visited Jerusalem and recorded the services of Holy Week and Easter. Worship became concentrated on devotion to this or that aspect of the Christ who died for us in the past. Pilgrimage became popular and the holy places in Jerusalem were the focus of the new historical approach in worship. The new rite for a celebration of the cross on Good Friday apart from the resurrection spread with relics of the cross right across the then known world, so that by the sixth century a complete new 'programme' of commemorations was in place which we recognise today as our Calendar. Easter had become what might be termed the 'passion play' of redemption but it is far removed from the expression of the faith of gospel. We may note too, what is often overlooked, that Ascension became a separate festival to tie in with the new historical plan of commemorations, when it had been originally part of the great feast of Easter Day.
The reform movements from the sixteenth century onwards attempted to deal with the gross discrepancies between what was believed, and practised in worship, and the scriptural evidence. But as we know, reformed liturgy generally became rather barren and renewal of liturgy in the past half century has tended towards a recovery of what we may for convenience call the 'Jerusalem' type of worship. The biblical theology movement in the West brought back the biblical reference in all liturgical rites. However, with hindsight, we can see now that the presuppositions have not changed - we are still looking at Jesus' life, death and resurrection as a temporal succession of events to be commemorated without real reference to the Jesus tradition of gospel which, as we have seen, regarded the events of Easter as being the point of reference, from which everything that went before must be seen in the light of that new beginning, particularly in worship which must express our faith in Christ. The revival of the core of the Holy Week rites in the Anglican church in the past thirty years was in part a reaction to the 'protestant' type of worship which held lightly to the seasons of the church's year. There was also a desire for more movement and colour together with the laudable desire to earth liturgy in the gospels. However, as an example of this, the attempt to recover the importance of ascension as the exaltation of Christ has led many to assume that Luke's symbolism in Acts is to be taken literally and that on Ascension Day Christ is no longer with us. So the recent trend in liturgical reform is backwards. The Christian life is to be seen as a journey towards God in the course of which we devote a portion of each year to what has been called 'liturgical realism', emptying out the sense of the real presence of Christ with us until we reach Easter. According to the tradition one must not sing alleluia during Lent! This has stood gospel on its head. But even if one does not use these anachronistic usages, the undercurrent of liturgical understanding in the West is still based on the gospel seen as a temporal, biographical succession of events to be reflected exactly in that way in our worship. Is there any way out of this impasse? Let us see.
Recovery of Gospel
When Easter worship, characteristic of a living faith and witness in Christ is replaced by liturgical rite then we can understand that the results of New Testament scholarship over the past century and more are being rejected. The development of a true historical enquiry into gospel and liturgy during this century has enabled us to see more clearly than at any other time not only what gospel is but how our worship should be an expression of faith in the Jesus who is alive. There need be no inevitability about Christianity turning into yet another religion so long as we are honest about the value of this great work of research and refuse to bury our heads in a sort of make-believe attitude when it comes to worship. For it is in the characteristic gathering of Christ's friends in eucharist that our real faith is expressed. If the way we do it is in any way a clinging to past tradition which no longer reflects the gospel then faith is undermined and our witness to Christ weakened. Redundant rites are, after all, very well understood by the world as signifying nothing of importance except the eccentricity of those who practise them. But the Christian Calendar has become the basis of the secular Calendar and we need to have a way of expressing Easter afresh both for ourselves and for the rest of the world. It can be done in this way.
Celebration and festival are indeed good points in humankind's approach to living. The Christian need not give these up as our puritan forefathers thought they had to in order to be Bible Christians. Easter needs to be restored as the one feast of the year from which everything else is coloured and takes its meaning. This is the perspective of the gospel and more particularly of the Jesus tradition within the New Testament writings as a whole. Christ invites us to make this one great celebration with him, giving thanks for the reconciliation of all things in him.
Because the Easter festival holds both the death and the exaltation of Jesus together, it is the paradigm for all eucharistic worship. Neither the death nor the resurrection should be celebrated in separation. To do that is to manifest a particular theological stance which is not appropriate in worship. But theological thinking is the Christian's daily meat arising out of faith and worship.
When Easter is restored then every day which we wish to keep as festival, including the holiday of Good Friday, will be seen in the light of the glory of Christ's vindication and our 'conversation' of prayer with him and our witness to him will be real and will be seen to be real by the world who is curious enough to enquire. Above all Christ is where we are now - fortunately that has been seen throughout the troubled ages of Christian history. It is painful to be pretending to keep the Son of Man at arm's length by human rites - as if that were possible!
Running right through Mark's gospel is the theme of our need for God to restore our sight - finally we are given the hope and the clue in the healing of Bartimaeus.
"Master, let me receive my sight .... and immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the way."
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