The churches and their people must continually seek those lost from God through giving them the word of life. At the same time, however, God’s people must think about keeping the Gospel flame alight for the coming generations. We must remember to survive.
In this short essay please don’t hear me diminishing the Lord’s mandate to make disciples. A moment’s thought will tell us that ‘missioning’ and ‘surviving’ are not hostile to each other but friends. Let us learn this from the New Testament.
Remembering and the Synagogue
The first Christians were Jews, members of synagogues. Synagogues had a fixed liturgy with a number of repeating parts, for example, the reading and exposition of the Law and the Prophets, the Shema (‘Hear, O Israel…’), doxologies , prayers and benedictions.
The Synagogue its liturgy arose during the Hellenistic age from about 300 BC when the faith and hope of the covenant people was being swamped by the insidious beliefs in the gods and heroes of the Greeks and their free-wheeling sexual practices. In much the same way our churches are being swamped by secularism, neo-gnostic new age philosophies and post-modernist individualism. The synagogue liturgy served the Jewish people well, both within Palestine (using Aramaic) but also in the far flung congregations of the Diaspora (using Greek).
Repetition and memory were critical. And so the light of Israel was kept alight among the nations.
We can learn from the tenacity of the synagogue how to survive those testing times. Our times are scarcely less testing.
Paul and the Gentile Churches of the Messiah, Jesus
When Paul established the churches of the Gentiles he departed from the synagogue practice at a number of points. Significantly Paul encouraged the expression of Christian beliefs in an extempore manner by members other than ‘officials,’ what we might call the ‘charismatic’ or ‘gift’ principle by ordinary people. These ministries included extempore prayer , prophecy , ecstatic speech and miracles of ‘faith’ including healing.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Paul left behind altogether the liturgical elements of the synagogue, from which he had come.
Liturgical Elements echoed in Paul’s Letters
It is worth reflecting on the range of liturgical elements we find in Paul’s letters. These, of course, had been ‘christianised,’ dramatically adapted from Jewish monotheism to direct the people now to God as ‘Father,’ to his ‘Son’ our Lord Jesus Christ and to the Spirit of the living God.
So many of these liturgical fragments do we find in a typical letter of Paul that the letter itself is almost a liturgy, a replica Christian service of that time. To read a Pauline letter from beginning to end is almost to look through a window into the gathering of a Gentile church of the period.
Consider the following examples.
An Opening Prayer
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (2Cor 1:2).
A Thanksgiving and Intercession
We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ
(1 Thess 1:2-3).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2Cor 1:3-4).
The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be blessed forever, knows that I am not lying (2Cor 11:31).
A Confession of Faith (at a baptism ?)
That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:9)
the gospel of God–
the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures
regarding his Son,
who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and
who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God
by his resurrection from the dead:
Jesus Christ our Lord (ROM 1:2-3).
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and
that he appeared to Peter,
and then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred …
time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles…
(1 Cor 15:3-7)
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (ROM 11:36).
Now to him who is able to establish you…to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen (ROM 16:25, 27).
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1Tim 1:17).
The Lord’s Supper
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you:
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed,
took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
‘This is my body, which is for you;
do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood;
do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
(1 Cor 11:23-25)
Prayer for Peace
Finally, brothers…live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss (2Cor 13:11-12).
A ‘Christ’ Grace
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen (Phil 4:23).
A Trinitarian Grace
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2Cor 13:14).
Missioning and Surviving
The extent of these (mostly) synagogue elements from Paul’s (but also other writers’) letters should come as a surprise. It did to me when I thought about it, especially as the above examples are just a few of a far greater number.
As I understand it, then, the churches (as opposed to the synagogues) had both fixed liturgical elements but also the extempore, gift-related (‘charismatic’) elements. The former provided for stability of belief and continuity through tough times, not least since such elements were the basis for catechising and instruction. The latter, however, provided for Spirit-inspired leadership and direction.
In a sense, both elements are desirable. Where the liturgical alone is found there is often spiritual deadness, a church being wedded to the past for tradition’s sake and nothing more. On the other hand, where the ‘charismatic’ reigns individualism also reigns with its tendency to schism and the rise of dubious beliefs and practices.
The point of this short paper is to provoke reflection into the extent and character of ‘fixed’ forms in the Letters of St Paul. Furthermore, it is to encourage the use of those forms in our churches and not least a minister’s catechetical and pastoral teaching based those confessions, doxologies, creeds etc., as noted above.
Not only will such teaching help our churches survive these difficult times into the next generations, equally they will prove to be extraordinarily edifying to the people now.
Remember to Survive
Why do edifying liturgical elements help us survive ? Quite simply, it is because they are remembered through repetition. Quite clearly, too, they were cast in a memorable form. Think only of the famous Pauline ‘Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit…’
I heard recently of an elderly minister in hospital who had a great impact on those near him, despite having lost all short term memory. The Alzheimer sufferer remembered exactly the prayers he had used over the years and continued to pray them quietly in the hearing of others. He was sustained by his memory of godly truth and others nearby were inspired to believe.
In times of need it is the ‘memory verse’ or the stanza of a Isaac Watts hymn that brings us blessing and encouragement. The Christian mind is blessed by the Christian memory. And the repetition of godly words creates its own imprint on the memory.