From the get go in the early Church, at the core of the worship service for Christians gathered in community was the Holy Eucharist, that is, the breaking of the bread, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion and so on. When Christians gathered to worship their Creator God – who was also their Redeemer God, the worship service itself followed a liturgical structure already learned from their faith in YHWH as Jewish people. Following Jesus’ resurrection, they came together to worship the God of Israel just as they always had previously, for the most part, that is, but now they came to worship YHWH now revealed as Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God, the Son of Mary, the Christ who was the ultimate Davidic king. Now they came together, as before, to worship the one, true God of Israel who had been revealed in the second person of the Godhead in the mystery of the Trinity as it had been revealed in the Incarnation.
So our starting point is that in the ancient apostolic Church, the Eucharist was there from the beginning. In fact, the presence, centrality, frequency, understanding and practice of the Eucharist remained the same in the Church for 1500 years. It was then, during the Reformation and following, that variety upon variety of understanding and practice came on stage with respect to the Holy Eucharist. Sad but true. What had been the norm in worship with respect to the Holy Eucharist for so many centuries was now understood as faulty among the reformers.
Of note, and importantly, the understanding and practice of the Eucharist have remained unchanged in both Orthodox and Catholic worship – that is, regarding all the points in this discussion, despite variations in form. Further, Anglicans, and many Lutherans, have remained in continuity with this understanding and practice as well. I say “many” because the practice of the Eucharist on every Lord’s Day is not present in all Lutheran churches. And again, within Anglicanism and Lutheranism this regards all the central points in this discussion, despite variations in form.
Since the Reformation – through these past 500 years – the practice and understanding of the Eucharist has undergone many changes and understandings from those known to the first Christians, including Christians of the first fourteen centuries. From the Reformation on within these various Christian denominations – denominations which now unfortunately number in the thousands – the Lord’s Supper is observed in so many different ways that were the early Christians to suddenly show up in one of these worship settings, they would be hard-pressed to even recognize what is being called the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as something even remotely close to the way it was practiced and understood in their times. It truly is a sad state of affairs. And to make matters all the more concerning, many Christians within the various denominations which still practice the Eucharist, now as then, quite often have not the first clue about what’s really going on ‘up there’ when one goes to receive the bread and the wine, when one goes to receive the body and blood of Christ. So while much of Protestantism has ‘fallen off the wagon’ with respect to the proper practice and understanding of the Holy Eucharist, there are many, if not most, who in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and certain forms of Lutheranism who wouldn’t be able to explain their way ‘out of a wet paper bag’ either.
That now said, this brief paper will address the presence, centrality and frequency of the Holy Eucharist in the early Church, if only in an abbreviated fashion. It will do so by referencing two basic biblical texts as well as two extrabiblical documents that directly describe what went on in early Christian worship. Many other early documents do this for us as well. By carefully reading and understanding these documents within their Jewish context, one can come to clear and convincing evidence as to these characteristics concerning the Eucharist. Those documents include the following:
1 Cor 11 20
Ac 20 7
Justin Martyr’s Apology
1 Cor 11 20
The earliest of these documents is, of course, Paul’s 1 Cor 11 which reads in v 20: “When you come together, it is not to partake of the Lord’s Supper.”
Sunercome,nwn verb participle present middle genitive masculine plural from sune,rcomai (aor. sunh/lqon, inf. sunelqei/n ; pf. sunelh,luqa) come together, gather; assemble, meet; come or go with, accompany, be with; be married, have marital relationships (Mt 1 18)
Paul’s words to the Corinthians here in v 20 – a document written in 54/55 – harken back to the time when the Lord’s Supper in the earliest liturgy in the Church took place in the context of a community meal called a love feast. love feasts (fellowship meals, also known as the agape meal) were the shared community meals of the early Church. See Lord’s Supper lecture file lengthy discussion of love feasts. We’ll get to that discussion later in the course, but not today.
Here we see how far some of the Corinthians had been going. They would come together and have their meal, but before they got around to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, some had become gluttons, got drunk and had left some people on the side with nothing to eat. While it may be hard for us to believe that this was actually going on in what we would call a church service and while it may not seem very likely in our view, this is what was going on in the early church, at least in Corinth. It would be like us having a regular Wednesday evening pot luck dinner with the celebration of the Eucharist at the end of it. Then, some people come in, get tanked up and eat all the food even before some of the people – who were running late because of work – had even arrived at the service. That’s what was going on in Corinth. So Paul told them to do their eating at home because some who were poor came with nothing but those who were rich came with a feast, and they wouldn’t share what they had with other people.
[In fact, over in 2 Th we learn that if you don’t work, you don’t eat.]
But there’s another important aspect to the Supper we see in the verse by implication. The very reason Christians came together in worship was to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. THAT was their reason for coming together! Here in v 20 Paul was ‘getting on’ the Corinthians because some of them had been wrongly celebrating the very reason they were coming together as community in the first place, which was to celebrate the Holy Eucharist!
Paul’s somewhat ironic evaluation here in v 20 of how the Corinthians went about the Holy Eucharist pointed to the fact that their misunderstanding of the sacrament had, in fact, perverted the very meaning of that sacrament. They had not been partaking of the Eucharist as God had intended. The clear and present implication behind Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians lay in the fact that when Christians came together in worship, they were to do so for the expressed purpose of celebrating the Holy Eucharist. THAT was to be their central purpose in coming together! – that is, to celebrate the Eucharist each and every time they came together. Paul, himself, here took for granted that the purpose of their coming together on the Lord’s day always had centered in the Eucharist. Clearly, here in v 20 the praxis that Paul just assumed was that Christians came together on the Lord’s Day for the expressed, central purpose of partaking in the Eucharist. That’s what they were to be about each and every time they came together as community in worship: the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
Ac 20 7
Regarding the centrality and frequency of the Eucharist in Christian worship seen in 1 Cor 11 20 we have Luke’s affirmation of Paul’s earlier implication regarding the centrality of the Eucharist in worship as found in his second volume at Ac 20 where it reads in v 7: “On the first day of the week, when we had gathered together to break bread.” Breaking bread was another way the early Church referenced the ‘Holy Eucharist’ in the context of the agape meal. We see here in v 7 that Luke, like Paul, took for granted – that is, he just assumed – that the purpose of their coming together on Sunday for Christian worship was centered in the Eucharist. Clearly, that’s what this text is telling us. On the first day of the week that’s what Christians did. They gathered together to break bread. In other words, every Christian of the early Church would have known and understood that ‘that’s just what we Christians do. We come together every Lord’s Day to worship God and at the very core of that worship service will be the ever-present celebration of the Holy Eucharist. That’s just what we Christians do.’
Hence, what follows here in Ac 20 was our earliest description of early Christian worship.
* Central to their praxis was worship on a fixed day as we see with they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day.
All of our many other early Christian texts tell us this day is Sunday, for example, in 1 Cor 16, in Justin Martyr’s famous description of early Christian worship, in Ac 20, and in the Didache and in Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians.
1 Cor 16 1 Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. 2 On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come.
Ac 20 7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.
So the scholarly consensus of the fixed day mentioned here is Sunday, the first day of the week, a shift from the Sabbath day of worship. These first Christians were all Jewish-Christians who had long before the time of Jesus been sacredly commanded by YHWH in their Scriptures to worship on a Saturday – which was their Sabbath day as Jewish people, but here now in the time of fulfillment they had switched their day of worship to Sunday!!! To switch your day of worship from Saturday to Sunday was a very big deal in the early church!!! What reason earth-shattering enough would have caused them to shift their God-commanded day of worship from Saturday to Sunday? Jesus’ resurrection! Saturday was the day of worship for the old Creation, but with Jesus’ resurrection had come the new Creation, and, therefore, believers now met on Sundays. The old covenant had now given way to the new covenant. They were expressing their hope in the resurrection by worshiping on Sundays as demonstrated in their willingness to die in their confidence that the Lord would raise them on the last day.
Even though the Christians believed in this God of Israel who commanded his people to worship on the Sabbath, they believed this kingdom of God had now come in Jesus of Nazareth through his death and resurrection. Hence, the Christians made this astronomically big change in their day of worship from the commanded day of worship on a Sabbath (Saturday) to a Sunday, something which happened from the get go in the first days of Christianity following his resurrection. Worship on a Sunday was their way of expressing through their praxis their belief in the centrality of the resurrection of Christ.
Also, they worshiped at night and early in the morning because they worked all day – from sunup to sundown. Sunday was not a day of rest in the early Church. The Romans had no day of rest. If they were following the Jewish Sabbath, they would not have worked at all.
From 1 Cor 15 we know that the reason they worshiped on Sunday was because of the resurrection – which Justin will make explicit in his writings made later.
That now brings us to the Didache.
The Didache didaxh, is the earliest Christian document we have from outside the NT. The consensus is that it was written in 75-85 based on the internal evidence in the document. The Didache is a handbook or manual of church order, disciple and practice which tells us how the early Church went about their ethical instruction and how they worshiped. It’s a manual for what you do, for how to baptize and all the rest, for how you were to order things, for church order and praxis. It focuses on praxis and symbol.
Chapter 14 of the Didache reads as follows:
The Sunday worship
1 On the Lord’s Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist (my emphasis), after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure; 2 but let none who has a quarrel with his fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not defiled. 3 For this is that which was spoken by the Lord, “In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king,” saith the Lord, “and my name is wonderful among the heathen.” (Kirsopp Lake translation)
Clearly, the Didache confirms the scriptural evidence of 1 Cor 11 20 and Ac 20 7. On the Lord’s Day Christians came together in order to break bread and hold Eucharist. That’s what our Christian forebears did. Every time they came together on the Lord’s Day, they celebrated the Holy Eucharist. That’s our warrant. That’s our evidence. That’s just what we Christians do and what we have been doing from the get go. Celebrating the Eucharist. The Eucharist has always been at the heart of Christian worship in the Church. Always!!! And each time!!!
All that now said, our earliest and fullest description anywhere of early Christian worship outside the NT is Justin Martyr’s account of a Christian worship service in his first Apology, written around 148. Justin described the reading of the gospels in the context of early Christian worship.
Justin’s Apology (apology here means defense) called on the Roman emperor to stop the persecution and killing of Christians. By the second century Christians were being put to death on a widespread basis in the Roman Empire. By this point in the history of the church the persecution by Roman authorities had come to the point of killing and putting to death every day Christians including children. Justin was opposing it and calling on the Roman Emperor to stop it.
Justin himself would later be put to death by the Roman government for his confession of Christ. This is why he’s known as Justin Martyr.
In his Apology, Justin explained the beliefs and practices of the Christians to the Romans, including this account of a typical worship service:
“And on the day which is called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read [aloud] as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has finished, the leader of the assembly verbally instructs and exhorts us to the imitation of these excellent things. [That we call a sermon.] Then we all rise together and offer up our prayers, and when we have finished our prayers, bread is brought and wine and [mixed with]water. The leader of the assembly offers up prayers and thanksgivings, to the best of his ability, and the people express their approval by saying ‘amen.’ And there is a distribution and partaking of the Eucharist by everyone, and to those who are absent a portion is brought by the deacons. The wealthy, if they wish, contribute as they may choose, and the collection is entrusted to the leader, who uses it to support orphans, widows, those who are poor because of sickness or any other reason, the captives and strangers in our midst, in short, all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, transforming the darkness and matter, created the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (Ap. 67)
The Justin passage not only shows that the Eucharist is the heart of what the first Christians do when they come together, but in other places in his Apology, he is also very plain and explicit that the first Christians believe firmly in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Now, while there is further evidence supporting the centrality of the Holy Eucharist in every Christian worship setting, this above ought to do it.