Things changed after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. For a short time, there were frequent reports of people seeing the risen Christ in a variety of locations. Soon those reports became less frequent, until they ceased entirely. A story spread that Jesus had ascended into heaven and was now seated at God’s right hand.
Now what do we do? After the coming of the Holy Spirit, there was a fire in their souls and they went out preaching, teaching, healing. They were sure that Jesus would be back at any moment to finish the work of his kingdom. As this expectation was delayed, the disciples must have asked themselves repeatedly: Now what do we do?
But Jesus’ Spirit kept showing up with guidance. When the community got off track, Jesus would appear in visions, like the one Paul had to stop him from killing people; or dreams like the one Peter had to let him know that he was not living the full radical nature of the equality Jesus taught. The disciples, even with the benefit of living with Jesus for several years, did not always know what to do. Jesus seemed to guide them through dreams and visions, but more often, through the presence of other disciples. Jesus had promised that this would happen: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among you” (Mt. 18:20).
And so, the ecclesia was born. The followers of Jesus gathered frequently in little communities, wherever they found each other. They discovered that when they met together regularly, the presence of Jesus was among them. And in the presence of two or three witnesses, they could confirm the guidance they received. I think perhaps they would have like something a little more direct – like a business plan dropped from heaven, complete with step-by-step directions, and with answers about why Jesus was delaying his return. Slowly in dawned on them that Jesus wasn’t delaying; instead he was returning in a new way – through them, as they became enlivened by his Spirit in community.
Ecclesia is the term used over 100 times in the New Testament for this gathering of Jesus’ followers. It is actually a political term referring to the assemblies of the people of a Greek city state to enact business. It means “to be called together,” and refers to the horn which called all the people to assemble. It was not a few called out from the rest, but all called together for deliberation. The disciples’ ecclesia brought together anyone and everyone who followed Jesus to talk about the affairs of the kingdom of God.
These gatherings had some of the characteristic of a town meeting, and some of the characteristics of the synagogue, the other major gathering tradition familiar to the New Testament disciples. Interestingly, the word synagogue is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew for “assembly.” Both words, ecclesia and synagogue, referred to an assembly of the people of the community. This has led some scholars to wonder when translators came up with alternate translations – ecclesia meaning church or a Christian gathering, and synagogue meaning a Jewish gathering. Both words are used in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) to refer to gatherings of the Hebrew people – God’s chosen people. It is highly unlikely that the New Testament disciples saw their gatherings as anything different from the Jewish synagogue gatherings they had attended all their lives.
So, when they got together and asked themselves, “Now what do we do?” – now that Jesus is not with us in body? Their answer was, “We will do what we have always done, until the Spirit of Jesus nudges us in a new direction.” Once the Spirit drove out their fear, the first thing they did was to return to daily prayer in the Temple. As long as they were still in Jerusalem, the Temple was the center of their practice.
Temple practice was magnificent, crowded, awe-filled. Temple prayers contained exuberant worship and praise through sacrifice, yes, but we often forget that it was the music center of the culture as well – both vocal and instrumental. In the Temple, surrounded by the reverberation from the stone walls and floors, they listened to the best musicians and most amazing instruments in the nation, playing the ancient Psalms! Who would not want to be part of that?! It was beautiful and holy and sacred and awe-inspiring!
Here is an interesting illustration of what it may have been like to hear the choir in the ancient Jerusalem Temple. It is said: “The soul of him who heard their singing at once cleaved to God.” (Zohar 2:19a)
The human spirit longs to be taken to heaven, if only for a moment. And sometimes it is the beauty of music and architecture and color which draw us out of ourselves into the heavens. That is one of the treasures we hold in the stewardship of this beautiful building. Its very boards and beams, its colored windows and ancient lights take us out of our normal life and remind us that there is a God, and we can open ourselves to that God.
We are making plans to follow this ancient practice among us through the addition of prayer at the end of the day – Compline Night Prayers. It is an opportunity like the disciples had, to be in the soaring sanctuary to hear the ancient poetry set to music. It is an opportunity to let the awe of the space and the ancient words to wash over us and take us outside of ourselves – a taste of heaven….
The disciples found out that not everyone appreciated their presence in the Temple. Persecution soon forced them out of town. “Now what will we do?,” they asked again. They went right to what was familiar – the synagogues. Synagogues could be found in every little village and town, where people would gather to learn the Scriptures and to pray. It seems that the main focus in the synagogues was not so much upon exuberant praise, but rather upon instruction in the Law and common prayer. They were not gifted with the great musicians of the day and used unison recited prayers or chanted prayers and Psalms.
For us today, the chant form of music is somewhat unfamiliar. But it was the most common form of singing available to the ancient gathered communities. Chant, in music, is not a reference to endless repetition of a phrase, but rather to a very simple musical form of unison repetition of notes. You will find samples of the style in the blue hymnal. Plainchant was developed as a way that any text could be sung, without changing the meter or rhyme of the text. The use of musical form to sing the text aided the participants in memorizing the words they chanted, since most did not read and the scrolls of Torah were so rare.
The early Jesus followers brought elements they valued from both Temple and Synagogue experiences to their gatherings. We can group their practices into several elements. The first to emerge was teaching, a Synagogue element. Right away in Acts 2, we read that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Since there was no Torah of Jesus, the community depended on what they heard from those who lived with him. The apostles filled that role. They read the Scriptures (what we know as the Old Testament) and explained how these Scriptures teach the way of Jesus. They wrote letters to the ecclesias, which were passed around from town to town, to be read in gatherings there. Their nature as an ecclesia – a gathering to make decisions about how to live life – made all of these things critical to guide them to live like Jesus.
The second element which emerges is singing – as prayers were most often either recited or sung. This was part of both Temple and Synagogue. Colossians 3:16 encourages people to sing “Psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude from the heart.” One characteristic of Synagogue practice, both then and now, is the singing. The service begins and ends with the singing of Hebrew poetry rejoicing in the attributes of God. The new disciples kept up this tradition, being full of gratitude and song, by which they encouraged each other to see God’s blessings.
Synagogue prayers formed a structure for life. Faithful Jews seek to meet together for prayer 3 times a day. These are not always at the synagogue, but wherever a group can be gathered at the time of prayer. Individual prayers are recited in gratitude to God upon each little turn of life. It is the goal of an observant Jew to offer 100 blessings to God every day – from the first breath of the day, to putting ones feet on the floor, to the last star seen before letting one’s eyes fall closed at night. Anything one encounters in the day is occasion for blessing God. They had a song or a prayer for that!
Not growing up in the Synagogue, and being inundated with media noise all day long, we are not practiced in blessing God the way the first disciples were. What might you do to begin to build this commitment to singing and prayer into your life? At least by the time I was in high school, I was a hummer. I wasn’t really aware of it, until classmates pointed it out. But humming was a form of prayer and gratitude for life. As I became aware of it, I could let it shape my outlook on things. Singing and praying are very closely connected. St. Augustine is credited with saying, “A person who sings, prays twice.” And Hildegard of Bingen, an amazing musician herself, said “Beautiful music itself is prayer, and when wedded to words of praise the result is a foretaste of the new Earth to come.”
One more element, which comes from the Synagogue practice, is fellowship – socializing, conversation, pot lucks, prayers. In the earliest times, the Synagogue was the center of the community. It was used every day, changing from worship space, to judicial space, to school space, even to bed and breakfast space. It was truly the community center. It was the place the community gathered for all of its activities. So, when the ecclesia got together, and it was as often as possible, it had all of these elements. All of these activities – eating together, casual conversation, praying for each other – these are the things which link us together, heart and soul. I wonder if we eat together enough. In my early years, it was a practice to have lunch with another family after church many Sundays. No big pot luck plans, but gatherings happened. That is why so many got nervous if the sermon went long – the roast might burn in the oven! I notice that as we include eating together in our life, some of the business of our life which brings out our differences, drop into the background, and we find our love for each other covers a multitude of sins.
Finally, at every pot luck there was a hushed moment when the very presence of Jesus among them was remembered. Someone would pick up the bread and break it and pass it around, like Jesus did. This is my body – Remember, Jesus is here. The same with a cup of wine. This is my blood – Remember, Jesus is here. A hush and awe would embrace the community of disciples, and they knew who they were following, and were grateful.
For further reading, see: We Make the Road By Walking, by Brian McLaren, chapter 36