- This article addresses the challenge facing churches that are not able to physically meet. I explore the vision of worship held by the earliest Christians (1st-3rd C.), that in worship, we participate with the angels, the saints through the ages, and those physically distant.
By Joshua Coutts
One of the intended consequences of corporate worship is to strengthen the community of believers as a community. Paul expects as much when he exhorts the Colossians to “admonish one another through songs, hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16) and reminds the Corinthians that all aspects of worship should be “for the building up [of the Body]” (1 Cor 14:26). Indeed, he was appalled that the Lord’s supper was being used to reinforce social division because the one bread and shared cup signified the “one Body” of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17). A generation later, Ignatius of Antioch suggested that musical harmony was a fitting representation of Church unity: “You should also form a choir so that, joining the symphony by your harmony, and by your unity taking your key note from God, you may with one voice through Jesus Christ sing a song to the Father” (Ign. Eph. 4:1-2). Much of this may sound like something of a pipe dream now, when many congregations are either significantly restricted or unable to meet entirely. However, the earliest generations of the Church also wrestled with the issue of distance, and they remind us that worship is exactly the context in which distance and community converge.
Hearing from a Distance in Scripture
This occurred of course at a basic technological level through writing. Letters were regarded as a substitute for the author’s physical presence, as Cicero indicates: “When I read your letters, I seem to hear you talk, and when I write to you, it is as though I were talking to you” (Cicero, Quint. Fratr. 1.1.45). So, when the letters of Paul, Peter, or John were copied and read as part of regular worship, as we know they were (1 Thess 5:27; Col 4:16), they carried the author’s authority as if he were present (1 Cor 5:3). In a more profound way, one of the reasons the Gospels were written was to address the difficulty of Jesus’ departure. When the Gospels were read in gathered worship, those who had never seen Jesus and were physically distanced from him could encounter him. In John’s Gospel, for example, later generations of Christians could hear Jesus pray for them (Jn 17:20-26) and bless them who “have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). Reading Scripture in worship, therefore, was among other things, a way of negotiating distance.
Joining with Angels in Worship
Of course, early Christians believed that Jesus was present in their gathered worship ultimately because he is the risen and exalted Lord, to whom they gave allegiance in their worship. But it was not Jesus alone. Paul recognized that, in corporate worship, the angels were present also (1 Cor 11:10). Likewise, in Revelation, the hymns of the saints participate in the worship of angels (Rev 14:3; cf. 5:9-13; Heb 12:22). In other words, the earliest Christians realized that in worship, they were caught up beyond themselves into the worship of heaven. Worship itself was the place in which the membrane separating the heavenly and earthly realms was gossamer thin. It’s not that early Christians necessarily had “heavenly” experiences. Paul, in fact, seems to have regarded that sort of focus as dangerously distracting from Christ (Col 2:18-19). Nor was it that they necessarily “felt” the presence of God keenly because they had expressed their devotion so ardently to him, as is sometimes stressed in modern worship. The whole point of worship in the New Testament is that the individual believer is de-centered by being orientated toward the risen Lord.
Joining Distant Saints in Worship
As a consequence, worshipers are bound together insofar as they all participate in the worship of the One enthroned in heaven. Of course, this is most tangibly evident when a community is physically gathered together. However, early Christians realized that worship had the capacity to form community across distances as well. We can see this, for instance, in early prayer practice. It is likely that early Christians prayed at set times (Acts 10:9; 12:5; 16:25; Did 8:3), and by the second century, it was a widespread practice to pray at the sixth and ninth hours, when Jesus was crucified and died, and in the early morning, when he rose from the dead, as a way of identifying with and being orientated toward him (Tert. On Fasting 10.5; Apostolic Traditions 41; Cyprian, On the Lord’s Prayer 34). But a side-effect of praying simultaneously was that Christians in different locations were united with each other, as Cyprian makes clear: ““The Teacher of peace and the Master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone…Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one” (On the Lord’s Prayer 8). Many churches currently may achieve a measure of unity through shared time or shared practices even though they may not share the same space.
Worship also has the capacity to erase the “distance” of time. We see this in Hebrews for example. After inviting his readers to “enter the sanctuary” with confidence because of Christ (10:19), the author encourages them that they have in fact come to “the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven…and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (12:22-23). The picture here is of an assembly comprised not only of angels but also of all the saints spanning the ages, including the “great cloud of witnesses” from the old covenant period featured in Hebrews 11. Worship spans not only space but also time. One primary reason for this is that worship is a “leaning” into the future. When early Christians prayed “come, Lord” (1 Cor 16:22; Rev 22:17, 20), they oriented themselves toward the return of Christ. In the Lord’s supper, they proclaimed the Lord’s death in anticipation of his return (1 Cor 11:26). And when they confessed, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9), they were rehearsing their “lines” from the script of the future, when “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11). By leaning into that future regularly, they could begin to taste it. Thus it is that the author of Hebrews can affirm that believers had already “come” to a gathering that is ultimately still future.
In our current circumstances, it may be tempting to think that corporate worship is “on the shelf” or a muted version of its “normal” self. This is an understandable response, but it is also exacerbated by a domesticated notion of worship that places all the emphasis on what I or we do in one place at a specific time. By contrast, the earliest Christians envisioned a vast community spanning distances and epochs with which we are invited to participate in worship. They envisioned worship with us! Can we envision worship with them? And if so, why not also with our sister or brother from whom we are physically distanced? We need to be careful here, lest this vision be used to justify abandoning corporate worship altogether on the grounds that worship is a purely “spiritual” affair. The fact that worship spans distances beyond the physically gathered community cannot be used to shrink worship to something less than that community (Heb 10:24-25). Having said that, our current limitations may be a catalyst to help us recover this biblical vision of worship. The losses and disappointments we are sustaining and the longing we feel to gather physically as congregations to worship can be harnessed to train us to lean into the future community with which we participate in worship. And counterintuitively, this unites us more deeply with those saints of old who never “arrived” at the fulfillment of the promise within their lifetime. They died in faith, only able to see God’s promises “from a distance” (Heb 11:13).