Starting once again from the Beginning
If you search the New Testament you will find the church there from the beginning, even before the New Testament was written. Most people are aware that Paul wrote his letters before any Gospel was written; so, for that matter, did Peter. The Gospels came at least a generation, maybe more, after the church began as a movement with leaders known as priests (or “elders”), deacons, and overseers (bishops). These roles were not late additions but part of the original movement, as one can see from a quick glance at Acts chapter six.
The question might now occur, what is the church for? Again, search the New Testament and you find a number of roles the church plays as part of its warrant. Chief among these is worship, followed closely by witness, teaching, service, and fellowship. Teaching and fellowship strengthen the church inwardly so that we might engage in witness and service.
That word witness in Greek is martyria, and from it comes the name for those who gave their lives in times of persecution. There are martyrs today in many countries around the world. We must remember them and continue to remind our government that they exist. Often they are forgotten.
The heart of the church, however, remains worship. The Greek word for this is leitourgia, “liturgy,” which remains the name of the chief Sunday service in Orthodox Christianity today. Other churches also use it. The word is a composite and means “the work of the people.” Note that: the work of the people. It is not the work of one person who stands up front and speaks. It is not the work of a small choir who sing special music. It is the work of the people, all of us together. You cannot hold a Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church with just a priest. You need a community. You need about ten at a minimum to fulfill all the roles in worship, and you can expand the number beyond that with ease. But it is participatory and not a show. We’re not here to be entertained but to get outside ourselves into a larger realm signified by God.
The heart of liturgy, then, is a conversation between God and humanity. Our part of the conversation involves prayer and praise and thanksgiving. God’s part of the conversation involves the Word both read from scripture and then proclaimed, and the Mysteries we call by various names: baptism, Holy Communion, forgiveness, and so forth. These are the ways God comes to us. Note that this is a bodily experience, not merely one of hearing. Without both halves of the conversation we are diminished. And both halves have been there since the beginning. Again, see the books of Acts, I Corinthians, and Ephesians.
Why bother to rehearse this?
First, because of the tragedies of religious history many churches lost part of the conversation. The Reformation in the western church cut off so much of the complete ancient liturgy that it was in danger of losing the heart of worship. Thankfully many Reformation churches have re-created the liturgy in these latter days.
Secondly, I’m concerned to find the proper setting between a view that the church has no reason for being and that it is the be-all and end-all of our existence. The church is a vehicle, not a destination; it is an organism, not an institution. It has a specific purpose, to worship, and worship has the specific purpose of enlarging us as people by locating us in the heart of God. In that mode we live our daily lives of service and compassion. Hence this column.