Sixteenth-century Anabaptists looked to Acts 2:42 for a worship model. ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ What a simple form, doing only what is necessary for truly Christian worship! They also washed one another’s feet and sang hymns, both of which have scriptural precedence. The New Testament gave them authority for free, participative worship offered to God in sincerity and truth.
Most Christians claim their worship is rooted in the Bible. We desire to be true to biblical values in prayer and praise. We ferret out texts and patterns. In varied ways Christians have searched for the simplicity, truth, mystery and power we sense as we read of worship in the New Testament. But are we as true to the Bible as we think?
The Bible is not a book of common prayer or a ministers’ handbook for ordering worship services. But it is marvellously rich in materials about and for worship. The Old Testament preserves many ways in which the Hebrews worshipped God. The psalms, books of the law and prophetic writings record teaching about worship, prescribe festivals and preserve prayers and songs of individuals and communities across many centuries.
The New Testament, too, is a mine of worship in the biggest sense. Worship is not only words, songs and feelings of the worshipping community. True biblical worship is a living demonstration of how praise and honour to God is lived out within the body of Christ. It flows outward in prophetic truth and self-giving love to the world around. This is the full witness of God’s worshipping people.
How can we make appropriate connections with the New Testament? What can we learn about the ethos and inner meanings of early Christian worship?
Prophetic and ecstatic worship in Revelation
In Revelation, the Christian community makes a vigorous interpretation of its own times. It makes this critique within worship. We can hardly imagine the first political impact of the assertion: God alone is worthy of worship! Revelation has many liturgical dimensions. Worship is to sing and confess, in God’s presence, that there is salvation in bleak times. It is to acclaim God as Ruler over all things. It is to break the enchantment and power of the world. To sing the songs of Revelation is to interpret the meaning of contemporary events. This is worship which connects God, the Holy One, with humans and all of God’s creation.
Testimonies, stories and advice
In worship in the earliest communities Christians gave testimonies, preserved memories and passed on Gospel stories. How else would we know about Stephen’s stoning, the women at the foot of the cross, or Paul’s undignified escape over the Damascus city wall? In worship they repeated the preciously harboured materials we call Gospels. They read out wise advice and encouragement which came through pastoral letters. Testimonies, stories, letters, advice and encouragement were integrated into New Testament worship.
Prayers and blessings sprang from intense experiences of persecution, growth, struggle and joy. And so we find varied and colourful fragments of worship. We do not find structures and patterns, templates, grids or rubrics. We find single words, fragments, bits of creeds, hymns, prayers and references to rites such as baptism, communion and foot-washing. These fragments are rich and revealing about the inner meanings and fervent ethos in worship.
Pastoral and political meanings in worship
The best-loved New Testament hymn is ‘Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself …’ (Phil 2). Equally exalted in praise of Christ are these outbursts: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ (Col 1:15f); ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ (Eph 5:14); ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit …’ (1 Peter 3:18). Singing these hymns, early Christians remembered the matchless character of their Lord and the quality of their life together. Imagine them chanting the Beatitudes, repeating the Great Commandment together, aligning their common life to the teaching and model of Jesus. Worship built up the common life.
The shortest biblical creed makes a sharp political point: ‘Jesus is Lord’ (not Caesar!) (Rom 10:9). Unlike the kingdoms of this world, ‘The kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 14:17). Another creed packs the mystery of our faith into six short phrases: ‘He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory’ (1 Tim 3:16). What a vast vision! In worship Christians could get and keep things in proper perspective.
Blessings, rites and patterns of readings
Numerous prayers and blessings are scattered throughout the New Testament letters: ‘I pray that God … may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him …’ (Eph 1:17ff); ‘Blessed be God who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing …’ (Eph 1:3); ‘Blessed be … the Father of mercies and God of all consolation’ (2 Cor 1:3f).
We have references to baptism, six times in Acts, though no descriptions of the rite. In four places appear accounts of Jesus’ mandate for eucharistic celebration: ‘Do this to remember me.’ The Gospel of John records Jesus’ disconcerting action of washing his disciples’ feet, and his instructions that they were to wash one another’s feet. Unlike other rites, this is fully described.
Jesus is the measure of our worship
In summary, the New Testament is a lively product of worshipping communities. Its literary footprints do not reveal specific patterns forworship, but give important clues about the content, ethos and values of the worship of the first Christian communities.
The primary theme of New Testament worship is devotion to Jesus Christ, who was acknowledged as Messiah and Lord. Worship texts and rites always point to this one person. Who was Jesus? How could new Christians express their relationship to him? If the central meaning of New Testament worship texts is Jesus, then to be true to the New Testament, we, too, must look to Jesus as the measure of our worship. We will consider three claims which the New Testament communities passionately asserted in letters, testimonies and stories.
Jesus is Messiah
This was a dramatic claim. Songs and stories in the Gospels reveal what such a claim meant to people. How they longed and prayed for the liberation Messiah would bring!
Zechariah’s prophetic words over the infant John (Luke 1:68-79) give us a sense of this intense hope for Messiah. ‘You, child, will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.’ And our hearts leap with Simeon’s as he recognises Jesus’ identity: ‘My eyes have seen your salvation!’ (Luke 2:30).
The disciples Martha and Peter each exclaimed, ‘You are Messiah!’ (Mt 16:15; Jn 11:27). Jesus himself confessed his royal identity to the High Priest at the trial (Mk 14:62). What a range of expectation, joy, doubt and hope centred on this figure – the one long expected and sent from God to set his people free.
In the Emmaus road conversation Jesus spelled it out. The dejected disciples blurted out, ‘He [Jesus] was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ Then Jesus explained from Moses and the prophets everything about himself, how it was necessary (in the divine purpose) that Messiah should suffer and then enter into his glory (Luke 24:13-29).
The meaning of Messiah’s role became clearer after the resurrection and Pentecost. Christians realised Jesus had interpreted his Messiah role according to the Servant Songs of Isaiah (e.g. Isa 42; 49; 50; 52–53). He was Messiah not only for Israel, but for ‘many’, for ‘all’. We hear it in the Words of Institution: ‘This is my blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt 26: 28). We see Jesus’ messianic passion for justice and true worship in the temple-cleansing incident. God’s house was to be a ‘house of prayer for all nations’.
What did it mean for early Christians to say ‘Jesus is Messiah’? It meant remembering and repeating the stories of Jesus (e.g. temple-cleansing and journey to Emmaus). It meant interpreting historical events (e.g. Simeon, Zechariah). It meant putting things into the big context (e.g. Peter, Martha).
We can see their vision gradually opening up. Peter in Acts 10 welcomes the Roman centurion. An enemy becomes a brother. Paul’s passion was for the integration of Gentiles into the body of Christ. Forgiveness and reconciliation was for ‘many’ and ‘all’, just as Jesus had said.
We tell the whole story in worship
To draw on this big vision is to tell the story of God with Israel, the story of creation, fall and redemption. It means grasping what the disciples did on the Emmaus road and interpreting where Jesus belongs in the great story of God’s redemptive love. It means continuing the story on into our own period.
To say ‘Jesus is Messiah’ required early Christians, and us, as their inheritors, to tell the whole story, interpret its implications – salvation, redemption, forgiveness – and incarnate the story. That means we carry the story of Messiah on, every day of our lives. I suggest we retain the name Messiah and tell Messiah’s story: the story of Israel’s longing, exile and hopelessness, the story of the Spirit’s reappearance and of Jesus. Let’s use the mission statement of Messiah Jesus in Luke 4:18-19. Memorise it. Sing it. Pray it.
Jesus is Lord
This confession may have been most characteristic of Gentile Christians. We find it twice (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3). Was this a liturgical acclamation? A statement used in courts in which Christians had to bear witness? Part of a baptismal liturgy? Was it used in worship assembly? We don’t know.
But it was not a vote in an election: ‘Please designate the rabbi of your choice.’ It was not just part of Jesus’ name – Sir Jesus, or Lord Jesus of Nazareth. No! It was much more! In whatever context this phrase was used, it was a statement of allegiance. We know the rival confession: ‘Caesar is Lord.’ If Christians replied ‘Jesus is Lord’, they made a political challenge. It was provocative and dangerous. This declaration of Jesus’ lordship embodied subversive values. If there was a conflict of interest, they needed to declare, ‘We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. We obey God rather than humans’ (Acts 5:29).
Did early Christian worship reflect this obedience to Jesus as Lord? Yes, we can see it in many instances. Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. They learned to reflect his piety, his intimacy with the Father, his concerns in prayer. Jesus gave them what might be better titled the ‘Disciples’ Prayer’ and in it they could closely follow his lead.
Jesus’ way and his teachings pervade the Epistles: ‘You are light – walk as children of the light’ (Eph 5:8); ‘Have this mind among you, which is yours in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 2:5); ‘Have no anxiety about anything’ (Phil 4:6); ‘May the peace of Christ rule in your hearts’ (Col 3:15); ‘suffer for righteousness’ sake and you will be blessed’ (1 Peter 2:14). The writers were Jesus’ disciples! They recognised his authority. Jesus was Lord of the common life, their common prayer and praise.
Jesus’ authority in our worship
How does our worship embody and project the authority of Jesus as Lord? I suggest we take Jesus’ words seriously and incorporate them into our prayer and worship.
The words of the Lord’s Prayer are probably the words of Jesus most often repeated in our worship. But when Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Pray like this’ he might have meant more than simply repeating his words. Many Christians have used the prayer as an outline for their own extempore praying. Their prayer follows the inner content and the outer pattern, beginning with the intimate address to Abba, the hallowing of God’s name, moving on through prayer for kingdom concerns, thanks for bread and forgiveness, confession and petition that we will become a forgiving people, kept safe from evil. In praying like this, we follow Jesus’ deepest concerns and enter his fervent, loving relationship with the Father.
But there are other words of Jesus which we could also use. Because of their two-part form, the Beatitudes could easily become a regular part of worship. The first part of each could be spoken, and the second answered by the congregation. We can use Jesus’ words of comfort as conclusions of our confession prayers: ‘My peace I give you, not as the world gives’ (Jn 14:27a). ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid’ (Jn 14:27b). We might pray through John 17, reflecting on Jesus’ passionate concerns. Do these phrases and ideas flood our spontaneous praying? If not, it is probably because we don’t keep listening to Jesus at prayer.
These days there are exciting experiments with retelling Gospel stories – biblical storytelling, dynamic dramatisations, stories mimed and danced, ‘rap’ stories. All of these keep Jesus’ story alive in worship and keep his rabbinic, authoritative lordship in its proper place. His life, his words, his stories have first place. Our own words take second place.
Jesus is here
In the weeks after the devastating event at Golgotha, Jesus unaccountably appeared to his frightened disciples, fully alive. In their assemblies, along the way, at table, on the beach, suddenly Jesus was there. At first terrified and baffled, later they understood and appropriated Jesus’ promises – ‘I will send the Comforter to you’, ‘I am with you.’ They explained their experience: ‘the Lord is the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:17-18).
In their worship the Lord was truly present! They worshipped and prayed in the power of the Spirit, through the Spirit. Though Acts reports Christians attended Temple prayers, for them the sacrificial cult had lost its meaning. Christians worshipped and prayed in homes, in settings similar to Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Table-companionship and the remembered meals with Jesus took on distinctive forms – because of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.
But most important was the presence and operation of the Spirit. As they searched the Scriptures and recalled Jesus’ words, Christians came to understand their experience in this way. In our life together, here, now, the prophets are vindicated. Their words are coming true. John the Baptist, Isaiah, Micah, Joel – it all fits together! It makes sense!
Now they remembered Jesus’ words: ‘The Spirit will remind you of all that I have said to you’ (Jn 14:26). Everything Jesus had taught them the Spirit in retrospect made clear: about the merciful Father, God’s kingdom, love, Jesus’ arrest and execution, his resurrection. No longer humiliated and afraid, now they could ‘proclaim the death of Christ’. The whole story had to be told, interpreted and celebrated – ‘Until he comes again!’ (1 Cor 11:26).
Worship to build up the church
The Spirit integrated the meaning of their faith and new life together. The Spirit’s powerful presence brought their worship alive.
The only New Testament text which provides details about Christian worship is 1 Corinthians 14. To build up the community is the dominant notion. In the course of this chapter we discover an astonishing variety of activities in worship: tongues, revelation, prophecy, teaching; saying a blessing, thanksgiving, ‘Amen’, instruction, hymn, lesson, revelation, interpretation of tongues. The purpose behind all these varied, Spirited activities is clear: ‘let all be done for building up the church’ (v. 26c). In their worship all members took responsibility and contributed as they were enabled by the Spirit, whether in hymns, prayers, teachings or any other ways the Spirit gave them. This was truly Spirit-animated worship.
Making space for the Spirit
This is true for us as it was for them. The Spirit is active in all members’ preparation for worship. We can pray for willingness to receive something fresh. Instead of rushing from one thing to the next, we can allow silence in our worship for listening to what the Spirit is saying. We can reserve time at the close of worship for prayers of recapitulation – a chance to hear again significant words, phrases, thoughts and pictures which have arisen during worship. The Spirit may find ways to put these together for us in a step, choice or conviction as we close our corporate worship. Do we encourage free expression, allow space for this? Or do we show lack of trust in trying to monitor and control everything? Do we give the appearance of freedom, and yet in reality rein in the Spirit and put things into our own order?
Sixteenth-century Anabaptism was a Spirit-movement. Anabaptist worship was charismatic, Spirit-inspired and Spirit-energised. Its principles of practice were delineated in 1 Corinthians 14. Contributing to worship was every participant’s responsibility. Each one brought a hymn, lesson, revelation or prayer.
Jesus is the measure
So the New Testament is a rich resource. It reveals much about the worship of early Christian communities. It gives us words for worship. It evokes for us the spirit and ethos of worship. We’ve considered three assertions about Jesus early Christians joyfully made. These can serve us as sightlines by which to steer as we worship.
Jesus is Messiah. Let’s tell the great story of God, the saga of redemption and hope, and interpret our own times in its light.
Jesus is Lord. Let’s worship so that we inspire the walk of discipleship, strengthen our consciences and soften our hearts. Let’s develop the reflex of paying close attention to Jesus.
Jesus is here. Worship can be risky as well as inspiring. In worship we are listening, preparing ourselves, expecting a word from God. Are we willing to appropriate that word to our lifestyle as well as to our feelings? As we worship we look Jesus in the face, not in sideways glances!
So let’s continue to express in our worship the simplicity, truth and power of the Gospel. We will find this in Jesus himself, the Lord of our worship. This is Jesus Christ who is present in his Spirit, Lord and Messiah.
Eleanor Kreider is a mission educator with the Mennonite Mission Network, now in North America after 30 years in England. This article is an abbreviated version of an essay first published in Bernie Neufeld (ed.), Music in Worship: A Mennonite Perspective (Scottale, PA, Herald Press, 1998), 13-30.