Every organisation, of whatever kind, changes as time goes by – affected by different people, the events of history, and the lapse of time. No less the church. It began with a few of the friends of Jesus meeting together after his crucifixion, desperately needing each other. As time went by, and the church spread all over the Roman Empire; through the Dark Ages, and the Middle Ages, the friends of Jesus met, until the time of the Reformation, when the reformers began to ask how the church had changed from those early days. They found great differences, such as the emphasis on indulgences, by which people could speed on their time in purgatory, by giving money to the church and doing penances, and much, much more. Therefore they sought to return to how they saw the early church, and reform the church to be more in line with the teachings of Jesus.’ Back to basics’ was their theme.
Therefore, let us remind ourselves of some of those basics. And the first was the need to worship regularly. And why? Because they were so thrilled with this glorious truth of God that Jesus had taught them – that God is a God of love, forgiveness and mercy, and God has an important part for them all to play in rescuing a broken world – that they needed to join together for worship every week. And if they did not, they found their faith would weaken, falter and dissolve. Regular worshipping together was crucial, and still is. To meet each Sunday to praise God with all the friends of Jesus, and to be moulded by God’s word is as essential now as then – and the secular people who thought that they could remain faithful without corporate worship are all around us.
The second reason for the first Christians gathering together was to support each other. Being Christian was illegal, and Christians could be arrested, tried, tortured and executed for their faith, and so they needed each other to care for each other; support each other; help each other with their discipleship, and keep each other strong. Pastoral care for everyone was essential, and it still is. The Reformed tradition has a system to provide it in its Eldership, where each Elder has a group to visit regularly; to see how they are getting on with their discipleship; discover how the church can help, and give all the support that is always needed in life. Sadly the ideal in our churches seems to have been forgotten, so that pastoral care has become about whether people are ill, and it seems that people need to be dead or dying before a visit happens. Of course illness is important, but far more important is to support each other in our following of our saviour, and finding the resources so that each can be the best that they can be in their discipleship. Faithful pastoral care; getting to know each other through and through; encouraging each other in life and faith is vital for any church community, and is best fulfilled by visits to the home.
And the third reason why the early Christians needed to meet together was to learn and grow in Christ. The people who went establishing churches in every town like Paul, would establish a nucleus of the friends of Jesus and then move on to other places, leaving those early disciples to work out what it meant to be a follow of Christ in their day. The letters we have in the New Testament are some of those written from the new churches to their founders, asking what was to be done in all sorts of difficult situations, such as discerning true teachers; how to witness in pagan cultures and how to treat people of other races. Life was a constant pilgrimage of learning and they needed each other to help them on their way. Churches today have many challenges which require us to be constantly learning about the faith and our role in it. Sadly, many in our congregations do not avail themselves of all the excellent learning opportunities that churches provide, leaving many ill equipped to witness in a hostile culture. We need each other to keep on learning and developing as Christians.
We today have an enormous task ahead of us to bring our nation and world to find peace and joy in the only way they will find it. It will take all our talents, and if we are to make headway, we need to worship regularly; to care deeply for each other, helping each on life’s way, and we need to be always learning about the faith and how to be faithful disciples in a broken and bleeding world.