the gathering

When Christians gather to worship we name our collective identity in different ways. For centuries gatherings of Christians have been known in the English speaking world as “churches”. The word church comes from a Greek word meaning “of the Lord”. This is a helpful reminder whenever we begin speaking of the church as if it were our possession. Notice how quickly we welcome others to “our church”. Notice the difference when we are careful to welcome strangers to join us in worshiping with Jesus’ people. It keeps the focus on the truth that the church is a people formed, sustained and led by God rather than by our programs, plans and ministers.

The mission of the people who belong to Jesus lies at the heart of the earliest name for the church. Christians were first known as people of “The Way” (Acts 9:2). This name identifies the church as a social movement that lives a distinctive way of life. The Way is a natural outgrowth of the Old Testament’s story of the people formed to live God’s Torah. Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is often translated as “God’s law”. In truth Torah is better understood as “God’s life giving way” (Psalm 1). Throughout its history the church has regularly lost its way and its vigour when it has turned from the Way of Jesus. Conversely, the revival of the church seems inevitably linked with a rediscovery of the Way.

The New Testament’s primary word for the worshiping community formed by Jesus is the “ekklesia”. This Greek word is at the root of the English words “ecclesial” and “ecclesiastical” and of the French word “eglise”. Greek offered the early church a number of words to describe an assembly of people. The term ekklesia is unique among these in that it designated a group that was “called out” to meet for a political purpose. An ekklesia was an association of free citizens (this meant the exclusion of women, children, slaves and foreigners) where open discussion of important political and philosophical matters took place. It is not difficult to imagine how the formation of Christ’s radically new kind of ekklesia ("There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28) often resulted in ostracism, oppression and persecution of the infant Christian community. The Ekklesia Project is one contemporary example of the church responding to the ancient calling to be formed into Christ’s peculiar ekklesia.

The oldest name given to those who meet to worship the God of Abraham and Sara is the “assembly” or the “congregation”. In the Greek Old Testament that was in use among Jews of the ancient world the Hebrew word for congregation was translated with the Greek word “synagogue”. A synagogue is, simply put, a gathering. The gatherings importance emerged in the terrible crisis brought about by the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. How could the people of Israel continue now that the Temple was destroyed? Most assumed that all was surely ended. But slowly gatherings of ten or more families congregated to sing psalms, to read and interpret scripture, to pray and to offer thanks to the God who was not abandoning them. These gatherings - synagogues - have continued to be the centre of Jewish communal life to this day.

When University Hill United Church sold its church building and property in the early 1980's many thought that its life was surely over. Yet a gathering of households continued to meet in rented worship space nearby. As one member now says, “We were reduced to worshiping together, so we decided to worship God as well as we could”. Along the way the community came to call itself University Hill Congregation. Rediscovering the church’s primary identity as the congregation - the gathering - of those being saved by God’s good news in Jesus has been a crucial step in our journey of newness on the other side of loss.

                                                                               (from "Telling Time" by Edwin Searcy)

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