Early Church Meetings by Art Farstad,
It is the first day of the week, by the pagans called "the day of the sun," but by the Christians known as "the Lord's Day." As dusk is settling over the Tiber, Christians, as if drawn by a magnet, are seen approaching a large house which belongs to one of the members of the congregation, one of the few who are fairly well-to-do. Most of those coming are apparently ordinary families, poor, and quite a number of slaves are included. There is also, judging from the accents and fine clothing, a sprinkling of Rome's elite, who are Christians. The women are modestly attired, many wearing the headdress of the Roman matron. Some of the sisters are carrying baskets of provisions, including bread and wine. One or two of the men have scrolls in their hands, and judging from the way they carry them, they must be of great value to these Christians.
As one follows these simple believers up the steps to the large upper room which has been prepared for the meeting, one sees through the open doorway a crowded chamber ablaze with festive lamps and torchlight, not at all suggestive of the nocturnal orgies which malicious rumor has attributed to these Christians. In the center of the room is a long, low table, and on the table the provisions are being set out, simple ordinary fare such as bread, fish, and vegetables, and to drink, the weak red table wine of Italy. Judging from its prominence, fish would seem to be especially popular with these simple Christians.
A certain stir is caused after nearly everyone is seated, due to the attempts of a certain traveling teacher to get into the meeting. He has been stopped at the door by the leaders of the community, called presbyters. Apparently this man, who is a fluent and persuasive man, judging from his gestures and manner, holds religious convictions that are not acceptable to the believers. Even though generally gentile and courteous, when it comes to a question of faith, these Christians are firm! The man is actually refused reception by the assembly.
Before the start of the meeting itself an attractive young Roman couple, newly baptized, is welcomed to the congregation with expressions of love and joy. Suddenly, as if by a signal, someone starts the service by raising the tune of a psalm of praise to the one true God. It sounds like an adaptation of one of the ancient psalms of thanksgiving sung by the Jews, from whom this congregation has a large number of converts. Everyone joins in joyfully, including some whose musical abilities must rest more in their heart than in their vocal chords! A second song is suggested and sung. After that a middle-aged man rises and approaches the table. He raises his head to heaven and gives thanks for the bread on the table in words approximating the following:
"We render thanks to You, Father, for this bread, which speaks to us of the Body of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, given for us on the Cross. We take it in remembrance of Him."
At this point the entire church responds with an "amen," a Hebrew expression of assent to the prayer. The bread it distributed to the believers and taken in a careful and thoughtful manner, as though they sense its meaning. The breaking of bread is evidently the signal that the communal meal has started, a sort of fellowship time, by the Christians called "agape," that is, love-feast. The food is shared quietly while a number of speakers in turn talk of spiritual things.
One brother praises God for His bounty in providing food for them, both physical and their celestial food, Christ. A portion from one of the ancient scrolls is read to the gathering by a man who seems to be in a place of leadership. He makes a few comments on the text and then sits down. Another man, clearly of Jewish extraction, gives some explanation of what has been read, a psalm, showing the meaning of ancient Hebrew that lies beyond the Greek version which has been read. Even though this is Rome and the official language is Latin, Greek is the language used by the people, including the Christian assemblies. The application of the psalm to Jesus of Nazareth is discussed by a number of the brethren, including the reader and the Jewish Christian.
A hymn directly addressed to Jesus, called "the anointed one," or Christ, is sung at this time, antiphonally but in a simple but impressive manner. A man rises to praise to God in a tongue that is not the one usually used. When he finishes another gets up to interpret the message, a prophecy, to the entire group. Another man, who is a prophet, gives a prediction regarding a persecution that is coming to the Christians at Rome. His words are used as a basis by another man with impressive oratorical abilities to exhort the believers to holy living. He recommends that the believers meditate on the words read each week from the Sacred Scriptures.
At this point a selection is read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, very moving and touching, about a lamb who is led to the slaughter. A man with excellent teaching gift and a manifest interest in the welfare of the flock of Christians explains in detail how everything the prophet wrote about the silent sufferer, including His death with the wicked and His burial with the rich, has been fulfilled within the lifetime of some of the people present. It all came to pass in the blood shedding of Jesus under Pontius Pilate in the Province of Judea.
The supper having ended some time previously as the men were proclaiming the Scriptures, one of the men goes to the table to give thanks for the cup. His prayer is somewhat like this:
"We thank You, Lord, for this cup, and for the blood of the covenant of which it speaks. We drink it in remembrance of Your Son, thanking you that it is for us a cup of blessing because it was for Him a cup of bitterness. We look forward, Father, to that day when we shall drink it with our Saviour Himself in Your coming Kingdom."
Whereupon all the people say, "Amen!"
The large silver chalice is then passed from hand to hand. After a song about Christian experience, many of the Christians embrace and exchange a kiss of agape, especially in welcoming the newly baptized into the assembly, although the kiss is a decorous and holy sign of affection, not as the pagans regard it.
An older brother with a grieved look on his face, apparently one of those known as "elder" - - men especially in charge of superintending or overseeing the congregation, solemnly arises to announce his sad duty of speaking for the church in disciplining a young brother who has fallen into gross sin. Although he has been privately spoken to and pled with to repent he has not done so. Until such a time as he does he must be put forth from the holy Table of the Lord, this presbyter says. He calls on all to pray for the speedy and penitent return of this erring one to the fold, and he himself intercedes for him to that end at this point.
Throughout the long service the women have kept silent, although they have joined in the group singing and the "Amens." Nevertheless they have paid close attention, especially the matrons as their own husbands led in the discussion, though sometimes with quizzical look.
There have also been a few visitors, inquirers, and others, of both sexes, who have not taken part orally or in the elements, which latter the sisters have shared. These include some who do not yet understand or believe the Christian message.
Finally, one of the earlier readers from the scrolls reads again, this time from the Letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christian assembly in this very city of Rome. The selection is from the latter part of the scroll where Paul exhorts the believers to submit to God as a sacrifice and use one's gifts to further His cause. The man encourages the hearers to exercise their priestly rights as Peter also taught, so that the church may be edified through them.
The word "gifts" apparently suggests the collection, because some deacons, those who serve in a special way in the churches, come forward with baskets to accept the offering for the poor, the widows, and the orphans, and to have fellowship with those who are out preaching the Good News of salvation, as well as the leaders of the congregation here.
With the final joyous psalm and the promise of the Lord Jesus that He is in the meeting, but that this meeting is only "until He comes" to meet them in the air, the service closes with a unison cry of "Maranatha!" by all the assembly, quickly followed by all the people saying, "Amen!"
The above is from pages 352-363 of Art Farstad's Doctoral Dissertation presented to the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary in May 1972. It is based on significant research of scriptural references, and other historical accounts from the first century. It is a suggested framework of early Christian meetings, and very thought provoking.