Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
1 Corinthians 16:5-21
I will visit you after passing through Macedonia—for I intend to pass through Macedonia—and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may send me on my way, wherever I go. I do not want to see you now just in passing, for I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.
If Timothy comes, see that he has nothing to fear among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am; therefore let no one despise him. Send him on his way in peace, so that he may come to me; for I am expecting him with the brothers.
Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but he was not at all willing to come now. He will come when he has the opportunity.
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
Now, brothers and sisters, you know that members of the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints; I urge you to put yourselves at the service of such people, and of everyone who works and toils with them. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence; for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. So give recognition to such persons.
The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord. All the brothers and sisters send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.
When this pandemic began, and it first became apparent that we would be worshipping from home for a few weeks—back when we all thought it would be weeks, not months!—one of the first things I did was create a holy space in my house.
I wasn’t sure what to call it—we Protestants don’t tend to have shrines or altars—but I knew it was something I needed to do if I was going to be able to worship in the same space where I eat, watch Parks & Rec, reruns, and do my taxes. I needed to make my home holy.
I grabbed a few items that have spiritual meaning to me—photos of churches I love, souvenirs from the holy land, a cross necklace from my grandfather, and set up a space where I could pray. It wasn’t the same as being in the sanctuary, but it helped.
And over these months I’ve come to realize that I actually really love having a dedicated holy space in my house. It reminds me to be more than a Sunday Christian—reminds me that God is present even when I’m scarfing down Cheetos and laughing at those Parks and Rec reruns. Just as church has always been a second home to me, now my home feels a bit more like a second church.
Whether or not you’ve been able to make a dedicated space for it, we’re all worshipping in house churches now. And it’s nothing new.
House churches are as old as Christianity itself. Worshipping at home isn’t an innovation—it’s an ancient tradition.
Our biblical references to the house churches of early Christianity are scattered, but clear: the early Christians gathered together as households in their own homes to worship Jesus Christ, to instruct each other in the faith, and to develop new roles and rituals in Christian living.
We don’t often read the last chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in church; it’s the mundane part of the letter, not the theological meat. He mentions his travel plans, his ministry companions, passes along greetings from one house church to another. He doesn’t bother to explain what a house church is, because he doesn’t need to. The worshippers at Corinth simply understood that households worshipping together at home were a valid unit of the larger Christian church.
There are several reasons why early Christians worshipped at home. The Book of Acts tells us that, for a while, the Jewish followers of Jesus split their time between the temple and their own homes. In those home meetings, though, where they broke bread following Christ’s example of the Last Supper, they developed an identity too distinct from that of their Jewish neighbors. Eventually, worshipping in the temple didn’t make sense anymore—whether they came to that conclusion naturally and gradually, or whether they were forced out for their new ideas. Providing homes to worship in became an obvious way for wealthier Christians to support and undergird the movement—while some Christians, like Paul, Timothy, and Apollos, heeded Christ’s call to sell everything and move from house to house, somebody had to stay home and maintain the houses for those preachers to preach in! In some places, persecution against Christians made the house church the safest option—who could tell a dining room table from a Eucharistic altar? Most importantly, house churches allowed households to stake their claim: we are Christians. We are putting our time, our family name, and our property on the line to say that we follow the teachings of Christ.
Being a worshipping Christian in the last four months has required incredible perseverance, innovation, and energy. Our routines and sanctuaries have been stripped from us by COVID-19, and we have had to dedicate ourselves to intentional worship in a way we rarely have had to before. I know it has not been easy. But I am so proud that, standing firm in the tradition of our ancestors in faith, we marked out holy space in our homes and through our technology to say that we are still Christians. Even when it is hard, we follow the teachings of Christ.
In the next few weeks we’ll talk some about the specific house churches named in Paul’s letters, churches led by people like Prisca and Aquilla, Nympha, and Philemon—but for now, I want to get a bit nerdy, and dive into the nuts and bolts of this phenomenon. What were house churches actually like?
Physically, houses in the ancient world were as varied as they are today—their design was affected by local custom and local materials, by architectural trends and practical needs, and of course, vastly affected by wealth. Poor people in rural areas lived in mud and straw hovels, while Rome packed the poor into tenement style apartment slums. The rich had sprawling country villas and chic urban townhouses, grandly decorated. It seems likely that most of the house churches were hosted by families of some wealth—at least enough wealth to have a large room, likely a dining room, where people could gather, eat, and worship.
Initially, house churches were places where the household itself gathered to worship—but an ancient household was a slightly different group than our modern family units. The household included the owners and often several generations of their family, including married sons and unmarried daughters, as well as servants and even slaves. We know that households often converted as one unit, like the households of Lydia and Stephanas. We know that eventually other Christian converts, perhaps without wealth or property of their own, found their way to these house churches. We know that women worshipped alongside men, the poor alongside the rich, and enslaved people alongside their owners. We know that communion and baptism were early rituals marking Christians as different from their Jewish neighbors. We know that they read bits of scripture—although not every church had the same collection—along with instructional letters from early Christian apostles—most famously Paul himself. We know that sometimes those apostles would come visit and be welcomed as visiting preachers. We know they prayed, and sang hymns, and argued with each other. We know that they were real churches, just ones that met in homes.
Most house churches have long since vanished without a trace—even if bits of a house from 2000 years ago are still around for archaeologists to look through, it’s difficult to know whether or not that house also served as a church. We have no archaeological records for more modest house churches, since houses made of brick and wood have long since crumbled to dust. But we do have a few grander house churches still in evidence today.
One of our earliest known house churches is in Capernaum, a town in Galilee where Jesus spent much of his ministry. The house has traditionally been attributed to Peter, making it the house where Jesus healed his mother-in-law of a fever, although there’s no hard evidence for that. What we do know is that this first century house, which seems to have been fairly middle class—large with stone walls, but a mud and straw roof—had a special square room at its center that seems to have been used as a place for the household to worship. By the fourth century, after Christianity became legalized and gained traction, followers, and financial resources, the house itself was converted from a private residence into a single-use church, and in the fifth it was expanded again as a basilica, with mosaic floors that completely covered the original house. That building was long ago destroyed, but in the 1990s the Catholic church built a new memorial on the site, this time with a glass floor so that you can see the remains of the house church down below.
Images © TripAdvisor.com
Another ancient house church still known to us is from Dura Europas, in modern-day Syria near the border with Iraq. Established around 230AD, it appears to be a standard house—with a few important additions, including a large hall, where Christians could join to worship, and a baptistery. Perhaps inspired by the extensive frescoes at the nearby synagogue, the owners of the house sanctified these spaces with paintings, including depictions of Jesus as the good shepherd, the Samaritan woman at the well, the women approaching the empty tomb, Jesus and Peter walking on water, and the healing of the paralytic man who carries his mat on his back. The house church didn’t survive long—about fifteen years later, Dura Europas was sacked by Persians and the town was abandoned.
Images © Wikipedia.com, thebyzantinelegacy.com.
Despite its challenges, Christianity spread far and fast. Some three thousand miles away from Dura Europas, Roman nobility in southern Britain, remade their pagan shrines to Christian chapels, in a country estate now known as the Lullingstone Roman Villa. The house was already over 200 years old when, in the fourth century, the owners plastered over a chapel dedicated to worshipping their household deities with images of Christian worshippers and the famous Chi-Ro symbol, the first two letters of Christ. It is far and away the earliest evidence we have for Christian worship in England.
Images © Wikipedia.com.
As Christianity grew in size and stature, house churches eventually died out in favor of larger institutional buildings. But throughout history, in places where Christians have been persecuted or impoverished, worshippers have resurrected the house church, as a place of safety, hospitality, and faith.
I miss our church building. I had planned to preach this sermon from the pulpit this morning, and I wish I could have. But for now, I am grateful to be able to preach to the church that meets at Meaghan’s house, and Bob’s house, and Walt’s house, and Nancy’s house. Even if your household is a household of one, I am grateful that each of you have chosen not to let being separated from our sanctuary separate you from your faith.
One of my favorite stories from this pandemic is a fellow pastor who was talking over video to a young girl in her congregation after online worship on Sunday. The pastor noticed her dress, and said “I think I’ve seen you wear that dress to church.” The girl, maybe four years old, looked confused for a minute. Finally she said “I am wearing it to church. But sometimes I wear it to the other church, too. When we go in the car.”
I love that that little girl will grow up knowing that church isn’t just a place you go, but something you experience. That she will never doubt whether or not God is with her as she eats and plays and studies. That she knows worship matters to her family not just as part of a routine, but as something worth pursuing always—even if it means making a church out of her home.
For innovation, tradition, and the ties that bind God’s people throughout the ages, I give thanks.