Justin, known also as “the martyr” for obvious reasons, undertook a defense of Christianity and published his Apology around AD 155-158. But his Apology isn’t an apology at all. It is a legal brief, possibly in reaction to the murder of Polycarp some short while before.
Justin’s brief to the Emperor Antionous sought to overturn an earlier precedent by the Emperor Trajan. Mob action against Christians was to be discouraged, Trajan told one of his governors, but they were still subject to legal arrest, trial in open court, and execution for being Christian; just no howling mob action on hearsay, which is what got Polycarp burned at the stake.
Christians, Justin argued, should be arrested and convicted and executed for doing wrong, like everybody else—but only on the same basis as other citizens, not for the “crime” of being Christian.
He wanted to show by legal brief that Christians are unexceptionally loyal Romans and that, since their practices and beliefs were lodged in philosophy, reason, and truth, they were no threat to Rome.
I am always drawn to Justin for two reasons. His brief carries a characterization of early Christian life and behavior (though it is likely a bit idealized), for one thing, and he gives a detailed depiction of early liturgical form. I particularly enjoy digging through his portrayal of Christian worship.
One can read from his brief a mid-second century outline of the ordo still used among liturgical churches. What we do from Sunday to Sunday is what Justin did early in the history of the Church.
We add bells and whistles, yet what he describes is essentially the same outline of worship that we possess:
We hear scripture.
An exhortation is delivered from scripture.
Prayers are said.
Gifts are collected and presented.
The kiss of peace is exchanged.
The bread and wine are “eucharized.”
The elements are distributed, but not as “ordinary food and wine.”
The deacons carry a portion of the Eucharist to any who are absent.
The congregation is dismissed.
The first half is all Jewish synagogue, a set lectionary and a sermon—another Jewish invention; pagan ceremonies had nothing like it—and prayer. The rest is the Pauline Last Supper of First Corinthians (Paul, at least, was the first to write it down, the formula probably being in place very soon after the resurrection). It is a two-covenant trajectory of worship for Christians, the first rising from the synagogue and giving direction to the second.
We learn a lot more about the Lord’s Supper, though, by its antithesis in Corinth, that thing that put Paul in a blunt rage. The communion was possibly set within a larger fellowship framework—more of a pot-luck. Perhaps bread and wine were selected out for a particular blessing for the communion elements. In any case, the Corinthians skipped some of that and went straight ahead to noshing it down “without waiting for anybody else.” One remains hungry and another sloshes the wine in a semi-binge. An infuriated Paul flays Corinthian hides: Whatever it is you think you are doing when you come together, “it is not the Lord’s Supper.”
They were, in fact, profaning the Body of Christ, the Church. He doesn't use that word, but I can't think of another half so good. So he warns them: Eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord unworthily is a sin against the body and blood of the Lord. “Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
This isn’t about believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, though present the Lord is. It is fundamentally about recognizing Christ in the person next to you, the one to whom you are called to be servant. The weak, the vulnerable, the sin-sick, all belong to the Body of Christ, and by eating and drinking together, we see the Lord among us.
“If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door,” St. John Chrysostom once said, “you will not find him in the Chalice.” I would suppose that there are a lot of people we might care to include among beggars when we are asking about who is worthy to share our Communion with the Lord.
Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri and can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead and his previous First Things contributions are here.