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5) Homileo

1. What is/was Homileo? No surprise if I need to explain this practice and why I believe it has been lost. Homileo is a word out of the Koine Greek, the language of the time of Jesus, the apostles and the founding of the earliest Christian communities. (Koine is the Greek of the New Testament.) English has two words based on Homileo. Homiletics is the study of preaching. A sermon which is first written out and then read aloud before a congregation is called a Homily. These words do point us in the general direction of our subject but they do not highlight what was lost.

Homileo is a noun which described a specific type of conversation; not a dialog in which two people converse and not a monolog, in which one person speaks to one or more persons who just listen. Homileo was something in between. It was more like a discussion led by one person but in which several others participated. It was somewhat like a Q & A session or a discussion in which one person leads but to which others contribute. In a homileo the leader got things started but then received questions, encouragement and additional information on which the leader would then build. Each Homileo in Christian worship was the collaborative work of the community which together built a message in which all the contributors and those who merely listened to it each had a stake.

A Homileo: this was what a sermon was like in the ancient church. To get a feeling for this, read I Corinthians 14:1-33, laying aside the issues with which Paul and the Corinthians are concerned, the question of the place of ecstatic tongues in public worship. Notice how many people might participate in the ministry of the Word during just one service! One person, “the one seated” would come with a basic message but others might contribute a psalm, a prophecy or a tongue – but only if they had an interpreter – and others might ask questions which “the one seated” might entertain or refer to others to answer. If someone had a prophecy or a revelation with which the body disagreed, they could also pass judgment on it but “the one seated” should remain silent. The point was not to start a debate.

And just how did the body disapprove of a word of revelation from one contributor to the message? We see a glimpse of this older idea of Homileo in modern Black churches in the U.S. In some Black churches men in the congregation regularly respond to the preacher with, “Amen!” “Keep goin’!” “Halleluiah!” “That’s right!” or similar words of encouragement. Women also affirm the message with, “Well!” or some other positive evocation. A pastor of mine once asked a black pastor he knew, “And what do they say if they do not agree with the preaching?”

His response? “Then they say, ‘Lord have mercy!’”

Yes. Lord have mercy! The one bringing a strange word gets a message from the entire body but the worship service does not turn into an argument, with quarrels breaking out during the service.[1]

Group preaching: can you imagine? Worship within an essentially flat organization. Not unplanned worship. Not even worship without liturgy. Just worship in which it was recognized that the Word of God is mighty in the mouth of every Christian and that we all have the Spirit of God. Worship in which insight is added to insight and strength to strength from several persons. Imagine that.

Today we can look back on the experience of the early Christian communities and note that everyone lived in the same society (the world) and everyone who was a part of the fellowship (the church) gathered regularly for worship. That worship empowered all the members of the community to live fully in the society without adopting its (worldly) view of life. Everyone was called to change the society, those who led worship and those who followed in worship. Anyone might join in the building up of the community through public worship.

Homileo was closely linked to Calling. Christian communities had leaders; what we might even call spiritual directors, as we read in Ephesians 4:10-13: elders, teachers, pastors, etc. To be sure, those leaders had much more work to do on the “building up the body” side of holy living while most others were more engaged in transforming the society by living their faith. Yet even those men and women whose tasks were primarily “in the world” rather than “in the church” contributed to worship sometimes through participation in the Homileo just as all Jewish men in the synagogue were empowered and sanctioned to read and/or comment on Torah during worship. What the early Christians did not have was a priesthood. They never had a small select group of holy people and another much larger group, a laity, whose calling was less somehow less holy. Whether one worked more on building of the community or more on changing the society was a matter of giftedness and degree of involvment, not of status, value, class or depth of holiness. Everyone was called to work out their salvation in Christ Jesus.

This flatness of community was, appropriately, mirrored in the worship experience. The reason there was a dispute about whether women could speak was because every Christian could contribute. The Word of God was mighty in every mouth and “the sermon” was a give and take, cooperative activity.

2. How was Homileo Lost? Yet all that went away during the first few generations and the tiny distinction which may have existed from the beginning between “clergy” and “laity” widened steadily until it mirrored the chasm which had once existed in Judaism between the priests and the common people. How did this happen? The church took in the ways of the world. The Christian community slowly came under the influence of the structures, behaviors and visions of Jewish and pagan worship. In pagan worship there were priests and priestesses who carried the flames of their gods. Judaism had priests as well, until God brought the second temple in Jerusalem down, leaving not one stone upon another; no Jewish priesthood at all after AD 70. However, that same gulf continued to exist within traditional pagan religion until pagan worship was replaced by Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the 4th century.

Eventually, sadly, the Christian community came to have a special class of uber-holy people, people who were solely responsible for the Word of God in worship and in life. And as the gap between clergy and laity widened, who was going to even imagine they had something to contribute to the words of a holy person? And what lay-person would imagine that through their communal efforts mighty strongholds were to be pulled down and signs of the kingdom established on the earth? By the time Christianity replaced pagan worship, true Homileo and true Calling were things of the past.

3. Should Homileo be reclaimed? Homileo is an expression of the normative flatness of the Christian community which reflects the mutuality of Calling of both the clergy and laity. It mirrors in worship the imperative that no Christian may lord it over another but that all are to be in submission to one another in reverence for King Jesus. This egalitarian imperative recognizes the authority of gifts and of offices but it rejects the idea that the Christian community can establish anyone on earth as Christ’s representative. As John Calvin noticed in the early days of the last great paradigm shift, no bishop, whether at Rome or anywhere else, can be the “vicar of Christ” because Jesus has already explicitly chosen his earthly representatives: the poor. “For what you did to the least of my children, that you did to me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

After the last paradigm shift (circa., AD 1500) several groups came to see and tried to address the issues I am highlighting in this post. In their day, the Quakers tried to recreate that flat community which we glimpse in the pages of the Scriptures; so did the Plymouth Brethren a century or so later. There is much to be learned from the successes and problems of those organizations.[2] Not least among those lessons is that Christians were always meant to form communities made up of organizations and that within any number of those organizations there are structures which require clear lines of human authority. Organized religion is but one of those Christian organizations. An institutional church does requires leadership, what I outlined above as the various offices of Ephesians 4, which serve to build up the whole body for service.

Yet, in worship, that institutional church leadership can either provide for only one voice to be heard or it can facilitate the hearing of several or even many Holy-Spirit-driven voices over the course of a service. It can do this if the gathered congregation is not too large and if the duration of a given service is not structured as though it was a television program or a business meeting, beginning and ending at precise integers on a clock. Where did we get the idea that we could worship meaningfully with a thousand or more people and where did the hour-long worship service come from?

Again, Richard Foster:[3]

In our day heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emergence of a Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people. All creation watches expectantly for the springing up of a disciplined, freely gathered, martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom of God. It has happened before. It can happen again.

Yes lord, have mercy, as we seek to rediscover those vigorous, vital practices, structures and disciplines of faith which, over the centuries, we have lost. Oh, do come, Holy Spirit! We are truly desperate for your leading and direction!

Please join me in praying that the Spirit of God will fall afresh on his people; that we might be melted, molded, filled and used as the transforming body of Christ to change the world again.    

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1 Back to Post Could the Holy Spirit break through if several people found voice in a given service of worship to hear and share the Word of the Lord? What if one person’s message disagreed with that of the others? What if arguments broke out during worship? Take another read of I Corinthians, but this time start with chapter 1, then read chapters 11 through 14. What do you find? Because more than one person had been contributing to the message of the service and because people were free to interject a thought or ask a question which itself might lead to contention, the Corinthian worship was turning into a Greek philosophical debating society with each of four groups holding up their end of an on-going debate in every service! Paul counters that “the one who sits,” that is, the one who leads the service, should not speak to a contentious response but rather, the community present in worship should judge. “Lord, have mercy!” Of course.

2 Back to Post The study of variant structures for worship and church organization are profitable and may well lead us to some surprising discoveries and conclusions about what contributes best to the building up of all the saints to take up their Calling to participate in King Jesus’ salvation of all things, once again. That surely is our goal; to do what God calls his people to do by ways and means which are themselves just. We need to open our eyes and study our past with an eye to our immediate future: all things are lawful but not all things expedite!

3 Back to Post Foster, Richard  Celebration of Discipline The Path to Spiritual Growth, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983 [1978]), page 175.