Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Decently and in Order"

There’s a Presbyterian phrase, if ever there was one. We all know stated clerks who have it emblazoned on the covers of their Roberts’ Rules and constitutions. Decent orderliness is highly desired, even if not always achieved.

All of that, however, is not the original context of the phrase. It appeared long before there were parliamentary councils for Christians to worry over. Take a look at 1 Corinthians 14, and you’ll find it at the tail end of a long chapter in which Paul comments on worship. That’s right, worship.

Paul has a lot to say about whether people should or shouldn’t speak in tongues in church, and how if they do someone needs to interpret so the gathered faithful do not sit there in glassy-eyed bewilderment.

Prophesying is a good thing, Paul said, but even that has its limits. Prophets can’t all talk at the same time or it will sound like much ado about nothing.

Then he went on to suggest that women, if they want to speak in church, should stifle it and talk to their husbands when they get home. It was not a popular text for women, it’s safe to guess.

Now the point is not whether you agree or disagree with speaking in tongues, prophesying or women speaking in church. The point is that Paul was admonishing the Corinthians about what happened, or didn’t happen, when they were gathered for worship.

And here’s Paul’s punch-line: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (KJV) God deserves worship that is “decent” and worthy, and that is “orderly” and makes sense.

From the beginning there has been a definite “order” to Christian worship, generally referred to in scholarly parlance as the “Ordo.” Simply, it’s a technical term referring to the four-fold pattern of Christian worship: Gathering, Word, Eucharist, Sending. (See BCW, pp. 33 ff.)

The Ordo came to pass in this way. The first followers of Jesus were Jews as he was, so they continued synagogue worship oriented around Torah, God’s Word. But they had also had unique experiences with Jesus, meals like the Last Supper before he died, and more meals like on the road to Emmaus after he was raised. So they continued to break bread together, giving thanks at the table as they had done with Jesus. And the two, Word and Sacrament, were welded together.

Of course, they started being gathered as a community. But they didn’t do it just because they thought it was a nice idea, or they liked the people, or the speakers were enthralling, even though all of those things may have been true. They were gathered because they sensed a call from God to belong to Christ and one another.

At the other end of their time together they experienced a kind of spiritual shove back into the regular world. No luxury camping out in the community for them. They were sent back to where they came from, sent to follow their risen Lord, sent by the same One who called them in the first place. So that’s the basic outline of worship, the Ordo, the common pattern of Christian worship most everywhere, most all the time the past two millennia.

But the four parts of the Ordo are really not separate things. They constitute a continuum, and Christian worship is an uninterrupted journey from being drawn in together, through hearing the story of God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ and acting out gratitude for God’s blessings, to being sent out the door to follow him wherever he leads. It’s all of a piece. So if any part is lopped off or given short shrift, like celebrating the Lord’s Supper only occasionally, it stops being orderly. And I’d say that’s not decent either. (See my post on “A Birthday Present”.)

How does the “Ordo” play out on Sunday morning where you are? Is everything there that needs to be? Does it flow smoothly? Is the course of the journey clear? Or is it just an “order of worship” lined up like items on an agenda to be gotten through in a timely fashion?

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