50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
1 Corinthians 14:26-33, 39-40
26 What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. 32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.
39 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; 40 but all things should be done decently and in order.
During a worship service at an old Presbyterian Church, when the Lord’s prayer was said, half the congregants stood up and the other half remained seated. The half that was seated started yelling at those standing to sit down, and the ones standing yelled at the ones sitting to stand up… The young pastor, realizing this was something that hadn’t been covered in seminary, was at a loss for a way forward.
His congregation suggested that he consult the 102 year old matriarch of the church, who was one of the original church members. The pastor hoped the elderly woman would be able to tell him what the actual tradition was, so he went to the retirement home with a representative of each faction of the congregation.
The one whose followers stood during Lord’s prayer said to the elderly woman, “Is the tradition to stand during the Lord’s prayer? She thought for a moment, and answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”
The one whose followers sat said, “Then the tradition is to sit during the prayer!” The woman thought some more, and answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”
Then the Pastor, in desperation, exclaimed, “But the congregants fight all the time, yelling at each other about whether they should sit or stand…” And here the old woman interrupted, exclaiming, “Yes! THAT is the tradition!”
This week and for the next six weeks, we are taking a closer look at WORSHIP… what it is, why we do it, what the scriptures have to say about it, and how we do it here at First Presbyterian Church–standing up, sitting down, singing in unison or yelling at each other.
To help us remember some fundamental principles of Presbyterian Worship, I like to use the acronym WORSHIP: Worship, for us, is Welcoming, Orderly, Reformed, Sacred, Honest, Intellectual, and Public. Last week, we talked about how we strive to create worship that is welcoming to all people. Today we’re going to talk about how Presbyterian Worship is orderly. If that word isn’t your favorite, you could just as equally substitute the word “organized” without messing up the acronym. But before we delve into what it means for worship to be orderly or organized, I want to share a story from my own faith journey:
Many of you know that although I am a Presbyterian minister, I grew up Methodist, but then went to a pentecostal/charismatic college for my undergraduate degree. Oral Roberts University, named after the famous (or infamous) televangelist who founded the university in 1967.
Weekly chapel services at ORU (which were mandatory for all students, incidentally–they took attendance) usually began with four or five hymns or songs, followed by announcements, prayer, scripture and a sermon. Nothing too crazy. But that’s usually right about where things completely fell apart–somewhere in the middle or near the end of the sermon.
Someone in the congregation (or sometimes the preacher) would invariably stand up, interrupting whatever was already happening, and in a loud voice, start speaking in tongues. If you’re not familiar with that phenomenon, it’s basically where someone speaks in what sounds like an unintelligible language, and this is supposed to be a sign of the Holy Spirit working within that person.
Pretty soon others would do the same, and before long the entire chapel (about 3,000 students) would descend into a chaotic cacophony of unintelligible mumbling…or screaming. But there was more: Sometimes (again, supposedly under the influence of the Holy Spirit) people would start jumping up and down and flailing their arms frantically. Sometimes people would collapse, writhing on the floor, or lie perfectly still. They called that being “slain” in the spirit. I can remember chapel services where hundreds of students burst out into spontaneous, uncontrollable laughter, then tears, as well as services where people claimed to be miraculously healed from all sorts of ailments or injuries, and were then paraded around the stage for all to see.
If there was one consistency amidst all this, it was that the worship service usually ended in utter chaos. My first few chapels, I wasn’t sure when exactly it was appropriate to leave the service without being counted absent.
When people ask me about my time at Oral Roberts University, often I’ll say, “Yeah, I went there, but I didn’t drink the kool-aid.” That’s true enough. Although I genuinely tried a few times to be “slain in the spirit” or to let myself get caught up in the emotion and sensationalism of the moment, I was never really able to. That’s not meant to imply condemnation or even disapproval of my fellow ORU students. I had a lot of good friends there–sincere, intelligent Christians for whom those chapel services were deeply meaningful. They found God in the midst of the chaos, while I was more prone to find God in the quiet little Methodist church I attended just down the street.
Years later, when I became a Presbyterian, I learned that one of the “mottoes” of the Presbyterian church “All things are to be done decently and in order.” I thought it was just a motto, reflecting the tendency of Presbyterians to be prim and proper, with a fondness for over-analyzing things and referring them to an endless slew of committees. Decently and in order.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned those words actually came from scripture–today’s scripture passage in 1 Corinthians 14. Even more surprising, the context of Paul’s words to the church at Corinth was really familiar to me. People speaking in tongues all over the place, all at once, interrupting each other, chaos prevailing. And Paul urges them, when they gather for worship, to do everything decently and in order.
What does that mean, decently and in order?
The word we translate as decently is the Greek word εὐσχημόνως (euskemonos), literally “good form” or “good appearance.” It’s Paul’s way of reminding his church that other people, guests, visitors, non-Christians, are watching them and forming opinions about them. So at least try to look decent!
That reminds me of the church that made a large banner saying “Jesus is coming!” And someone scribbled underneath those words “Quick–everybody look busy.”
The word we translate as “order” is the Greek word τάξιν (taxin). And no, that’s not what the government does to us next Sunday on April 15th. τάξιν was a Greek military term that meant arranging things (usually troops on a battlefield) in a specific and purposeful way–by rank and one after the other.
So. Decently and in Order. That’s what it means, but how does it look, how does it apply to Christian worship, both in ancient Corinth, and also here at First Presbyterian Church today?
Before I address that question, I want to address an elephant in the room (or, rather, in the Bible). Some of you may have noticed that I left out a few verses of this passage, skipping from verse 33 to 39. Those are the verses where “Paul” says that women should be silent in church, and if they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home.
I didn’t include them in the scripture reading, because frankly, many biblical scholars believe that Paul never wrote those words. In the oldest manuscripts, they actually appear at the very end of the chapter, like a footnote someone added after the fact. They also contradict Paul’s words in his other letters, where he clearly acknowledges and encourages women praying and teaching in the church–which is kind of hard to do silently. These words do, however, match closely (almost word for word) with passages in other books that came decades or centuries later, from writers who were clearly not Paul, but writing in Paul’s name. And in any case, Presbyterians long ago recognized the unique and valuable contributions that women bring to worship, as congregation members, leaders, and pastors.
And now back to worship that is decent and in order. What does that look like? I glean three broad principles from today’s passage.
The first is this: Everything that happens in worship should be intentional, thought out carefully and deliberately. What is this prayer for? What does this song accomplish? Where does this piece best fit into the flow and progression of worship? There should be a good reason “why” and a good answer to “how” for every “what” that we do–it may not always be the same answer in every church or even every worship service, but the principle is…we do everything thoughtfully, for a reason.
If that sounds too constricting, like we’re leaving no room for spontaneity or flexibility, then you might appreciate the second principle: In all aspects of our worship, we are free to do what makes the most sense for our community and context.
It’s fascinating to me that Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians–hey, stop doing all those crazy things! Stop speaking in tongues! Paul doesn’t mention speaking in tongues in any of his letters to other churches, so it seems to be something the Corinthians were uniquely known for…and not in a good way. It’s the source of their problems. But maybe it’s also their “thing.” So Paul says, don’t forbid it…but do it in a way that makes sense, that helps people, and everybody take your turn. In other words, within order and organization, there is still freedom for creativity, personality, and flexibility. Don’t stop being who you are. Just think about how those things work best.
The third and final principle is this: Paul says that in worship, let all things be done for building up. Notice he doesn’t say who we’re building up! Each other? Probably. God? Certainly. Our community and our world? Great. The point is, we *don’t ever* use worship to tear anyone or anything down. That’s the “decent” part of decently and in order. When you pray in worship, pray for something, not against something. When you sing, sing to be part of something, not against it (I’m not going to sing because I don’t like this song/hymn, or I don’t know it, or I don’t like the way I sound…or I want everyone to hear how great I sound!).
And when you come to this table, come because you want to build yourself up in your faith and your relationship with God. But also come to this table because you want to build up this community, to build up the other people around the table–here and around every table in every place of worship.
Don’t all come at once–that wouldn’t work out so well. Come decently and in order. The ushers will help you with that. Come thoughtfully, knowing why you come, and what this means to you. Or come with questions, seeking understanding and direction. Or come with compassion, ready to share what you find here.
But come with purpose.
Come to the table of the Lord.