A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the doors of the church, including one of Jesus’ “I am” statements from the gospel of John: “I am the gate” (John 10). Our gathering and sending, our going out and coming in, are – like Christian prayer itself – “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In subsequent reflection on this topic, it has dawned on me that the whole order of worship (or ordo) might be understood as a living out of the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” To put it another way, Christian liturgy is an enacted Christology.
This ought to be an eye-rollingly, forehead-slappingly obvious statement. Unfortunately, however, this kind of theological reflection often doesn’t enter in to the way we think about the structure and flow of worship. We tend to approach the order of worship as an agenda, a checklist: just one thing after another. Planning for worship is all too often cluttered and consumed with questions like and “when will we do the announcements?” and “who does what part?” and “where will the anthem(s) go?” and “are there too many prayers?” and “will it end in time for lunch?”
What if we could get back to basics, seeking to understand the structure of worship as, first and foremost, a way of encountering Christ?
It's probably easiest to see what I’m talking about in the order of worship for the Easter Vigil, which has four movements:
- Service of Light: light of the world (John 8, 9)
- Service of Readings: Word of God (John 1)
- Service of Baptism: living water (John 4)
- Service of the Eucharist: bread of life (John 6)
But one can apply the same kind of thinking to Sunday worship in the Service for the Lord’s Day. First, there is the setting of the service: the first day of the week, the day Christ rose from the dead. This points to the fundamental affirmation of faith that Christ is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11). Beyond that, there are a number of connections one might make within the ordo itself:
- Gathering. We meet in the holiness of the Triune God, known to Moses as “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3). We respond to God’s holiness and majesty with an “I am” statement of our own, confessing: “Woe is me! I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5). But we gather, thanks be to God, in the grace of Jesus Christ, who said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, italics added).
- Word: We hear the Word of God read and proclaimed, and in so doing come to know the “Word of God” (John 1) who is our “way and truth and life” (John 14). We respond in faith and faithfulness, seeking to share the light of Christ with all the world (John 8, 9) through our own words and actions.
- Table: At the Lord’s Supper, we eat and drink with the one who said: “I am the bread of life; come to me and never be hungry, believe in me and never be thirsty” (John 6). We are joined together by the one who said: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15). We are strengthened to serve others in Christ’s name, sharing the bread of life and the fruit of the Spirit.
- Sending: We go forth following our Good Shepherd, who is himself the gate for the flock (John 10). We go into the world to baptize and make disciples in the name of the one who said: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, italics added).
Please note that I’m not trying to force any kind of one-to-one correspondence between the “I Am” statements and the elements of the Service for the Lord’s Day. Nor am I interested in the “I Am” statements of John alone. You could mix these up in a variety of ways, and add any number of other biblical images and accounts (OT and NT) of the God we know in Christ Jesus.
The point is this: Deep in the bones of the order of worship is this singular, saving purpose: to proclaim Christ, light of the world, Word made flesh, living water, bread of heaven and true vine, resurrection and life, great I AM.