Today we continue our Lenten series, Life Together. It is an exploration of the practices that we do together. And today we explore together the practice of communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or in some denominations Eucharist. This practice was ordained by Christ on the night before his death. We read of that ordaining moment in the Gospel of Mark, in the 14th chapter, a passage that I will read in a few moments as our shared call to worship. When I do that, I want you to look for three different movements of the passage – three different things that happen in Mark 14. I want you to look for preparation, confrontation, and covenant-creation. Because I think that these things are important for us to understand about this practice and about our shared life together. The service is organized into these three categories, as it becomes the way that we worship God together today. The Christ candle symbolizes Christ’s presence, in the story that we read and reenact together, in the reason why we gather, and in the presence in our worship of our Lord and God.
“Make preparations for us there”
How many of you have ever been to a Seder Passover meal? For those who have not, the Seder is a meal that is shared at Jewish Passover. Passover, you may or may not know, is an 8-day celebration in the Spring that celebrates the redemption of the people of God through the Exodus. It was a significant part of the Jewish faith that Jesus and his disciples would have been sure to participate in. It would not have been a question of “if we are going to celebrate Passover” or even “when we were going to celebrate Passover.” The only question is where. What room do we need to prepare?
Did you listen for the first movement in the passage I read a moment ago? The movement of preparation? The preparation was incredibly important to the Passover meal. The disciples were sent ahead of time in order to prepare the room, to sweep out all of the dust and to get ready the elements of the meal. We read that Jesus sent them to find a man who was to meet them and lead them to the place where they were going to make preparations. Now, some suggest that Jesus was supernaturally aware, or that he used some kind of Jedi mind trick to make these people do and say these things. I actually think the story is more powerful if Jesus had simply taken the time to talk to these individuals, to make preparations ahead of time. It would be in keeping with the nature of the meal.
And I would suggest that it would be in keeping with the nature of worship as a whole. I have shared before the quote from Soren Kierkegaard, that when we worship, we are not the audience watching on stage the actors perform. Instead, in worship, God is the only audience. You are the actors, performing your heart out before a loving and receptive audience. And the people up there are simply the stagehands, whispering the lines to you on stage, reminding you of what to say. This is the work of worship.
When we sing, we are preparing our hearts for God to transform and redeem us.
When we read Scripture, we are preparing to hear the wisdom of God.
When we give in worship, we are preparing for life lived in sacrifice and stewardship of God’s blessings.
When we shake hands and give hugs, we are preparing to be the body of Christ in the world.
Our worship service is in many ways a preparation for God’s redemption. Just like the disciples and Jesus would have worked hard in the preparation for the meal, we too are to prepare our hearts and our minds for the ways that God will lead and transform and redeem us in this place. So now, as we continue in worship, as we sing and read and give, prepare your hearts for God to transform you. Do your part…speak your lines…share your heart on this stage. Practice together the joyous work of worship. The curtain is ready to come up…and the audience is ready to love your performance!
“One of you will betray me”
Now we come to the second movement of the passage. The preparation is complete. The meal has begun. The story of the redemption of God is being re-told and remembered. But then all chaos breaks loose. The ordinary is interrupted. Everyone is eating, enjoying the meal, and Jesus nonchalantly says, “one of you will betray me.” And everyone freaks out. “It is me, Jesus?” “Is it me?” “Surely not I!”
It is the first of two actions by Jesus. It is basically a challenge to his disciples. “one of you will betray me.” Why did he say it that way? Why didn’t he confront Judas? Or even just say it out loud…”Judas will betray me.” Maybe he didn’t want to embarrass Judas? Or cause a riot at the Passover meal? Or maybe, and this is my suggestion, maybe Jesus wanted to get each of them to think about their own hearts of betrayal. Maybe it was a teaching tool. He had been teaching all week in the Temple about authority and who our true authority is. Maybe he wanted to think about their own commitment, their own authority, their own readiness to betray. At what percentage were they ready to betray him? None of them seemed as ready as Judas, of course. But they all fell asleep. They all abandoned him in the garden. They all ran from the cross. They all betrayed him at some point. Jesus challenges not only Judas, but the whole lot of them.
And I think that this second movement is important in our time of worship, as well. For this is the time in the service when we gather to offer our confessions before God. It is as if Jesus is sitting at the table with us asking, “who is our authority?” “How willing are we to betray him?” “How have we already done it, through our actions or our greed or our mistrust?”
As we move into this time of worship, we do so with hearts of confession and contrition. God knows our hearts, just like Jesus already knew the hearts of every disciple around the table. Let us empty our hearts in confession before God.
“This is my blood of the new covenant”
The preparations were made and the story had been told. The confrontation had been spoken and hearts had been examined. But the meal of “ordinary interrupted” was not over yet. For Jesus had another action to take, another word to speak.
The bread that they would have shared at the Passover meal would have been unleavened bread. It would have been like the bread that the Israelites would have eaten during the original Passover – God was rescuing them from the Egyptians quickly and they didn’t have time for the yeast to rise the bread. So they grabbed what they could – unleavened bread – and escaped. But now, Jesus was revising and re-writing the story of redemption. As he sat in their midst, he held up the bread, the symbol of God’s redemption, and gave new significance to the symbol: “this is my body.” Now, redemption had a new face. Now, God’s salvific work on earth had a new chapter. In the same way that God snatched up the Israelites from the bondage to the Egyptians, now Jesus is snatching up each and every one of us from the bondage to sin. Jesus takes this symbol and creates a new one. He says that the redeeming work of God done in the Passover is a part of the same redeeming work that they now experience in their midst.
And then he took the cup. In the Seder meal, there are actually four cups, or four times the cup is consumed. For each of these times, there is a different expression of redemption from the voice of God: “I will take you out of bondage.” As the Pharaoh was confronted by Moses and their slavery ended. “I will save you.” As the Passover allowed their release from Pharaoh and their escape. “I will redeem you.” As the Red Sea swallowed the violence of the Egyptian army and God’s people were redeemed. “I will take you as a nation.” As the covenant was sealed on Mt. Sinai.
Perhaps it was with this cup, at this point in the meal, when Jesus raised the glass and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Jesus made a new covenant, re-writing the Sinai covenant to include all of God’s creation. Updating the covenant to show again that God’s eternal story of salvation has a new chapter, a new expression.
And so, when we gather together around this table, when we celebrate this meal together, we are stacking memory upon memory. We remember, as did the disciples, how God has always been at work redeeming and protecting and loving God’s creation. And we remember the disciples, the encounter they had with Jesus and the teaching that he offered them about a new covenant, offering his body and his blood to demonstrate that the powers of death and violence would not be the victors. And finally, we remember that this meal has been shared by Christians throughout the last 2,000 years, hidden in dark caves and echoing through the most glorious cathedrals. When we reenact this encounter, we are celebrating the eternal and never-ending story of God’s love for us. God blesses us. He re-covenants us into the work of God in the world. He reconnects us to the community around us. He communes with us through the Holy Spirit. He reminds us of our own redemption, as we re-play in our minds and voices the story of love and sacrifice. We come in anticipation, and God responds with grace, poured out for each of us and all of us.