The foot washing text of John 13: 1-35 is our lectionary Gospel text for Maundy Thursday this year, but I still love focusing this special service on the ritual of the first communion, which is our Epistle text of 1st Corinthians 11: 23-26. Because we have moved so far from the Jewish roots of Jesus, communion is still quite the ‘Holy Mystery’ to our congregations. Your Holy Thursday/Maundy Thursday sermon is the perfect opportunity to de-mystify it.
Jesus and the disciples (and probably their families and other friends) had gathered for the Passover feast. It was a ritualistic dinner, filled with traditions that included participants of all ages, which helped to ensure that these traditions were carried on from generation to generation. The Passover festival was instituted by God following the release of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. It was the last plague: the Hebrews were to place lamb’s blood above their door so that when God came through the land, killing the first born of every family, God would know to ‘pass over’ the homes of the Hebrews, sparing the first born of their families.
The Passover was a celebration of liberation from oppression, a remembrance of God’s presence in the story of the Jews. These themes play out in the liturgy that was used during the Passover supper. At each place setting would have been a cup with enough wine for three drinks, one for each of God’s promises (like a toast in three parts). One extra place would be set that would not be used. It was for Elijah, who did not die but was taken up to heaven alive in a chariot of fire. During the supper, a young child is sent to look out the front door to see if Elijah has returned. We can imagine little Jesus running to the door as he celebrated this ritual with his family.
Did you ever wonder why, at the end of the meal, there would have still been a full cup of wine for Jesus to bless and share? It was the Elijah cup, the sacred cup, that he picked up, leading some to believe that he was Elijah, returned. Who else would dare pick up the Elijah cup but Elijah?
After picking up the cup for Elijah and breaking the bread, Jesus goes to the Garden at Gethsemane to pray. This is one of the most important moments to share with your congregation: Jesus didn’t flee. Jesus got down on his knees to pray, and then he got up and surrendered. But it was the dark of night, before Facebook and BOLO’s and calling references for jobs. Jesus could have gotten up off his knees and walked right off into the night, never to be seen again. He could have just kept on walking until he hit a town where he was unknown, changed his name and started a new life. He could have vanished, but he didn’t. We take for granted that he allowed himself to be taken and put on trial, but he had other options. Ask your congregation to put themselves in his shoes. Having done right by God, but being persecuted by the authorities, facing jail time or even death, what would they do in the darkness of the night?
Jesus chose to create a powerful moment with those closest to him and then chose to accept the fate that came with his radical fight for liberation from worldly powers. Because of this, millions of people in hundreds of languages in ways culturally appropriate to them have shared in the ritual of communion, joining them with Jesus and with us. If you are in a historic church, remind your congregation of the historic times in which they shared this ritual: World Wars, man on the moon, women’s suffrage. Imagine the excitement when the first Model T rumbled up to the church doors. And then they stood in the same place as your people, sharing the bread and the juice, connecting with the all who came before and all who are to come. Because you continue this ritual, one day people in flying cars will pull up to your church and join in the ritual, remembering that you and your dedication to the continuation of the community made it possible for them to have that sacred space.
My favorite way to celebrate the Holy Thursday worship service is to set tables across the chancel and invite people to sit around the tables. Candles (unlit) are placed around the table along with the communion elements. Simple centerpieces of palms and candles set the mood. I used this resource to develop the following worship service: http://www.reformedworship.org/article/december-1999/learning-about-seder-meal-teaching-service-jewish-festival-passover and a communion liturgy by Cheryl Lawrie of the Uniting Church of Australia.
Holy Thursday/Maundy Thursday Worship Service Starter
Call to Worship
One: In the presence of loved ones and friends, we gather to learn about the Passover.
All: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this day I brought you out of Egypt. You shall observe this day throughout the generations for all times (Ex. 12:17).
One: We gather to fulfill the Mitzvah.
(If a candle is near you, please light at this time)
All: We praise you, God, Lord of all life, as we light the candles of Passover.
Opening Hymn Time Now To Gather FWS#2265
Remembering God’s Three Promises
One: Our story tells us that in diverse ways with different words, God gave promises of freedom to our people. Let us say the first promise together.
All: I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians.
One: We take the Kiddush cup and proclaim the holiness of this Day of Deliverance!
All: We praise you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.
One: We recall God’s second promise. Listen to a reading from the book of Exodus (6:6).
All: Remembering with gratitude, we praise you, O God, Redeemer of Israel! We praise you, Lord of all, who creates the fruit of the vine.
One: Together we recall the third promise from God. As it is written: “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”
All: Praised are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine.
One: On this night, in the Upper Room, Jesus made a request of those gathered: to add a fourth promise, from them to God. That they would always remember Jesus. Eat and drink, do this in remembrance of me. And with those words, the act of Holy Communion was begun.
Reading of the Scripture 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
I have already told you what the Lord Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. And it came from the Lord himself. He took some bread in his hands. Then after he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Eat this and remember me.” After the meal, Jesus took a cup of wine in his hands and said, “This is my blood, and with it God makes his new agreement with you. Drink this and remember me.” The Lord meant that when you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you tell about his death until he comes.
Communion (By Cheryl Lawrie of the Uniting Church of Australia)
One: On their own, the bread and juice are nothing.
To become a foretaste and a promise
of love made real and a world made whole,
they need a story and a blessing and a people who believe…
All: It would not have been God’s table
if they hadn’t all been gathered around it:
the betrayer and the friend the power-hungry
and the justice seeker the faithful and the fickle.
One: When Jesus poured the wine, and the bread was broken;
when everyone could eat - the outcast and the beloved
the arrogant and the gracious, the wrong-doer and the wrongly done by -
the table became a foretaste of love made real and of a world made whole.
All: Your company at the table will include the betrayer and the beloved
the wrong-doer and the wrongly done by. It would not be God’s table without them.
One: And the promise is that when you are together,
when you tell the story and give the blessing
when you break the bread and pour the wine
you will discover a foretaste of love made real
and of a world made whole.
Sharing of the Bread and the Juice