I am a high church guy. This means, when it comes to worship, I enjoy the structure, language, and order of the liturgy. Drums sets, preachers on stools, and untucked shirts aren’t my thing. When I have my choice of attending services (when I’m not leading worship), I’ll naturally gravitate toward the Anglican, Roman, or Russian Orthodox end of the spectrum. It’s the ritual, connecting the present with the past which draws me closer to God.
Songs, words, scripture, colors; they all go together to enhance my worship experience. Worship also plays a role in shaping my theology. What I believe is formed by what I encounter in a worshiping Christian community. Hymn lyrics and preaching may inspire me. Nonetheless, it is Holy Communion which takes disparate individuals and reconciles them to each other and God. At the altar, where we receive the elements of bread and wine, the Kingdom of God becomes a living reality. Jesus’ words do something we are unable to do for ourselves.
For mainline Christians, our worship services are built around one action: the reenactment of the last supper. No matter the music, the language, or what the minister wears; the core of the service is built on the idea of recalling, retelling, remembering, and replaying Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. This is what we do each time we come to the table. However, to paraphrase the Passover Haggadah text, tonight is different from all other nights.
On Maundy Thursday, we gather as if we’ve never heard the story before. We return to the table for the first time. I want to ask a simple question: why are we here?
I know what we’re doing. Paul answers the “what” question with an unmistakable level of clarity. For Paul, there are no rubrics, gestures, or responses. He received these words and now he’s passing them on to us. We received these words. “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread and when he had given thanks; he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup, also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
The words are all we’ve got. The cups, the chalice, the table cloths, the type of bread, the layout of the table; everything with the exception of the words are variables left to our discretion.
The “why” of tonight can only be answered by confronting those things we cannot alter; Jesus’ words.
Jesus’ words place us in the unenviable position of admitting our participation in his betrayal. We cannot receive the bread or the cup unless we admit our culpability in what comes next. Our guilt and silence are no different from that of Judas or Peter. This is one reason we are here. God isn’t killing his son. Humanity, you and I, people like us were threatened by his message. We handed him over. This is on us.
It’s also important for us not to forget the “next” step. We cannot circumvent Good Friday and arrive well adjusted and happy on Easter Sunday morning. I would love to preach all Easter all the time but that’s not who we are. That’s not Christianity, that’s a cult. To believe in Jesus Christ is to accept the pain of the cross, the injustice it represents, and the pain embodied on Good Friday. As we recall Jesus’ broken humanity, we are affirming the immutable centrality of cross and these words as signs of the resurrection.
Jesus’ words remind us we’re here because we have a mandate to keep telling the Thursday night story, setting the stage for Good Friday, and laying the groundwork for Sunday. Each time we find the words, especially when our emotional wells run dry, we can express a truth beyond language and liturgy.
Jesus has done something greater than we can imagine, understand, or possibly accept. That’s OK. If you don’t get it, understand it, or can’t picture it, it’s still your gift. Our challenge is not to explain what Christ has done. Instead, in our sharing, we find a small way to say thank you, even in our ignorance. Despite the betrayals and our desire for an easy way out this is, I believe, where our salvation will be found.
Richard Lowell Bryant