Wednesday in Holy Week 2010: Fourth Holy Week Sermon
Re-reading the Story: Luke 22:7-71
Our re-reading of Saint Luke’s account of Holy Week began with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and this evening reaches the Last Supper and the arrest of Jesus. On Sunday we looked at Jesus standing in a Scriptural tradition as he rode into the city; this was a piece of prophetic action in continuity with the prophets of the Old Testament. On Monday, the focus was upon the political conflicts with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Last night, the emphasis was much more theological, reflection on the downfall of Jerusalem and the end of time.
Tonight, I thought we would look at the reading from a liturgical perspective—what is it that goes on in the Upper Room? What lessons are there to learn about worship?
“Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed”, says Luke. The two are actually separate festivals: the Passover celebrated the exodus from Israel; the feast of unleavened bread commemorated the journey after the escape
As we saw with the entry into Jerusalem, Jesus seems to have made careful plans for the occasion. Someone is to meet Peter and John as they go into the city, “a man carrying a jar of water”. Carrying water was women’s work in the culture of the time; even amongst the huge crowds gathered for Passover, the man would be easy to spot. A room has been arranged for the celebration of the Passover meal; if it had not, it would have been almost impossible to come by for accommodation was at a premium during the festival.
“So they prepared the Passover”. It’s a telling line. Two of the leaders of Jesus’ group are sent to perform the task. Practical preparations, paying attention to ensuring that everything is in order, are considered important. This is not something to be done in a casual or a careless manner.
If Jesus expects rigorous preparation for the meal, a meal that is to be both a celebration but also an act of worship, does he not expect a similar degree of attentiveness in our own preparation for worship? The Upper Room is prepared with careful attention; a model for our own careful attention in ensuring our church is always a place where everything is done with care; where everything is done in the knowledge that we are doing this for the Lord himself. If we are careless, if things are not as they might be, what does it say about our regard for God? Note also, that it is those who will be leaders of the church who are charged with ensuring that everything is properly prepared—a lesson perhaps to clergy and bishops, that in Jesus’ ministry the leaders were expected to take their turn with the practical tasks.
“When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table”. As intriguing as our paintings of the Last Supper have been down through the years; they have been wrong. There was no sitting at a long table like models for a Leonardo da Vinci painting. They ‘reclined’, they sat or stretched out on the floor; the table in the middle of them. They were gathered around the table—it is fitting when we remember the Lord’s Supper that we are gathered around the table.
Jesus says to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” His words have been interpreted in lots of different ways, some people seeing the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the fulfilment of what he I saying. But he seems to suggest much more than the breaking of the bread. The fulfilment of the Passover is the deliverance of the Lord’s people from their captivity in Egypt; the fulfilment of the Passover for Christians is presumably a similar deliverance, but not from captivity in a place, but from captivity to death at the end of time. Each time we break the bread and share the cup we look forward to the fulfilment of the Passover; we look forward to the heavenly banquet that Jesus will share with us.
Were we to be asked in what order the bread and wine were shared, we would answer that the bread was broken and given to the disciples and the cup was passed around, but when we read Luke’s account, it is different. This is how Luke describes it,
“After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”.
There were four cups at the Passover meal, Luke seems to be describing the second and the third of them. The second cup recalled the plagues sent down upon Egypt; then the meal was eaten and then the third cup, the cup of blessing or redemption was shared. Jesus is explicitly identifying his own death with God setting free his people.
Because we are from a different time and culture and because our breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup are cut off from their original context; we lose the power and the drama of Jesus’ words. We have a line in the Holy Communion service, ‘Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us: Therefore let us celebrate the feast”. It is a line which is said generally without great feeling because it doesn’t capture for us a sense of all that the Passover meant; it does not speak to us of freedom and deliverance and of God intervening directly in our lives. When we gather for Holy Communion we should try to do so with a sense of the profound significance of what Jesus is saying.
Worship in itself, however, is only a form of words unless it leads to a life of service. Even at this late stage, the disciples are still fighting among themselves. Jesus’ warning about betrayal seems to sow the seeds of discord, “Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.”
Jesus talks about the people of power in his own time, and, being honest, things look very similar in our own time, both in society and in the church. “But I am among you as one who serves”, says Jesus. What does this say to us? What does it say about the sort of church we should be?
When the Passover meal was over, they left the Upper Room and went out to the Mount of Olives. It is a full moon; with clear skies the place would have been well lit, and this was not an unusual thing for him to do, “Jesus went out as usual”, says Luke. The purpose of doing so is to find a place and an opportunity for prayer. Jesus tells his disciples, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” Then “he withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed.”
If there was ever a lesson about our faith touching every part of our lives, then this surely is it. Jesus is in immediate physical danger, there are very many things that he might have considered doing, but he prays. How often does our faith reach to the further corner of our lives? How often is God welcome in every moment that we live? Worship for Jesus is not just something that happens at the synagogue or the Temple, it is not just something that happens at the Sabbath or festival times, it is something that should shape the living of every moment.
The word ‘liturgy’, the word we use to describe our worship, comes from ‘leitourgia’, the Greek word for public duty or service. Jesus shows that the whole of our lives should be a service to God; if we do not serve God from Monday to Friday, then how can we serve him on Sunday? Worship and service are interwoven in the life and the person of Jesus; may our worship be always an expression of our service to him.
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