‘I am among you as one who serves’. Luke 22:27
Sometimes people will talk about coming from churches which are ‘non-liturgical’, churches where no formal liturgy is followed, but a church without liturgy would not be a church at all. Whether we follow the printed words of a prayer book or we attend worship where there is spontaneous prayer and singing, we take part in liturgy for the word ‘liturgy’ comes from ‘leitourgia’, the Greek word for public duty or service.
In Protestant traditions we tend to call our gatherings for worship services because that is what they are intended to be; leitourgia, services to God.
In the New Testament, leitourgia is used to describe serving God through worship in Saint Luke Chapter 1 Verse 23, where Luke writes of Zechariah, ‘When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home’. It is also used to describe serving God through serving others, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 9 Verse 12, Paul writes, ‘For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God’.
Whether the tradition from which we come is formally liturgical in the sense of using a prayer book or is informally liturgical, in the sense that our worship is less structured and more spontaneous but is still our service to God, the Gospel account of the Last Supper has much to say about our worship, about our service about our leitourgia.
If we look at Saint Luke’s account of the Last Supper— we can ask what is it that goes on in the Upper Room and what lessons are there to learn about liturgy?
‘Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed’, says Chapter 22 Verse 7. The two are actually separate festivals: the Passover celebrated the exodus from Israel; the feast of unleavened bread commemorated the journey after the escape and Jesus seems to have made careful plans for the occasion.
Verse 8 tells us that ‘a man carrying a jar of water’ will meet Peter and John as they go into the city. 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 went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal’, verse 13 narrates. It’s a telling line. Peter and John, the two 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.
In verse 14, we read, ‘When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him’. 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 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.
Then Jesus says to them in verses 15-16, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled 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 is 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. In our liturgy, in our service to God, do we look forward to the day when we sit with the Lord in heaven?
We are so familiar with the Holy Communion service that 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 Saint Luke Chapter 22 Verses 17-20 describe it,
‘Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’
Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’
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; our liturgy can 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, the liturgy should become our liturgy, the service to God should become our service to God.
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. ‘A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest’, we are told in verse 24.
Jesus talks to them about the people of power and draws a contrast with himself in verse 27, ‘But I am among you as one who serves’. What does this say to us? What does it say about the sort of church we should be? Are we people who serve?
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, ‘He came out and went, as was his custom’, says verse 39. The purpose of doing so is to find a place and an opportunity for prayer. In verse 40 Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ then, in verse 41, ‘he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, 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.
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. May we be people whose liturgy happens outside the church as well as within.