Sunday, October 18, 2009

First Communion

Right now, my couples group is meeting. We're discussing communion together, and we'll be sharing communion as well in a few moments. (Ah the power of pre-written and scheduled posts!)

I've been thinking about the issues that I wanted to be sure our group touched on while we were talking about communion. I'm still debating exactly how to approach everything that I want to be sure we'll cover, but I have a general guideline. And some of it is going to require me talking for a while, in addition to the open discussion....I'm ok with this.

So, the rest of this post is going to contain my 'moderately prepared in advance' information on communion. ;-)

This'll be long. Go grab something to eat.


I think that one of the best ways to try to find out what communion should mean for us today, is to look to what it meant to people yesterday...well...lots of yesterdays ago. Before we cloaked it in mysticism, or with some of us, cynicism. And the place to do that is in the setting it was originally done, with Jesus and his disciples.

All four of the gospels talk about that night. And they each bring different perspectives and information to the table. We're told that Jesus sent two of his disciples (John & Peter) to go ahead of him into Jerusalem and make preparations for the Passover Seder meal. To say that Passover was 'a big deal' to Jews would be an understatement. Passover was huge.

Seder was a longstanding ritual meal of remembrance and thanksgiving. Seder is representative of when God rescued his people from Egypt and brought them into the promised land. It was a time to focus on the former slavery of the Jews in Egypt, and their redemption by the hand of God who gave them their freedom. Slavery. Freedom. Important themes. Remember those.

The actual Seder meal itself was not so much a meal as it was a religious service. There were specific things to be said, different roles to be had for different people who attended, it was an active service and everyone had at least some part -- whether that was reciting some specific words, singing a song, or eating the food at certain times in remembrance. So, preparations for this were very important, and very thorough.

A time later, after John/Peter were sent to make preparations, Jesus takes the rest of the disciples and goes to meet with John/Peter in a 'large upper room' of someone's house.

As I said, the Seder meal was very specific. There is pretty much a script of things to say and do during the Seder meal/service. And there is someone there who is 'in charge' of everything. In a situation where you'd have a Rabbi dining with his disciples (as is the case here) the Rabbi would be in charge. He would be at the head (or middle) of the table, have a specific ceremonial garment on (usually a white robe) and he would talk and guide people through the service.

Keep in mind, the Passover Seder happens every year, Jesus has most likely had this meal with his disciples before, as he was in his 3rd year of his ministry. They know the routine, they know the specific eccentricities that Jesus brings to the service....if any. And his disciples have been doing the Passover service every year for their whole lives. They're experts. And they're going to notice when something deviates from the script...

Taking variations into account, the Seder meal has 15 specific aspects to it, including these:

  • Drink 1st cup of wine
  • Wash hands/begin to serve the food, eat some food, all with heavy symbolic meaning
  • Breaking a large piece of matzo into two smaller parts, 1 to eat now, 1 to eat later in the service 
  • Retelling of the Passover story, including the "four questions" and a 2nd cup of wine
  • Eating more symbolic food
  • Eating the 2nd piece of matzo
  • Post meal blessing and 3rd cup of wine
  • Singing hymns/psalms and 4th cup of wine

Jews like wine. Seriously.

Looking through the gospel's versions of 'The Last Supper' we can see parallels to the Seder meal based upon specific things that Jesus says, or actions that he does. We can also make educated assumptions about where in the progression of the Seder meal Jesus alters the 'standard script.'

So we have Jesus and his disciples in a large room in some guy's house. Getting ready to do the Seder service. Jesus, as the Rabbi, has most likely changed into a ceremonial robe/garment of some type. And we're ready to start the service by drinking some wine! (The way every service should start, by the way)

Luke tells us that Jesus did indeed start the service by giving wine to his disciples, and stating how glad he was to share this Passover with them. And that he won't be drinking wine again until the kingdom of God comes.

If I were a disciple, this is where I'd be taking a time-out. This is not normal. This is not what you're supposed to say. This isn't in the script. What do you mean you won't be drinking wine again until the kingdom of God comes? You drink wine all the time! You even made like 100 liters of the stuff for some party we were at. So you're not going to be drinking wine again? Oh wait, I get it. You won't be drinking it again until the kingdom of God that means it's coming real soon? Yeah, I understand, we're about to go for it, we're going to have our revolution, we're going to make you king! (Remember, Jesus' disciples still were insistent that he was going to be a militaristic Messiah and take over by force.)

So, this is how the Seder is opened. With Jesus' disciples thinking that he's going to be made king by force. Next should be the ceremonial hand washing. And we get information from John of what happened next. John tells us that the Seder meal was now being served, and that Jesus got up from the table, removed his garment (again, probably that Rabbinic/priestly ceremonial white robe), put a towel around his waist, and began to wash his disciples feet.

Talk about not being in the script! It's time for hand washing, not feet washing. By doing this he gives them the message that he is to be a servant, not a king by force. More than a servant, the servant in a house who washed people's feet was more what we would think of as a slave instead of hired hand, they were very low on the totem. Slavery, it's a Passover theme.

After the foot washing, we get to the part where the Rabbi is supposed to break the matzo. And we are told that Jesus takes the bread (matzo = unleavened a huge cracker) and breaks it. And instead of the scripted liturgy, Jesus says something to the effect of, "This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

Now things are really getting weird. His disciples know what should have been said, and this isn't it. Moreover, the Seder is in remembrance of what God did for his people. And now Jesus is making it about remembering what he did for his disciples. This is a blatant claim of divinity, and this is game changing.

We're now to the part of the Seder known as the '4 questions,' and also the 2nd cup of wine. Yay, wine! This is where the children of the household will ask the same scripted questions to the Rabbi, and he answers them back with scripted answers. These questions are important. Jewish tradition has it that even if a man is celebrating the Seder by himself, he is to ask the questions and respond just like normal. So these are serious business.

The questions are missing from the Seder meal in the gospels....kinda. The question that starts the traditional Seder meal is the most important, "Why is this night unlike other nights?" It's meant to be asked so that the elder can transmit the story of what God did for the Jews through each subsequent generation. So that the story won't be lost. So that they'll always remember what makes this night special, and what God has done. That God has freed them.

We get the question from Peter, "Lord, where are you going? Why can't I follow you now?" Jesus has told them that where he is going, they cannot follow. This time it is different. Peter is in disbelief. What do you mean this is different? We always follow you. Where are you going? Why can I follow you before, but now I cannot? Echoing the traditional, 'Why is this night unlike other nights?' Why can't I follow you now?

We don't get the exact Seder questions in the Biblical text....but we do get questions. In the gospel of John, Jesus is asked several questions by his disciples about the information he has given them. It actually mirrors the rhythm of the Seder question/answer period. See, the point of the Seder question isn't the question, the point is the answer. The questions are quick, the answers are long. Just like the rhythm we get in John. Jesus is asked, Jesus replies, Jesus is asked, Jesus replies, etc. The questions are short, Jesus' replies are long. The script is gone, the questions are different, the answers have changed, but the pattern and the tradition/format still remain.

Skipping ahead, we've eaten the meal. Gone through most of the ceremony, but Jesus has thrown some serious curve-balls...and he's not done. Now we're up to the 3rd cup of wine, the first post dinner drink. Luke tells us that after supper, Jesus took the cup saying "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you and for many."  Now that's a curve ball.

What new covenant? We're celebrating an old covenant, not replacing it with another. But Jesus decided to take this third cup, and proclaim a new covenant from it. Important, each cup was symbolic. There were four cups of wine because each cup was an expression of God's deliverance of the Jews from Egypt. The cups were:
  • I will bring out
  • I will deliver
  • I will redeem
  • I will take
Jesus, instead of reciting the traditional ceremonial words that would accompany the third cup, the cup of redemption, he has instituted a new covenant. One that will truly allow for redemption (the forgiveness of sins) that does not require sacrifices year after year, that is final.

This is what we take away from that Seder meal. The significance of these changes to the disciples at that meal were monumental. The Seder is just saturated with tradition and religious reverence. It is the very identity of the Jewish people. They were the former slaves. They are the ones who are now freed. They are God's chosen people. Now Jesus is saying that there is something new. This Seder has become different from all others. This night is different. It is no longer about remembering what God has done for the specific group of people (the Jews) but what Jesus is doing for 'the many,' what he is doing for all people. It is the new sacrifice that will give everyone redemption. It is Jesus taking the form of a slave for those he loves. And taking the punishment for sin onto himself for all everyone.

That is what we remember with communion. It's not about the mystical, or the superstitious. It's not about what the specific elements are, or what they do. We are instructed to remember what Jesus has done for us. We are to do these things to remember him. Jesus tied it to a tradition that has lasted thousands of years, so that we won't forget. So that we won't forget that our forgiveness was bought with a price. That there was a sacrifice.

That we remember that we too were slaves. Not to the Egyptians, but slaves to sin in our lives, and because of Jesus, we do not have to be! That he does offer us freedom from ourselves and the sin that destroys us. That we remember the sacrifice and moreover we proclaim Jesus' triumph over sin in our lives through this act. It is both looking back at what he has done, and looking forward to what he will do.

Looking forward to what he will do in our lives as we grow in being closer to him and holiness, and what he will do in the whole world when he returns.