13 April 2017
A small group of people are gathered in an upstairs room in a modest house on the Western Hill of Jerusalem. It is Passover time in Jerusalem and the Holy City is full of pilgrims.
In the local imperial calendar it was the sixteenth year of Emperor Augustus.
Writing about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he was baptised by John around a year earlier, Luke offers us a set of overlapping chronologies that help us determine the date for both the commencement and the end of Jesus‘ mission:
… when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was ruler of Galilee,
and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas … [Luke 3:1–2]
In the Jewish calendar this meal was late on the fourteenth day of Nisan—already Nisan 15 in Jewish ritual since the new day begins at sunset—in the year 3,790 from creation.
In our terms, it was April 6 in the year of our Lord 30 (or, as we say these days, year 30 in the Common Era).
The small group gathered in this borrowed room are also pilgrims visiting the Holy City for Passover.
They are from the Galilee and have made the 100km walk over several days.
Who was in the room?
Well, we have Jesus and 12 male disciples. But there were others in the group around Jesus, including men not counted among the Twelve, as well as several women. The most notable of the women was Mary Magdalene, along with Mary the mother of Jesus. They were hardly going to be left out of the event!
The Gospel writers focus on the men, as have the church artists over the years. But there is no reason to think the meal was limited to just the 13 males. Everything we know about Jesus suggests that the group would have been more diverse than that.
These are Jews gathered to observe Passover, their most important religious ritual.
Passover celebrates liberation and hope.
Salvation in the distant past.
Salvation here and now.
Salvation in the distant future.
Jesus has come to Jerusalem with his closest followers. They have gathered in this upper room. They are keeping the ancient rituals, and creating some new ones.
On this night
Almost 2000 years later we gather to remember and repeat that ancient ritual meal.
On this night, we give thanks for the institution of the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Supper of the Lord. In this Eucharist—as in every Eucharist—we gather at the Table of the Lord, and we believe that Jesus is amongst us.
This week our liturgical colour has been red for the passion of Christ, but tonight we have white vestments as we celebrate the origins of our Eucharistic rituals.
The roots of our ritual reach deep back into Jewish tradition. All the way back to that first Passover when God liberated the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. We are not Jews, but Jesus was, so their God is our God. They blessed bread and wine to invoke God’s favour, and we do the same.
But for us the bread and wine become the real presence of Christ among us, the one in whom God comes among us to answer our prayers and set us free.
Jesus is not only to be found in the bread and wine.
He is also to be found in the person beside us, in homeless, in the refugees, in the flood victims, in the sad, and in the happy.
The stranger we welcome is Christ in our midst.
The person whose foot we wash is Christ in our midst.
The person we ignore is Christ in our midst.
The face we see in the mirror is Christ in our midst.
Conscious of Christ in our midst …
- we hear again the new commandment:
love one another as I have loved you
- we participate in the ceremony of foot washing:
brother/sister, let me serve you
- we reflect on the betrayal and arrest of Jesus:
those who live by the sword, die by the sword
- we recall the flight of fearful disciples:
before the cock crows you will deny me three times
Eucharist as pattern for holy living
Before we move to the more solemn aspects of this evening, let’s reflect on some ways in which the Eucharist offers a pattern for faithful living.
The Eucharist is our primary ritual as Christians. It defines us and sustains us.
As we have already noted, its roots go deep back into the Jewish scriptures. But Eucharist also grows out of the daily experience of Jesus and his disciples as they share informal meals by the side of the road.
A Eucharist can be grand or simple, but it is a ritual for a pilgrim people. It is the ultimate portable ritual that requires no special holy place, because any place is holy when we break the bread together.
Whether a High Mass in the Cathedral or a simple celebration in a nursing home, there is a pattern to the Eucharist that reflects, informs, and strengthens the pattern of our own lives.
We do not have time to tease all these elements out, but notice how our order of service reflects the shape of our life as disciples:
- Gathering as people called together by God
- Reconciliation and forgiveness
- Listening for the word of the Lord
- Affirming our faith within the life of the church
- Prayers for others and for ourselves
- Offering our gifts, ourselves, our all
- Giving thanks for God’s blessings
- Feeding on Christ, the source of our life
- Sent out on mission
May the pattern of our ritual tonight also be the pattern of living, day by day.