I want to start off today by dipping our hands in this bowl of water. Not a special bowl, one from home. Not special water, pour it from the faucet. There is no magic powers held or conveyed by dipping your hands in water or by putting it on someone else. But how does it feel?
There is something cleansing, refreshing,rejuvenating about dipping into cool clean water. There’s just about no better feeling in the world that diving into a cool pool of clean water on a hot summers day. I sort of wonder if being made up of 75% water makes some part of us call out to the water…or resonate somehow. It’s just water, and yet it is so essential to who we are and to our survival. It’s no wonder it would have been incorporated into ancient ritual. Water means life.
For Jews the ceremony of tevilah was a ritual cleansing before one would go to God in the temple. It was a way of marking the occasion that one would cleanse his or herself. It was also an external symbol of an internal desire of being cleansed that harkened back to the creation where the spirit of God hovered over the waters, to the parting of the red sea as the Hebrews escaped slavery (more on that in a moment), to the well as the center of community life, and as a symbol of the scriptures as life giving just as water is life giving. After Tevilah a Jew is welcomed warmly by the community.
The Tevilah was transformed into baptism by John the Baptist, the prophet an itinerant Jewish preacher who was Jesus cousin, prophesied the coming of the Messiah, and eventually baptized Jesus. John saw this ritual as the central and most essential act of faith. You went into the waters of baptism plagued by the guilt of your sin, but came out cleansed, refreshed and forgiven. In this way, you were welcomed into the community. When John baptized Jesus, it marked the beginning of Jesus ministry and marked him as a unique servant and son of God.
In the same way, the Christian tradition has maintained this ritual as marking a believer’s entrance into the community of faith and the beginning of his or her ministry. Over the course of history it has been interpreted in different ways. The Baptist believe one needs to be able to profess one’s faith before baptism. The Catholics believe it needs to be done as early as possible to secure one’s place as a member in community of saints. The Presbyterian tradition baptizes, and I quote, “without undue haste and without undue waiting.” Meaning that age has little to do with it, and we don’t believe the performing of this ritual has eternal consequence. That said, rituals that mark beginning ones life in the community of faith, much like rituals that mark the end of life, or other important moments can be incredibly meaningful. I would argue that it is really less about the actions of the ritual, and more about a community committing to supporting, loving and caring for each other in good times and bad. And that kind of commitment ought to be marked with a special occasion and ritual.
Part of the problem we’ve come upon in modern day is the meaning and purpose has fallen out of many of our rituals. We end up left with this empty shell of actions that represent no greater meaning than family tradition, trying to make someone else happy, or superstition. May that never account for any of us participating in any sacrament. You now know better…no excuse! But my hope and my prayer as we solidify this community we are building together, is that you would want to mark your commitment to it with a ritual and celebration. But let me be clear…if you or your children have been baptized there is no need to do it again. It stuck the first time. We don’t have to re-up every time we wander, falter or doubt, praise God! You’d have to baptize me every week! But instead this is a claim of the community of saints, present and alive today and somehow in ways I don’t fully understand, those throughout history too, that God loves you and you are a part of this story.
To tell the communion story, we have to again start back at the roots of the Jewish narrative. All the way back to the defining moment in Jewish history known as the Exodus. We’ve told the story before of how the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, and freed by God under the leadership of Moses.
This story defines Jewish existence. Over and over again in the scriptures the Jewish people are warned to remember that they were once the slave, they were once the immigrant, and that memory should remind them of their gratitude and how to treat others. Over and over, perhaps not surprisingly, scripture records the Jewish people’s struggle to remember who they are and to act accordingly.
One of the ways the Jews mark important moments in their history and attempt to embody them is through various festivals throughout the year. The most important for our discussion today is the passover. The passover meal, or the seder, is comprised of the items in front of you that we will partake of today. Engaging multiple senses in the experience helps to solidify it and embody the experience, as well as create a lasting ritual to help future generations remember. Hence they’ve been doing this meal for thousands of years.
Let’s go through them together. First is karpas (celery and salt water). It is dipped into the salt water to remember the tears of the Hebrew people in their enslavement. It would be followed by the question “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Next is the charoset (chopped nuts, grated apples, cinnamon and sweet red wine). It’s meant to remind of the mortar used to stack bricks in the building of Egyptian pyramids.
These are the bitter herbs (celery leaves). The bitter herbs call to mind the harsh bitterness that is the reality of enslavement like the Hebrews experienced in Egypt.
This is the pesach (chicken wing) symbolizing the sacrifice in the temple. In ancient Hebrew custom, they would bring the first and best of their crop and/or flock to the temple in gratitude for their bounty.
This is the beitzah (hard boiled egg). It is a symbol of mourning as it is a traditional food offered to someone after losing a loved one. It is served as a reminder of the mourning in the destruction of the temple.
These are the three Matzah the middle one is broken and half of it is saved for later that it may be the last thing on the pallet. The top one is used for a blessing, and the final one is used for the Hillel Sandwich that would be comprised of the above. The unleavened bread harkens to the hurriedness with which the Hebrew people escaped from Egypt…without even time for their bread to rise.
There would also be four cups of wine, a royal drink, symbolizing and celebrating their freedom.
This is just a brief description, and each of these elements is rich in meaning and scriptural connotation too numerous to cover today. But what does this have to do with communion?
When Jesus made his final march into Jerusalem, a day commemorated by Palm Sunday, he was coming for the Passover, and the Last Supper was in fact a Passover Seder. This gives us the context to understand how rich in meaning this meal already was as these faithful Jews went through this visceral remembrance of their captivity and freedom.
It also connects the act of Jesus, the presiding rabbi at a table with his students or disciples, as he breaks the bread and blesses it. But this is where it gets interesting. Here, Jesus breaks from the ritual script and imbues new meaning.
We recount it in the serving of communion using these words from 1st Corinthians 11: “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it saying. This is my body broken for you. Take and eat. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way he took the cup after supper and said, this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood for the forgiveness of sins. As often as you drink it, do so in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.”
He takes these elements that recount ancient history, that help people remember and live into their heritage, and reinvigorates them with new meaning. Not taking away what they were and where they’ve come from, but announcing that God is doing something new among them. See they call back to all this history, the trials of their enslavement and the covenant God made with Israel upon their release, and then call forward into a new understanding, that deepened and purified a system that had become tainted and corrupted. Jesus is here acknowledging that the Jewish people were once again enslaved and in need of being freed. Not to the Egyptians this time, but to the Romans, the religious leaders, to their own devices of money, sex, wine, food, whatever. And his proclamation of their freedom will cost him his life.
So what does it mean now? Why do we still partake in this ritual meal?
To tell the story. Not just the Jesus story, but the story of the Jewish people from which Jesus came, the story of his life and what he lived for, and to engage all of our senses in a spiritual experience of taking part in a meal that is thousands of years old. You can almost feel the community of the millions of saints who have partaken in this meal over thousands of years. In some supernatural way, we aren’t just remembering, but we are joining into this story through this sacred meal. And it is still proclaiming our freedom, our connection, our history…