April 9, 2020
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|Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14||Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19||1 Corinthians 11:23-26||John 13:1-17, 31b-35|
by Martha Rowlett
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
God is active in our human history. The way God acts can be described as salvation.
This is our faith. We come together to celebrate it. Our faith is not new. We have shared it with our Jewish ancestors. It was the faith of the patriarchs who lived nearly 3000 years ago and has been the faith of the Judeo-Christian community since.
We celebrate this faith now by coming together to share a simple meal. This service of celebration is also ancient. The Lord’s Supper which we observe, is itself 2000 years old, having been instituted by Jesus and his disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem on the night when he ate his last meal with them before the crucifixion. We can’t begin to recall all the times and places in which this simple meal has been shared by people in those 20 centuries of time. If we had time we could share a rich and moving story of our experience with this meal at summer camps and conferences, in hospital rooms, with friends or strangers in large churches, in small churches with old friends with family. Let your mind move back across history. Visualize many circuit riders, monks in chilly monasteries, large crowds in cathedrals, little groups in the Roman catacombs.
The Lord’s supper is amazingly old. But when you consider that it is rooted in the Hebrew meal that also celebrated God’s saving acts in history that traces its origin back to another event that occurred in the 13th century BCE, the age of the celebration becomes even more impressive. The history of the celebration stretches over 3000 years!
The supper that Jesus shared with his disciples is identified in the Gospels as the Passover meal or Seder. Once a year across the centuries, Jewish families have gathered around the table for the Passover meal. They eat special food, praise God, retell the story of wonderful acts on their behalf, and thank God for the gift of salvation.
But the Passover meal is not simply a look at the past. As still celebrated, it is also an affirmation of faith that we live in a world ruled by a saving, liberating God who continues to come to people in their need. As Jesus ate this meal with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion, he made it clear to them that they did not need to look back a thousand years to see God acting in history to save his people. A new saving act was happening right in their midst.
During the supper, Jesus gave the bread and cup. New proof of God’s love was about to be shown to them. The disciples, as they partook of this bread and cup, initiated the new meal celebration of faith in a loving and merciful God. But the new celebration centered around no longer the Exodus, but the new revelation of that saving nature as revealed in Jesus Christ.
The faith is old. The celebration is old. But that is not the whole story. For the Lord’s Supper is also something new. When Jesus instituted this meal, he instructed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” People can participate and find it totally meaningless. But it can also be a time of special remembering of Jesus, of reviewing our awareness of his presence, his life, his message. It can be a time of renewed awareness of his present activity in our own personal histories and in our social history.
For it is central to Christian faith that God in Jesus Christ made the clearest revelation of himself, his will, his way of working. And this message was not restricted for the disciples in the Jerusalem upper room. Rather, his message, and his risen presence were promised for his disciples in all generations and in all circumstances. And this includes us here and now.
Recently, at the conclusion of a Bible study series, the adults in the class wrote personal statements about what Jesus meant to them in the midst of their personal histories. We shared them, and one thing that struck me about these statements was the variety of the descriptions. God’s saving work through Christ in their lives had brought a sense of wonder and mystery, support in need, a sense of personal meaning, revived hope, guidance in life orientation and decision-making, a sense of personal worth.
This is the way God works. He is present with us, enriching joyous moments, lightening our load with a sense of his caring in times of sadness or discouragement, confronting us with our guilt in the midst of destructive or negligent behavior, giving us courage and strength to resist entanglement in modern forms of enslavement, offering meaning and orientation for life when we feel lost.
Each time we come to the Lord’s supper, we can open ourselves to the presence of the crucified and risen Christ, the agent of God’s saving work in the midst of our ever changing, ever new history where we are in our lives that day.
The something old has the power to bring into our lives the something new. As part of a community of faith in God’s saving action in the world that stretches across many centuries let us now remember God’s gracious presence in the midst of our current history that his salvation may come to us.
Dr. Martha Rowlett is a minister in the United Methodist Church, and author of four books on prayer. She earned her Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology in 1981 and did her doctoral project on “Process Theology of Prayer” with John Cobb. Her book, Weaving Prayer Into the Tapestry of Life, provides an overview of the understanding and practice of prayer, offering an invitation to the reader to move from thinking to doing. A French translation of this book is currently in production by a French publisher. Now Senior Pastor Emeritus at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church in Rolling Hills Estates (CA), Martha has served churches in Virginia, California and Washington state, and on the Conference staffs of both of the California annual conferences. Originally from Virginia, she has lived most of her adult life in California and Washington and currently enjoys mountain living in Asheville, North Carolina.