Actions speak louder than words. It’s something we say, and it’s also something we’ve experienced… when someone’s words just sort of float over us, and we go somewhere else in our imagination.
But tonight, worship is centered around action. If you have ever had the opportunity to join with Jewish neighbors in a Passover Seder, you have tasted this. Each action has a meaning. Each food we eat has a memory. The matzah (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs) and charoset (an apple chutney paste reminding us of the mud used to make bricks)… each one tells a part of the shared story of moving from slavery to freedom. We learn—through the questions we ask and the songs we sing. So, in keeping with the Passover roots of this night, as Jesus shared supper with disciples, this is a night when we tell the story mostly through action.
We practice confession and forgiveness—the words, yes, but also a time to come forward and kneel and have someone’s hands rest gently on us and someone’s voice speak “You are forgiven.” The weight is lifted. And then, like Jesus did for disciples, we wash each other’s feet… or hands… taking time to pour water over and dry with a towel, so we can feel the blessing of someone else ministering to us. And in giving and receiving in that tender way, we are startled by the way it meets a need we didn’t even know we had.
And then, we share a meal—not so different than the meal some of us shared downstairs, where everyone can come and get a little something to eat. This communion meal is ordinary in a way—we share it every Sunday. But in another way, this meal is different because Jesus says to disciples (and to us) that somehow, God is present in this bread and cup in ways that change us. Now, we can never look at bread again in the same way, ever since Jesus pointed out that God is present in the bread. Now, we can never look at the cup in the same way, since Jesus said “I will never drink it again until I drink it with you.”
Jesus is present here and not only says, “This is my body, this is my blood,” but says “You are my body.” And with that action mixed with these words, we see Jesus differently. We see ourselves differently. We see others differently.
Finally, there is the action of stripping the altar. In one way, it’s a reminder of all that is horrifying about this story. On this night, Jesus was betrayed by some of those who loved him best. They ate supper together and then they went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray… but only Jesus could stay awake to pour out his heart to God. His closest friends were so weary that they fell asleep at the moment when Jesus really needed them. They weren’t able to pay attention, but we are trained now to be alert. Sometimes we are. We watch carefully this night and think about Gethsemanes behind us and ahead.
And later, disciples were so afraid that they resorted to violence and then, they scattered in terror… denying they even knew Jesus. Tonight, the story goes… Jesus was arrested, had an unfair trial, and was beaten. Tonight, he waited for the morning when his sentence—public execution—would be carried out over many hours. That is the story of Jesus being stripped of his clothes, his followers, his friends, and his dignity… but that is not all of the story.
Another part of the story, another reason why we move through this action on this night is because of the way that in this part of the action, all distractions are stripped away. Martin Luther had a word for all that might distract us from the main action of God and it is adiaphora.
We don’t look to the cross because it is gory, because it’s horrifying. We look to Jesus on the cross because it’s there that all the adiaphora (all the unimportant things) are cleared away and we know more deeply what is most essential in death and in life.
All the beautiful things in our lives and spaces can also become too important, all the treasures that we use to adorn our worship space. We remove everything, everything becomes simple, stripped down, to help us look only to Jesus’ body—to watch, to witness, to accompany him all the way to the cross, and somehow in that mystery, to learn how to become the body that Jesus says we already are.
And so for tonight, along with our actions, words of blessing from Jan Richardson.
Blessing the Bread, the Cup
Let us bless the bread, that gives itself to us, with its terrible weight, its infinite grace.
Let us bless the cup, poured out for us, with a love, that makes us anew.
Let us gather, around these gifts, simply given, and deeply blessed.
And then let us go, bearing the bread, carrying the cup, laying the table, within a hungering world.
Blessing for Staying Awake
Even in slumber
even in dreaming
even in sorrow
even in pain:
awake my soul
to the One
who keeps vigil
at all times for you.