I've always known, at least in the back of my mind) that the Last Supper was a Passover meal—a seder. And I always felt that if I would take the time to understand the Passover better I would understand Communion better too. But I never got around to studying their relationship until just this year. As is often true, my wife provided the special motivation that got me going. She had read an article in Guideposts describing a group of Christians in Bowling Green, Illinois, who participated in a "Christian seder" at Easter. Fascinated by the insights that experience brought, she urged me to do something similar for our annual candlelight communion service.
I was interested in giving the usual communion service greater meaning and lifting it above the mechanical ceremony it can so easily become. A comparison of the Christian communion with its Passover roots, we decided, would do this naturally and ideally. It wasn't our purpose to replace the traditional, but to add significance to it through a special service.
We made it a family event—after all, the Passover was celebrated by families in their homes. With everyone seated around tables, each group became a "family." Each selected its own "mother" who began the service by lighting the candles. Each group had a "father" too, to break and distribute the bread. (The head deaconess had made the unleavened bread in large, round pieces, about three inches in diameter, perforated down the middle for easy breaking.)
I have also used this special service in a regular church communion setting and find it has just as much meaning to the participants, although the close family feeling is lost. Perhaps the best way to communicate the atmosphere of this service is simply to let you eavesdrop on our congregation as we experience a "new slant" (actually an old one) to the traditional communion service.
Most of us have realized for years that the communion service as first instituted by Christ found its roots in the Jewish Passover service. But if you are like me, you know little of what the Passover really was. I hope that tonight you may gain some insights that will make the communion service more meaningful to you.
You are all seated at tables. We won't even use the sanctuary tonight, because the Passover was never celebrated in a synagogue. In Jesus' day the whole family, from the oldest to the youngest, gathered around the dinner table and joined in the celebration. After all, the feast originated when all Israel—old and young alike—left Egypt. It has been celebrated for thousands of years as a remembrance of that deliverance.
Jesus passed it on to spiritual Israel as a memorial of the great sacrifice He made to free us from sin. "For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (1 Cor. 5:7). This phrase had deeper significance to Jews in Paul's day than it does to us. Every year they had seen a lamb sacrificed and the blood—redeeming blood painted on the lintel and door post. They must have been thrilled to suddenly see the full significance of what they had done for so many years the full significance of Jesus' blood shed to redeem them from their sins.
Redemption was the theme of the Passover. And it is the theme of Communion too. I'll be sharing more of the Passover service with you later, but right now I'd like to give you a chance to participate in our service. For the Pass over meant participation. It allowed no "bumps on logs"! The whole family joined in!
The service began with praise to God, and I'd like you to share with me now in one of the psalms that is still used in all Passover celebrations. I hope each of you brought a Bible. If not, we have a supply. Turn to Psalm 116. Psalms 115-118 are the psalms of praise used at the Passover. We will read antiphonally (responsively). I'll read the odd-numbered verses, you read the even-numbered ones.
Read the Responsive Reading: Psalm 116.*
Redemption! The psalmist here recalls how God redeemed him from destruction, and he offers his praise. Do you remember what it meant to you when you first believed on Jesus as your personal Passover Lamb who died to save your life? Oh, it is good to remember what Jesus really meant to you at that time! Does He still mean the same to you today?
Following the kaddish (time of praise and sanctification) at the Passover, where Jesus and the disciples reclined around the table, was the rehaz ritual cleansing or purification. This may have been where the snag developed in that Last Supper. Rehaz had to do with cleansing the hands—but the disciples' feet were still dirty. The very preliminary step of cleansing had been overlooked.
They were reclining around a table with their feet outward. The Mishnah—rabbinic laws—stated that even the poorest man in Israel must recline to partake of the Passover meal. This practice developed because free men customarily reclined at a meal while the servants served them. At Passover, memorializing redemption from slavery, no Jew was to act as a slave. The Passover commemorated their freedom!
But no servant had been provided to tend to the disciples' needs. What could they do?
Against this background Jesus demonstrated that true freedom consists in freedom from selfishness and pride. He humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant, and washed the disciples' feet. John 13:13-17: "Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them."
As we prepare to partake of Communion it is our privilege to enter into this same type of freedom from pride—to humbly serve our brother or our sister in the role of servant.
Celebrate the Ordinance of Foot Washing*
The Passover meal, as celebrated in Jesus' time, included several "courses." The Gospel accounts of the Last Supper focus particularly on the latter portion of the meal, beginning with Jesus' revelation of His terrible secret (Matt. 26:20- 25). Earlier portions.of the meal must have brought vividly to His mind the bitterness of what He was about to experience during the hours that fol lowed, culminating in His death.
Every Passover meal includes bitter herbs—parsley and horseradish or water cress. Now, I don't know about you, but parsley is not one of my favorite foods. I've been told it's a good source of vitamins and minerals, but I still don't like the flavor.
These bitter herbs served to remind God's people of the bitterness of their bondage before He delivered them. Let us also recall the depths from which God has redeemed us and resolve never to return to their bitterness.
You'll notice that at each table we have a basket with three circular pieces of unleavened bread. These resemble what is used at a Passover meal.
At the Passover, or seder, after the father dips the parsley in salt water, he takes one of the three pieces of unleavened bread, breaks it, and then hides half of it somewhere on the table. Later the children search for it, and the one who finds it receives a special reward. I'll say more about the significance of this act in a. moment, but first a question: Why unleavened bread?
The Passover came at the beginning of the year—actually in the spring. And along with redemption, it symbolized a time for starting life anew. The old leaven, which was sourdough, not yeast, symbolized the old life. It must be completely excluded from the new life. Therefore, in preparing for the Passover, every Jewish householder searches the premises, purging out all the old leaven. Every metal pot that has come in contact with the old leaven must be held over the fire until it glows, and earthen pots must also be specially cleansed. The new year has no room for the old life. So the Passover served as a kind of mini-baptism, or rebirth. As we come to Communion and to a new year, may it be with a genuine, heartfelt resolve to leave the old behind and become, once again, new creatures in Christ Jesus!
At the Passover the father hides half of the piece of broken bread. It symbolizes the hidden Messiah whom all Israel hopes to see revealed.
But Jesus changed this. Notice that when He broke the bread He did not hide it, but distributed it! What significance this must have had to the disciples! In this act Jesus portrayed the fact that the Messiah was no longer hidden! He had been revealed, and those at the table with Him had had the privilege of partaking of Him.
In the Jewish festival the bread was eaten together with bitter herbs, but Jesus has taken the bitterness for us, that we might enjoy the sweetness of new life in Him. And so tonight we have the privilege of partaking of new, fresh bread unpolluted by old life. Let it be with full realization of its meaning. Jesus wants to generate new life in us every day of our lives.
Recite the Prayer for the Bread*
Before we partake of the bread, take the sheet of paper at your place, and recite the first brief reading with me:
We partake of this bread—
The broken body of our Lord—
In remembrance of our bondage,
And our freedom.
Congregation Partake of the Bread*
During the Passover, a total of four glasses of unfermented wine were consumed—just as the bread was untainted by fermentation, so was the wine. The four glasses of wine represented the four expressions of redemption in Exodus 6:6, 7. Let us read this passage together now. (Read Ex. 6:6, 7.)
But in addition to the four glasses, another glass of wine was always poured, but not drunk. It was for Elijah; and according to the custom, the father, when he poured this cup, would arise from the table and open the door of the house to invite Elijah to come in and partake of it—in hope that the prophet who was to appear as the forerunner of the Messiah would make his presence known.
As the Last Supper drew to a close Jesus "took the cup"—very likely the Elijah cup—and as with the bread, distributed it. In so doing, He showed that this was to be the last Passover meal. Its symbolism had been fulfilled. Elijah's mission had been fulfilled in John the Baptist. And the Messiah had come to them.
But another deep meaning is here too. The wine symbolizes Jesus' life in us, giving us power to live as He lived, and to prepare a people ready to meet their God. To the disciples, drinking Elijah's cup also symbolized that Elijah's mantle had fallen upon them. Now they must go and proclaim the coming of the Lord.
Has the wine lost its significance for us, who, as latter-day Elijahs, proclaim His glorious second advent?
Recite the Prayer for the Wine*
Now, before we take the wine, take the sheet and recite with me again:
We take this cup, Lord,
Remembering that it is Your blood;
Resolving to let Your life
Live in us.
That we may walk worthy
Of Elijah's mantle
And Your life.
Congregation Partake of the Wine*
The Last Supper ended with a hymn—no doubt one of the psalms used at the close of Passovers for thousands of years. Let us read together the shortest psalm, Psalm 117, and then we will be dismissed by prayer. Read Psalm 117 and Have the Closing Prayer*