“23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
When I flew back and forth from Wisconsin recently, I was in a total of five airplanes, packed in with hundreds of others. We were isolated in a shared space but we were not communities because nothing happened among us or between us. When we landed we scattered, never to be together again. If, however, we had been hijacked or crashed, those who survived would have shared a story that was defining, in some sense, for the rest of our lives and of our lives.
The Scriptures were born out of the preaching, teaching, complex life and worship of the early Christian communities. Imagine hearing the gospels and the letters read in the early Christian communal worship gatherings where the context of hearing very often included baptisms and the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. How would these events have shaped their hearing? How would they have heard the feeding stories around the Sea of Galilee? Or the baptism of Jesus? Or the eating stories in the parables of Jesus? Or the key stories of accusation against Jesus, that He ate with sinners?
The Lord’s Supper was the central ritual, liturgical action – the central story – of the early Christians. The Scriptures do not run on endlessly about the Lord’s Supper for the same reason they do not run on endlessly about baptism: they were assumed aspects of the Church’s life. When you read the Scriptures in this way, you get a very different New Testament.
Many people suffer from what I call a ‘ritual bias’. The great value, even necessity, of ritual is lost on them because liturgical ritual assumes a deep investment in the community that is given shape and form by the rituals of worship. People who are shaped by the values of the isolated individual do not know what to do with ritual because meaning is always defined by ‘me’ and not ‘we’.
Liturgy and the ritual of worship are not simply matters of church etiquette for altar guilds to fuss over and for worshipers to endure. Nothing about the words and actions of worship is peripheral, not for the community that is brought forth out of the orthodoxy (right worship) through which the Gospel is given. That is to say, the gospel at work in Word and sacrament through the living, ongoing rituals and liturgies of the community both create and shape that community.
Families are shaped and defined largely by the stories they carry with them from their ancestral heritage and the ones they write with their lives. These are unique to each family and are, in some sense, unrepeatable. But the ritual worship of the Church is different. The words and actions of Word and Sacrament are repeated over and over because it is through them that the Christian community is brought forth and sustained in the midst of many other stories that compete for the crucial place of definition in our lives.
Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the proclaimed Word stand centrally in Christian worship and ritual because through them we are incorporated into the story of Jesus. The rituals of liturgy and worship, therefore, provide the means through which individuals are brought into the story of Jesus and formed into a community in the Spirit. Such rituals serve both as the means of ongoing interpretation of the story of Jesus even as they invite us to participate in that story as new persons and as a new people, a new community in Christ.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”