I have participated in well over two thousand Sunday worship assemblies. Granted, several of those were before I even knew where I was, much less what I was experiencing. I have a few vivid memories from my childhood of attending worship services with my family. I can remember the first time I led a song on singing night. I was five years old…and nervous. Perhaps that is why that memory has stuck with me for so many years. A Beautiful Prayer was the first song I ever led (#11 in Songs of the Church…Some of you will remember this hymnal. It is the one with the “A Song Book’s Ten Commandments” in the front, which included “Thou shalt not bend my backs together” and “Thou shalt not use me to hit the babies,” among others. I love that song book.). I’m not sure why I chose that particular song. It is not an easy song like…say, Jesus Loves Me. It wasn’t even a song that was led often in our assemblies. Nevertheless, it was the song I chose.
The words to that song offer a wonderful reminder of the humility and selflessness of Christ. The first and last verses, the standards I would lead, read as follows:
“In the Bible we read of a beautiful prayer, a prayer sent to heaven above; it was prayed by a heart that was laden with care and filled with such wonderful love.”
“As He prayed there alone in such deep agony, it was a most beautiful prayer; just to think his great heart was all broken for me, that He my great sorrow must share.”
I understand this may not be a terribly popular song. But its words are beautiful…no pun intended. They describe the moments just prior to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. It is a song, which for me, conjures up memories of those early experiences in church where I was just beginning to understand that the elements in our worship meant something. The chorus of that song explains that this particular “beautiful prayer” is the concentrated outpouring of Jesus’ heart as he struggled with what the future held for him. His focused, intense sharing of his grief and sorrow becomes evident when his sweat falls as if drops of blood. Notice the words in the chorus:
“When the Savior was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, He said ‘Loving Father, if you will let this cup pass from me;’ I know He was thinking of the anguish death would bring to His own. How deep was His sorrow, when Jesus was praying alone.”
Not long before Jesus was praying this beautiful prayer, he was celebrating the Passover with his disciples. It had indeed been a beautiful night, with the exception of Judas running off into the darkness. But even Judas’ exhibition of disloyalty and treachery were a fulfillment of prophetic utterances. Oh, what a night.
So, I have participated in Sunday worship assemblies my whole life. One central element, if not the central element, of worship is communion. Aside from the Gospels, the go-to passage for the Lord’s Supper preparation thought is 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Paul says, “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, 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.’ In the same way also he took 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.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” The standard passage for the communion celebration. Paul uses a phrase that I have read over more times than I can count… “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed...” It’s not like I never knew those words were there. As with most ministry students, this passage was committed to memory as a requisite at some point in our education. But that phrase... What is the significance of that phrase?
The night when he was betrayed he shared a significant meal with his disciples. The night when he was betrayed he taught his disciples an important lesson on servanthood. The night when he was betrayed he gave his disciples a new command, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The night when he was betrayed Peter told Jesus, “I’ll lay down my life for you.” To which Jesus replied, “You will deny me three times before the rooster crows.” The night when he was betrayed he implored his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled. The night when he was betrayed he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The night when he was betrayed he promised to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples as a comforter and helper. The night when he was betrayed he took the disciples to the Mount of Olives after singing a hymn together. The night when he was betrayed he went to Gethsemane and prayed “a beautiful prayer.” The night when he was betrayed he received a kiss. The night when he was betrayed he rebuked Peter for attacking, then Jesus healed the ear of the servant of the high priest. In the healing of Malchus, Jesus demonstrated to Peter that his sacrifice was for all, including those who would cry “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The night when he was betrayed he humbly submitted to the will of God. The night when he was betrayed his disciples ran away, leaving him to deal with the ridicule and reproach of a mock trial alone.
It is a phrase we fail to key in on when reading from 1 Corinthians 11. But it is a phrase loaded with significance. The night when he was betrayed Jesus freely and humbly gave himself for you and me. It is within that context that Paul explains the importance of this celebration meal in which we participate each Lord’s Day. The night when he was betrayed he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, explaining that it represented his body which is broken for us. The night when he was betrayed he to the cup, explaining that it represented the new covenant in his blood, the very blood that takes away the sins of the world. As often as we participate in this feast we proclaim his death, a death which was set in motion by his telling Judas, “What you do, do quickly.” These words were spoken on the night when he was betrayed. What a terribly special night…the night when he was betrayed.