The center of the Maundy Thursday service is, of course, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. There are many ways to receive this meal that make it stand out on this solemn occasion. But the preaching and the liturgy, the music, and even the layout of the space for worship should all be focused on the serving, the giving and the receiving of the bread and the cup. Whether you serve to individuals or to groups who gather around a table as a family unit, whether you take the elements in unison or spread out over the course of the serving time, all is intended to help the worshiper receive this grace and participate in the ritual as though from the hand of Christ himself.
Many worship teams have used a reenactment. The problem there becomes one of a performance that the worshiper comes to view rather than a participatory event. It would be better, some argue, to set up a table where the serving of the elements happens in groups around a circle rather than in a line at the altar rail or passing through a station. This is a depiction of the event, but done in a way that captures the experience for all who attend.
Another caution is that though the Hebrew testament text for this evening provides the instructions for the Passover meal, it is better to avoid trying to duplicate the Seder meal. This is a sacred ritual for our Jewish brothers and sisters and even though our intention might be to honor our shared tradition, it could be seen as cultural appropriation. The best solution would be to have a dialog with a local rabbi and discuss a way of sharing the experience with a worshiping synagogue or Jewish faith community. Perhaps the rabbi or a Jewish leader could come and teach the meanings and practices of the meal at another time than during the worship experience.
Some might still want to set out some of the elements as discussed in the Exodus passage and provide some way of experiencing them. It might be possible to set up a prayer station, for example, with a dish of the bitter herbs as described in the text and a safe and clean way of providing a sample taste or even smell. Strong emotions are triggered by tastes and smells. But it must be clear that this is not a reenactment of the meal, but a reflective sampling of some of the elements.
It is true that many United Methodist communities have participated in the Seder meal in the past. This is not meant to condemn that practice or to cause feelings of guilt or shame. We merely raise these suggestions as a way of helping us be good neighbors to our Jewish friends and sensitive to their worship practices.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.