Reading “The Shape of the Liturgy” by Dom Gregory Dix, I have been astounded by the following realization: liturgically speaking, Jesus did not institute any new rite for his followers. He left them with his teachings, with a new paradigm for understanding the kingdom of God, but he really did not create any new religious practice.
He told his disciples to baptize, which is what John the Baptist and others were already doing. But he told them to do it in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. He invested a fuller theology into a repentance ritual already in use and presumably well understood in his day. Essentially, by attaching God’s Name to it, he made it finally efficacious in what it had always been designed to do: bring people back to God.
In the Last Supper he was eating a meal with his disciples as many Jewish religious “associations” did on a weekly basis. The blessing over the bread at the beginning of the meal is one he would have pronounced hundreds of times over during his life according to Jewish custom. The cup at the end of the meal that he took and blessed was the normal conclusion to any weekly meal of a Jewish religious association. What he did differently that night was to give them a new way of looking at these customary practices: the cup of blessing he referred to as a new covenant in his blood. The bread that he blessed according to Jewish custom he now referred to as his body. Just as they had been having this sort of meal all throughout his ministry (presumably), he assumed they would continue to do so even after he had gone. So he told them that they should henceforth do it in memory of him, making him forever present among them by their partaking in faith.
What may be seem even more surprising is that neither of these rituals—baptism or the Lord’s Supper—are customs prescribed in the Law of Moses or anywhere else in Jewish scripture. They were just pious traditions. They were rituals that Second Temple Judaism had developed in order to live out their lives in the presence of God. They took Temple activities, like ritual washing and ritual eating, and made it part of everyday life, extending, as it were, the presence of God in the temple into everyday life. In a sense, Jesus assumed the logic of those “extra-biblical” practices and realized them fully: he invested those customs with his promises, with himself, and through them made God truly present among his disciples.
The implications for contextual ministry are overwhelming. Where are those practices in our world that express a yearning for God’s presence? We can’t fight them, ignore them, or replace them. We can let Jesus fulfill them.