A sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“When the hour came, he took his place at the table”
It was a solemn feast, of deep religious and national significance when Jesus gathered his apostles with him that evening. He says to them, “I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. His prayer for his disciples: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” was a prayer of the Kingdom of God. God’s direct rule of God’s people, the dropping of human manipulations and oppressions, the welcoming joy of life with God without the death and downward pressure of human sinfulness: that is the Kingdom of God.
This was Jesus’ last meal, certainly his last meal with his apostles. I have no doubt that he knew it, and all the others in the room were expecting it as well. The Kingdom of God is hard for human rulers to take—and not just kings. Jesus had brought freedom and healing to people in ways that inconvenienced all sorts of people who profited or gained status by demeaning or hurting others. It was uncomfortable for them when Jesus revealed their hypocrisy, mendacity, greed or cruelty by speaking simple truths or telling stories with a humorous or ironic take on life. This had reached a point when everyone could see that something was about to give, and Jesus entered Jerusalem in a mock triumphal procession—on a donkey, instead of the horse that a conquering king would ride.
The wine, the cup of blessing, the cup of the celebration of God’s Kingdom, “take this and divide it among yourselves.” Anticipating the Kingdom.
The bread, simple sustenance or bread of affliction. Perhaps the bread that the Israelites baked in such a hurry that they could not let it rise, because they were fleeing the Egyptians. But Jesus wasn’t going to flee the Romans. “My body” “For you” “Do this in remembrance of me.” In memory, we re-member, re-assemble the love of Jesus for us. We are one body in Him, because his love is re-membered in us.
And the final cup, the Gospel says it is the same as the bread—“Poured out for you as the covenant in my blood.” We are remembered by God in the remembrance of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
Of course, no sooner had he said this than they began to act like every other church assembly or other human assembly since then. “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” The text doesn’t say whether Jesus did a “face-palm.” It might not have been a current gesture back then, but nobody would blame him if he did.
“Not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Clearly, Jesus saying it hasn’t made it magically true among Christians of any age. But he is clearly meaning the same thing as in the Gospel of John where he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another,” as he interprets his washing of the disciples’ feet. The word “Maundy” refers to the Latin word for commandment, and there is only one commandment for Christians, that we love. That love is not so much a nice feeling as an attitude of our will to actively seek the best for another. In other words, we are commanded to serve God’s people as the love of Christ.
The institution of the Holy Eucharist is founded in this commandment of love. We remember that it is God who first loved us in Jesus Christ, we remember that we are bound together in his love, we remember that he is among us as our servant, and we become that love of God by partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood in this bread and wine which he gives us.
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings, and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.