Our readings this evening are full of drama (1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35). Maundy Thursday starts with a party but very quickly things turn sour and Jesus takes his last steps to the cross as he is betrayed and arrested. Before we get there, Jesus does two remarkable things at the meal which we know as the Last Supper.
One, he institutes what very quickly was adopted as Holy Communion. He also took a towel, a bowl of water and set loving service as the standard of leadership and authority. That was also picked up very quickly and was one of the characteristics that set Christians apart from the Roman culture.
Over this past year we have been largely starved of Communion. While Susan and I could have shared in this each week online, I remember talking with a former Dean of Canterbury, who had a holiday house in France. I asked him what he did on Sundays – I suppose, I said, he could just do his own thing. No, he said, that would not be correct because Communion is not private but corporate. It is an act we do together, when we gather together. So because you couldn’t share in it, we didn’t’ either.
The only exception was that there were occasions we gave you the image of seeing it, though knowing we couldn’t share it with you. This followed the online survey many of you completed last year saying you wanted to see it occasionally. So, for special days – Easter last year, Pentecost, the Patronal Festival, round to most recently at the beginning of Lent – we did. Some at home, some in the church.
We have broken bread, but also abstained because it is corporate to be shared in, not private and not just a spectator sport. Strangely the highest views online have been when the service was a Eucharist and incense just boosted the ratings. It will be interesting to see what that those viewing figures and trends reveal. Appreciation of seeing signs of the familiar? A longing for something that looked like normal life was going on somewhere? May be a spiritual hunger for sacramental feeding? I am only beginning to reflect on this.
But I would like to think that somewhere, deep inside this is a connection with how Paul began that section from 1 Corinthians (11:23-26). “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread…” and he goes on to give the four-fold actions of the Eucharist: taking, giving thanks, breaking and sharing – we are to do these in remembrance of him.
The deep connection is, I think, that we know within ourselves, our Christian identity has been so shaped, that Communion is not a bolt on extra, just some kind of service from a menu of other options. It can be treated like that, regarded as something niche, which on one level it is.
The Eucharist, Holy Communion, is foundational to who we are because we are people who do the same: we are called, taken by Christ; we give thanks and are delighted over; we break, have to give sacrificially of ourselves in service of Christ as he did; and we share and are sent to share. It can be costly, often is, but it is the way of our crucified and risen redeemer. Communion, is foundational and identity shaping for Christian living.
And likewise, acts of loving service are not add-ons either. They are given in the same way as bread and wine. If we are to be his disciples, to be his people, then love is what we do. No one can do all the loving that is required or needed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. And the mystery is that when we join together the sum total is greater than the parts. God takes our gift and multiplies it.
Over the next three days we enter into the deepest mystery of the Christian life. This is where we find our identity shaped, formed and renewed. Today in bread and wine, and with water and a towel. Tomorrow we enter the darkness of Christ’s death and sacrificial living. On Sunday we celebrate the joy and hope of Christ risen from the dead.
‘Take this bread’, said Christ the Saviour,
‘eat and share in life with me,
with thanksgiving bless and honour
all the gifts to set you free.’
May this cup of hope revive you
on your journey through this world
filled with grace to follow justly;
singing praise to Christ our Lord.
‘With this towel’, said Christ the Saviour,
‘I will wipe my people’s feet
washed in streams that flow from passion,
met at altar and in street.’
May the love that leads to service,
reaching out to all in need,
be a sign of Christ’s embracing;
singing praise to Christ our Lord.
Hymn ‘Christ the Saviour’ Ian Black.
Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Peterborough Parish Church, 1st April 2021