Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017 || 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
This evening we celebrate two things. First, we celebrate the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us. This new commandment is the “mandatum” that gives Maundy Thursday its name. We wash each other’s feet to remind us of Jesus’ own servanthood and his love displayed through his act of humility. Second, we celebrate what we loftily call the “Institution of the Eucharist.” That is, we remember the Last Supper when Jesus took a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and shared them with his friends and said, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”
This meal goes by many names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. And they all derive from the event St. Paul recalls for the Corinthians in tonight’s second reading, an event we call the “Last Supper.”
Have you ever wondered why we call it that? The “Last Supper.” Probably not, because the answer seems obvious. Paul reminds us the meal happens on the “night when he was betrayed,” which turns into the night he was arrested, which turns into the day of his trial and crucifixion. Can’t get more “Last” than Jesus’ final meal before his execution.
Indeed, Jesus knows events are converging toward the climactic finale of his earthly ministry. He knows what the next day will hold if everything goes the way he expects. He also knows that even after his resurrection, he won’t be with his friends in bodily form for too long. He also also knows that without some physical, tactile, sensory – what we now call “sacramental” – reminder of his continued presence through the connecting power of the Holy Spirit; without this reminder, his disciples might just forget about him over the long march of years.
Jesus understands human nature so well. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I have exactly two friends from high school with whom I stay in touch with some regularity. Others flit by on my Facebook feed; I know how many kids they have and their political views, and not much else. But those two friends – Kyle and Sarah Louise – they are lifelong because we’ve made the effort to stay in touch for all these years. Notice that phrase: “stay in touch,” which we say even when we simply mean “talk on the phone.”
“Stay in touch.” That’s what Jesus institutes in the Last Supper: staying in touch. He understands human nature so well. He doesn’t want his disciples to forget about him, and that’s exactly what he says. We translate using the less emotional word “remembrance”: “Do this in remembrance of me.” But that’s not what the original language says. You all know the Greek word used here, I guarantee it. The word has been imported directly into English as “amnesia”; that is, clinical forgetfulness. Adding an “a” to a word in Greek gives you its opposite, so “amnesia” really means “don’t remember.” And the word Paul puts on Jesus’ lips in our reading adds another “a”; it is “anamnesia.” Don’t forget.
That’s what Jesus really says. “Do this so you don’t forget me.” There’s a lot more grit in that version, right? You can hear his angst, his anxiety over what’s about to happen, his need to impart to his friends everything he can before the betrayer returns. “Do this so you don’t forget me.”
And we haven’t. One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-something years later, we are still sharing his meal. We are still sharing this Last Supper. We call it the Last Supper because it was Jesus’ final meal before his crucifixion, yes, but there’s another reason. We call this meal the Last Supper because it is still going on.
Let that sink in for a moment.
When we share Holy Communion with one another, we are not simply re-enacting the Last Supper. We are participating in it. Through the connecting power of the Holy Spirit, we are there with Jesus in the upper room, even as he is here with us in our sanctuary. As the priest, I am not standing in for Jesus. Jesus needs no understudy because he is present. All he needs me to do is manipulate the physical objects in front of me. Have you ever noticed that I don’t break the bread when I narrate Jesus breaking it? I don’t break it then because, again, it’s not a re-enactment. It’s a participation, a sharing in the same meal that has been happening down through the ages, this same meal called the Last Supper.
Has that sunk in yet? Just imagine how many people have participated in this meal, and how many will in the future. Our loved ones alive and dead and yet unborn, our ancestors, our enemies, all sharing this same meal together, this Body broken once for all – and over and over again to feed the souls of billions. When I think about the vastness of this single meal, I need to catch my breath and steady my feet.
What a gift Jesus has given us in this Last Supper, this sacrament of connection with him: his Body broken and shared with his Body gathered together.
“Do this so you don’t forget me.” Even with the meal, we still forget him all too often. But we come back to the table again and again. We stretch out our open hands. His Body is placed in them. And for a moment that can stretch to fill a lifetime, we stay in touch with Jesus Christ.
Art: Detail from “The Last Supper” by Nikolai Ge