Maundy Thursday Sermon preached by Canon Simon Butler
1 Corinthians 11:26
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26)
The opportunity of being able to preach across these three days is one of the privileges of the preacher. Especially in a church where there aren’t always the opportunities to take on a theme at length, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil give me a chance to offer something in a more extensive way.
This year I am acutely aware that we’ve not done this together in the same place for two years. Last year, Aaron and I were bravely getting to grips with the technology of livestreaming from home – some of you will remember the service which I conducted at 90 degrees to the vertical – and we were all adjusting to the realities of lockdown.
This Lent I’ve found myself not wanting to focus on the struggle of the pandemic or on the nature of suffering, struggle and hardship, all of which are themes of Holy Week. I think we’ve done that to death, for understandable reasons. If you’re anything like me, a degree of compassion fatigue is breaking in when the news delivers us the latest update on the effect of lockdown on nail technicians, indoor hockey players, or whichever niche job or sport they have yet to focus on. The problems might be real, and nail technicians and indoor hockey players deserve as much concern as anyone else, but we’ve grown tired of hearing this sort of thing.
So I’m wondering what might give us energy to face the remainder of the pandemic? What might give us strength to face all that is to come in an uncertain future – which would have been uncertain with or without Covid-19? This is the theme of my three-days preaching. I want to preach about the perspective of Easter on the events of Thursday and Friday and, on Saturday evening, on the future.
Sisters and brothers, we don’t mark these days like those first disciples. Our liturgy may take us to a place where we connect with the intimacy of the Last Supper, or the loneliness of Gethsemane, or the abandonment of the Cross or the mysterious surprise of the Empty Tomb. But we live on this side of them all. Easter has already happened, Christ is already risen, and so our worship this week, despite its solemnity, is always offered in the light of Easter. We celebrate, even in the dark. Our trust in the risen Jesus gives us a perspective on the Upper Room and the desolate garden, and the hill of Golgotha. That’s what my theme is this year.
Well before Jesus sat down to break bread with his disciples, he told his listeners about our resurrection. “I am the living bread…”, he said, “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever.” (John 6:51) And well before he walked the lonely road to Calvary, Jesus told his listeners about what this bread would be. “The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) And well before he burst from the tomb at Easter, Jesus told his friends how they would enter into resurrection life. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
It therefore stands that when Jesus raises first the bread and then the cup in the Upper Room, and when he says, “This is my body…this is the cup of my blood” and when he says “Do this to remember me” thoughts of resurrection life are not far from his mind. Through this bread and wine, which in some way connect with his own flesh and blood, we enter into the very risen life. We receive eternal life now and we receive the promise of eternal life for the future.
But to go a bit deeper into what this might mean and the relationship between the Upper Room and the Empty Tomb, we need to delve a little deeper into the idea of remembering.
Some of you will be familiar with what has become known as the Proust effect, so-called because of the effect which a cup of fruit tea and little French cake called a madeleine had on the French author. Proust writes, “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me… And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray, when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.” Sights, sounds, tastes, smells…all these can have this effect on us, take us back to a memory or an event in our past. For me it’s the smell of baking taking me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. There’s a connection that’s sure to be made between this bread and this wine we eat and drink and the remembrance of the events of the past.
But, seen from the opposite perspective, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says, “do this to remember me.” This word has a rather different meaning. Instead of taking us back to an event of the past, this little Greek word, anamnesis, means the bringing of the past into the present. To remember means to re-member, to put flesh back on. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we don’t simply recall the events of Calvary, but they are brought into this very moment, into the present. As the bread is broken we find ourselves transported to that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it.
If that all sounds very high level theological, a friend of mine, who had served as my predecessor in my last parish some years before I arrived, wrote to me and told me this story once: “In our early months at in Addiscombe, where we now worship, I was in the pew in the middle of the communion service when a lady came forward ready to administer the chalice; I did not know her but at that moment she looked exactly like my mother. With my head I knew it was not my mother – she died over 30 years ago – but that other bit of me under the rational surface was muttering away, “What is she doing here, how did she find me out, what does she want?’” The answer to that was “ She is not here for you, she is here doing what she always did, serving Jesus and sharing his gifts.
And as I watched behind the altar there was a great triangle, its apex pointing down to where the bread and the wine were and its diverging sides disappearing through the roof and lost in the infinity of the skies. Inside that triangle there was a huge number of little windows and in each window a face. Most of them I could not recognise but here and there a known face, people I had met and loved and meant much to me on my life’s journey and in front of them my mother ministering the communion to us all.
It was not a family party; it was a Jesus party; we were all gathered round him and we were together in this mysterious way because of him and because he could bridge the division of death that usually kept us apart.
It was a most strange and moving experience; of course it soon faded and the next time I saw the chalice bearing lady, she did not look like my mother at all. It soon went, but its message remains and I never hear the words of the eucharistic prayer without remembering it. ”Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name.”
When we proclaim the great and glorious name of Jesus as we do at his table, then we are not alone, where Jesus is, all who belong to Jesus across the continents and down the centuries are here with him. His real presence is their real presence, our communion with him is our communion with them. No need to go to exotic séances to make contact with those who have gone before us, they are here with us when Jesus is here with us, joining in our listening, our praising and praying and, if we are tuned in to all that, making us warm and safe with the love and hope and encouragement they reflect on to us from him.
I think that is one of the most moving descriptions of what it means to belong to the Christian community I have ever read, and it captures perfectly the nature of what it is we do when we break bread and share wine together. Whether we see it in visions, or feel it in our hearts strangely warmed or not, isn’t the point. The point is that this remembering is the way we encounter the risen Christ in the here and now, Christ whose resurrection power brings the power and presence of God to our hearts when do as he commands in this meal. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes, writes Paul. This meal is a proclamation of what Jesus does for us on the cross. But more than that, it brings the cross into the present through the resurrection power of Jesus. No wonder it has the power to melt our hard hearts and renew us in our service. The power of the cross and empty tomb literally course through this place and every place where this is done in remembrance of him.
Some of you will know that John doesn’t have a story of the institution of the Eucharist at the last supper; he has the teaching of Jesus as the Bread of Life from which I quoted earlier. In place of the Eucharist, however, Jesus asks us to do something else together, something that will not let us simply rest in the risen presence of Jesus, however beguiling and enticing that might be. Jesus asks us to wash feet, specifically one another’s feet. Interestingly, Jesus says of this moment “You call me Teacher and Lord…if I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Interestingly, this word Lord is very much a resurrection title for Jesus. It’s used of him in John only in the face of the need for divine intervention and “Lord” is of course Thomas’s great explosion of faith a week after Easter. If, says Jesus, the Lord God himself can wash feet, if he can stoop so low, then so can you.
But again, we do not do that in our own strength. Fed by the risen Christ, by his breaking into our everyday lives through the power of anamnesis, his real presence in this meal, empowers us to give our bodies, to allow them to be broken, for the sake of others. We serve in the power of the resurrection, give our lives as he gave his, through the power of the work God does in Jesus brought into the here and now.
Tonight, as we have done countless times, we will break bread and share wine together. And, again, the risen Christ will do his work in us, bringing his death and resurrection into this moment, into this place, and into our lives. And we go out to live the Eucharist, through service, trusting that as we do what he did, so he will go on doing his work that others might come to know him through us.
Let us, once more, do this in remembrance of him. Amen.
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