Thursday 29th March 2018 – Maundy Thursday
First Reading: Exodus 12: 1 – 4, 11 – 14
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26
Gospel Reading: John 13: 1 – 17, 31b – 35
By Leslie Spatt
This is my body, given for you – Maundy Thursday 2018
We arrive at this point in Holy Week after all the excitement of Palm Sunday, followed by three days of almost stepping back, perhaps reflecting on what Palm Sunday might have meant and where it was leading. And now here we are, gathered for Maundy Thursday, the first of the Three Great Days at the end of Jesus’ life. Or… perhaps it’s the beginning?
This day, just filled with symbolism, strange actions like washing feet, and the origin of the central act of worship for Christians, what Jesus himself asked us to do. To someone just walking into St Mary’s off the street, it might seem like some very odd goings-on indeed. But our story of these three days – one continuous story from everyone gathering to eat together in the Upper Room until Mary sees a strange type of gardener on Easter morning – isn’t meant to be a replica or theatrical re-enactment of what happened in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago. There is great drama in it, but we can’t really tie ourselves to reproducing the story with all the genuine 1st century Middle Eastern details, whatever those might have been; we’re instead reliving it, constantly remaking it for every new generation.
From the euphoric time of rejoicing on Palm Sunday and anticipating the Passover, the disciples are shown what it means to serve, what it means to submit completely to wherever God asks you to go. And what it means to offer yourself to others without reservation. Maundy Thursday renews God’s promise of rescue and redemption, and adds a new covenant between humans and God in Jesus the Anointed, the Christ.
We have four accounts of the words and actions which happened at that last meal: in the Letter to the Corinthians which we’ve heard tonight, along with the others in Mark, Matthew and Luke. All vary in bits of details but the essential words are there in all of them: this is my body, this is my blood. The earliest one is Corinthians and it’s believed that Paul reports what the first followers of Jesus were already doing in the infant Church, even before they were called Christians – a tiny glimpse into very early Christian worship. John’s Gospel doesn’t have this story – he shows us instead the foot-washing which we’ll do in a few minutes. And both foot-washing and the Eucharist being combined in Maundy Thursday reflect what Jesus does so that we might try to understand what he gives us – the act of service to others joined with the promise of his being with us forever.
We read what Paul. Mark, Matthew and Luke have Jesus saying to everyone gathered for their last meal together. It’s a tragedy that so much blood has been spilled over this across centuries of time – the act of worship at the very heart of Christianity, what Jesus’s words mean, are they to be understood literally, or symbolically? Many of us may have very confused feelings about the Eucharist. Are we really supposed to believe that we’re eating flesh and drinking blood if we only see and taste bread and wine? And if that isn’t the case what does it all mean?
Unfortunately just about every translation misses the shadings of the original Greek and the context of being placed within Judaism. In all of the Holy Communion accounts the word for body is – soma. Not flesh – sarx. It’s a body which isn’t limited to just the physical. We might say soma is “body and soul” except that it isn’t two separate parts of us. Body is maybe defined as the completeness of everything which collectively makes us “us”, including our flesh. And to observant Jews, which Jesus and probably all of his original followers were, consuming blood was forbidden because it was the stuff of life itself, life which only God can create and which only God should receive as sacrifice and thanks for life. Hearing Jesus describe the wine as his blood must have been shocking, even repulsive.
Christians have been accused of cannibalism by other faiths – not understanding the deeper meanings behind the visible, literal bread and wine. In Cranmer’s prayer “we do not presume to come to this your table” – where he’s using the language of body as earthly flesh and drinking blood as…well, blood – to our ears it probably sounds quite revolting, and while Cranmer was something of a liturgical genius, in modern thought it’s not really helpful to connect us to what might or might not be present when we receive the bread and wine of Communion.
As we try to explain the Eucharist, we’re destined for disappointment because it’s unexplainable. We can really only receive it in faith. The bread and the wine are both symbol and reality. Jesus’ flesh has in reality been broken in crucifixion and his actual blood spilled, His death as a human being is real, just as we all will die. But he’s given us his body, his Being, the whole of himself which will never die; his body and blood which has to be broken and poured out so we can share it, his body which becomes us, the church. The Eucharist is a gift of such value, importance and controversy that we can only be amazed at the courage of Queen Elizabeth 1st in the middle of huge religious controversy when she said: Twas God the Word that spake it, He took the Bread and brake it: And what that Word did make it, That I believe and take it.
So, as we experience this most sacred of nights in the holiest of weeks, in the living centre of our worship as Christians, I want to offer you something for soul food as a possible interpretation of what we’ve been given. Not from the Lord, but from me as a companion Christian, a human being, very occasionally at ease with my faith but frequently doubting, even sometimes wondering when I hold my hands out to receive the sacrament if any of it is real at all. And then realising that I don’t have to know what it means, or even if I think I’m worthy or prepared, that’s what God does for us. All I have to do is take it.
Jesus says to us: Take, eat this bread, this is my body which is given for you. This isn’t just the flesh of being human, my flesh which will disappear back into the earth which my Father has created. This is my body, my whole Being, everything that makes me what I am, what the Father has made me; everything I have lived and loved and dreamed and taught you, everything I will be: all of me – it’s yours, without reservation, I offer it to you in the greatest love possible. Completely and forever, so that I will really be with you and part of you.
Take the cup from me. This is my blood, my life force which the Father has given me and I now give to you. This is the covenant I make with you: that I will always be with you and you will never forget me. Drink this and share the blood of my own life; as the promise between us that we will be one, just as the Father and I are one; and you will live in me as I will always live in you.
I will be there in the physical bread which you break and the wine which you drink; to remember me, to take me into your own bodies and make me part of you as a living presence. I give you life in all its fullness, my life, says Jesus, our Lord; the one who will bring us to the Father and the heart of the Trinity itself.
We come to this table not because we must but because we may.
We come not because we have all faith
but because we have some faith and would like to grow.
We come because we love the Lord a little and would like to love him more.
We come because all is ready and because we are his body.
©Leslie Spatt 2018