Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sermon: Maundy Thursday

13 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: 1 Cor 11:23-32 (Ex 12:1-14, John 13:1-15; 34-35) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

On Maundy Thursday, the day before his crucifixion, Jesus does something that would make any seminary professor gasp. Against all conventional wisdom, Jesus makes a sudden and radical change in the liturgy.

While in the preliminary rites of the celebration of the high holy liturgy of Passover, Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, and distributes it. But then he says something that had never before been said in the Divine Service: “Take, eat. This is my body.” He then takes a cup of wine, tells all of the disciples to drink from it, and says: “This cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

And the world has never been the same.

Now, the last time Jesus spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he upset people out so badly that a third of his followers turned on their heels, and left him. They thought he was some kind of a lunatic. In fairness, those who tell people to eat human flesh are generally not going to win friends and influence people. Furthermore, this talk of drinking blood was utterly horrifying to Jews who were forbidden to even eat meat that still had blood in it. Again, if Jesus had to take a course in pastoral practice, this kind of thing would not earn him a good grade. Indeed, it seems natural to frown on preachers who sound like cannibals and vampires. They tend not to be successful pastors. Jesus never was a very good example of a church growth preacher.

But then again, Jesus’ mission is different, isn’t it? He has not come to impress people with slick marketing campaigns, or to rack up big numbers on a website, or make people laugh, or teach people practical suggestions for living. Rather Jesus’ mission is to suffer and to die – and to do so in our place, for our sins, at the hands of the same sinful people he came to save – all in accordance with the will of his Father.

For Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the final Passover Lamb, the culmination of the thousands of sacrificial animals slain in history. He is the one sacrifice that the others pointed towards – including very first Passover recorded in our Old Testament lesson.

For we too eat the flesh of the Lamb without blemish, the one that was killed by the whole congregation of Israel as the Sabbath twilight approached. We eat of this Lamb in haste, for death is always lurking and brooding over us, even as the devil seeks to devour us. And we who are marked with this true Passover blood are saved from the angel of death that ravages the world with sin and decay. The deadly wages of sin (which we deserve) pass over us wanderers and pilgrims, even as we tromp through this worldly desert on our way to the Promised Land.

In our sojourn through this wilderness, our Lord provides for our daily needs, and this supernatural bread, this manna from heaven, strengthens us for the journey. In fact, St. Paul reminds us that this communion with the divine is nothing to take lightly. Life and death hinge on a worthy use of this great and mysterious gift, this medicine of immortality. Like the Ark of the Covenant, there is power, there is might, there is the very glory of God which we cover with a veil on the altar.

This is why we Christians are so reverent at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We bow and genuflect. There is a hush in the church every time our Lord’s Words are intoned to bless and sanctify the bread and wine. We look upon the consecrated elements with awe, and we eat and drink them in the same grateful, even desperate way, that a man bitten by a deadly poisonous snake consumes the antidote. This sacrament is the most important thing in our lives. We come to this holy place week after week, kneeling, begging, and thanking God for this miracle of his divine mercy.

This miraculous Supper is the fulfillment of hundreds of generations of Israelites who robed themselves in the covenant. It is the true fountain of youth, the very medicine of immortality. It’s greater than the philosopher’s stone. And it is a breathtaking mystery that transcends space and time – for in this mystical meal, Jesus is literally and physically present on earth with us, and we are literally and physically present with Jesus in heaven, surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. We cannot see them through the veil of space, time, and mortal flesh - but they surround us just the same. We commune not only with God most high, and with one another in this congregational family, but with all of our relatives and friends who have fallen asleep in the Lord. We eat and drink with saints and martyrs of every age, great and small, famous and unknown – in an unbroken chain from the apostles right down to those whom we have lost this past year. Together, we take part in the heavenly feast that has no end. In this sacrament, we slip into eternity, taking part in heaven itself, standing before the very throne of the living God!

Our senses observe only bread, wine, our fellow sinners, and this fallen world. But with the eyes of faith, opened by the Word of God, we see the underlying reality of the risen bodily Jesus, our fellow saints, and the magnificence of heaven.

But this miraculous, mystical meal isn’t here to dazzle us or to make us forget our physical selves. For just as Jesus came as a helpless baby, was a target of gossip and scorn for 33 years, and died as a condemned criminal, he continues to come to us today by humble means. Just as Jesus takes human flesh and becomes visible (even though his divine glory was veiled behind his human form), Jesus likewise takes the earthly forms of bread and wine, veiling his glory under simple fruits of the earth, created things that are common and ordinary.

Jesus comes to us as food, as something we can experience with our senses, as something to consume and make part of ourselves. Our eyes see the bread and wine, we feel the wafer on our tongue and the liquid poured into our mouths. We can, in the words of the Psalmist, “taste and see that the Lord is good,” we can smell the fruit of the vine and feel the burning sensation in our throats as our sins are purged away. Jesus gives himself to us in a physical and tangible way.

No-one has to tell a New Orleanian how sensual, and yet how spiritual, eating and drinking are. There is something almost sacred even in our ordinary meals – the sensation on the palate and the fellowship of those with whom we dine. Sitting down at table with someone is so much more than simply a process to put vitamins and minerals into our pie-holes so that we don’t starve to death. There is an intimacy, a communion, a celebration of life with every meal. In the wonder of creation, our Lord created food not merely to be a source of nourishment, but also source of life, of pleasure, of unbridled joy. And it was a lust for food that was our downfall – food that was forbidden. It was food we ate under the guise of a lie, of disobedience - food that brought us death.

But look how merciful our Lord is! Look how he undoes what we have done! For food, which once was our curse, is now our blessing. Though food once brought death, it now brings life! Food that destroyed fellowship with God now becomes a shared meal with God, a shared meal that reconciles us to God, a shared meal that is God.

Indeed, in sharing this holy meal with each other, we are bound in love. Not only the love of him who died for us, but also the love we Christians have for one another. For we eat together with those with whom we have fellowship. There is a visible unity between us who come to this rail, kneel beside one another, and eat and drink together.

Even as Jesus gave us this wondrous sacrament for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, he also gave us a command: to love each other. This love is borne out in service to one another, in binding ourselves to one another, in forgiveness and concord. This stands in opposition to the extreme individualism of our culture. It’s not unusual for each member of the family to have his or her own television, and for family members and church members to spend much of their time alone, or segregated in small groups – usually by age. Young people spend almost all of their time with their peers, even as the elderly are hidden away in nursing homes. How do we carry out our Lord’s commandment to love when we insist on being strangers to one another?

Sadly, our sinful nature has corrupted the gifts that the Lord has given us. Families often do not even eat together – too often choosing instead to wolf down convenient and individualized meals served on plastic, disposable dishware – instead of sitting down together to eat a family meal in common, instead of using vessels that convey a sense of dignity and importance. Far too often, rather than dining in unity, we fill our faces in acts of convenient individualism – and this thinking can even find its way to the Lord’s Supper. In our epistle reading, St. Paul complains about such flippant and self-centered thinking regarding the holy sacrament among the Corinthians.

The easiest sin to fall into in our culture is thinking everything is all about me. My choice. My preference. My comfort. My rights. My desires. I can segregate myself into my own little world and not care about anyone else.

But our Lord has given us a different way, a better way, a way that leads to life instead of death – and that is the way of love. Love seeks to serve others, to share, to partake of the common cup of both suffering and joy with our brothers and sisters, and even with those who hate us, even when it is inconvenient. Even when we must put our individuality on the back burner. For we are indeed one body, and we come together physically to partake of this meal. It’s a communion, not an individual preference.

Our Lord indeed jolted us out of our selfish and small thinking when he washed our feet and gave us his very body and blood to eat and drink. For Jesus didn’t merely change the ritual of Passover, he fulfilled it, he brought it to fruition. He is the true Passover feast, the Bread of Life, our hope, our Lord, our God, our Savior, our priest and our sacrifice. In his Supper, we partake of him. He pours his lifeblood into us, even as we are members of his holy body.

Thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ! For even as he prepares for his passion: to be tried, tortured, and crucified, he takes this Holy Thursday to dine with us, to sit at table with us, and to give us the very finest and most expensive meal that God has to offer. He withholds nothing from us! He forgives us our sins, he purges away our self-centered individualism, and preserves and strengthens us unto life everlasting.

“In Him is salvation, life, and resurrection from the dead. By Him we are redeemed and set at liberty.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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