This evening we will gather together to remember what we have been told about the night before Jesus died. In our community we will begin with a ritualized washing of hands, then dine over a simple meal of soup, wine and bread. Over the meal we will talk together about the events of Jesus’ life, paying special attention to what we have been told about the Last Supper and Jesus’ betrayal. As the meal and the conversation comes to a close, we will take bread, give thanks bless it and give it to one another saying, “The bread of Christ given for you.” Then we will take a glass of wine give thanks and pass it to one another saying, “Christ poured out for you.” Then we will strip our sanctuary in preparation for what tomorrow brings.
In this post I have included a copy of the worship bulletin that will guide us. It can be downloaded here. to be printed double-sided
21st century minds often find it difficult to reconcile the gospel accounts of this evening with. So, in place of the homily, we will discuss our struggles to understand the events of this evening in light of all that we have learned together.
For those of you who have asked, a copy of a previous Maundy Thursday homily is included here. This homily was preached in 2007 and while I am tempted to make some changes to it in light my own struggles to come to terms with the gospel accounts, I offer it unaltered, trusting that others may see in it the early stirrings of my own desire to discover a more progressive Christianity. At the time I had just completed reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s “The Last Week” and John Shelby Spong’s “Jesus for the Non-Religious” and their work permeates the homily.
Maundy Thursday 2007:
It’s a strange night.
For several decades after the Resurrection, Jesus’ followers were known as the People of the Way, or the Followers of the Way. Almost 2000 years separate the first followers of Jesus from 21st century Christians.
I wonder if the early People of the Way would have as much difficulty recognizing modern Christians as Jesus’ followers as we modern Christians have understanding the practices of the People of the Way.
The People of the Way understood Jesus to be the embodiment of what can be seen of God. Jesus shows us who God is and Jesus shared with his followers his vision of God’s justice.
The experience of Jesus followers is ongoing. But we 21st century Christians know Jesus through the writings of the People of the Way. The New Testament represents a picture of a developing tradition that speaks with two voices: the voice of Jesus and the voice of the developing Christian community.
Like the People of the Way, Jesus is for us 21st century Christians, the decisive revelation of what a life full of God looks like. Jesus is radically centered in God and filled with the Spirit, Jesus is the decisive disclosure of what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. Jesus life incarnates the character of God. And so for us the details of that life take are important as we try to understand what can be known of God from those details.
So, tonight we gather to remember the night in which Jesus was betrayed. It’s a strange night. There’s so much to think about. And there are so many questions. There are a lot of strange customs that are sometimes difficult to understand. There’s a strange and yet familiar meal. There’s the washing of feet. There’s the new commandment. There’s the matter of the betrayal. And there’s the sacrifice that we know is coming.
Let’s begin with the strange and yet familiar meal, which is the Last Supper and also the beginning of a new kind of supper.
Most of us are so familiar with the words of institution:
“On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus had supper with his friends and at that meal Jesus took bread gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his followers saying take and eat this is my body, given for you do this for the remembrance of me.
And when the supper was over, Jesus took a cup of wine, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, “Drink this all of you this cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.”
Week after week, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, millennium after millennium, followers of Jesus’ both ancient and modern have gathered around the table to proclaim Christ’s death until Christ comes again. Sometimes the meal has transforming power, nourishing power, restorative, profound power. At other times the meal is just one more religious ritual carried out by rote, experienced without feeling, or impact. And sometimes the meal seems foreign to us, almost alien, perhaps even barbaric.
To peer back through the centuries that divide us from the meal itself is no easy task. We may have a faint understanding of the meal as some sort of reenactment of the Passover, when a blood sacrifice was used to ensure that God would pass over the first born of the chosen people. But what does that have to do with us? Surely we don’t need a blood sacrifice to save us from the power of God?
Most 21st century dwellers have long since forgotten the Passover, and those who do remember have lost their appetite for a blood sacrifice. Unlike the vast majority of the Followers of the Way, we did not grow up in close contact with animals; our meat comes plastic-wrapped and there’s no need to even think about the fact that our life is sustained by the death of animals. So, simply describing Jesus as the Passover Lamb whose blood sets us free to be people of God, will not suffice. Besides, we 21st century Christians have a dismissal view of scapegoating. So, to simply describe Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, leaves a bad taste in our mouths as we try to understand the character of a God who would require a scapegoat to atone for our sin.
The Jewish festivals of Passover and Atonement may have provided useful images to explain the horrendous events of this Holy Week to the Followers of the Way, who would have been familiar with the ancient traditions of sacrifice. But such images leave we 21st century Christians with a picture of a cruel, judgmental bloodthirsty God. So, we have to peer beyond Passover lambs and scapegoats if we are to understand God’s grace.
Long before animal sacrifice was invented, human beings knew two rather basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another—the gift and the meal. The proffered gift and the shared meal are probably the most ancient forms of human interaction. To the ancients, it seemed only natural to create, maintain, or restore good relations with the divine by offering a gift or sharing a meal. And what better gift for an ancient than to sacrifice the most precious of possessions, the very best of the livestock.
Indeed one of the meanings of the word sacrifice is gift. But, we’ve long since forgotten the meaning of the word sacrifice. sacrum facere means little to us.
The Latin is largely lost to us. sacrum ……..Holy; facere … to make; sacrum facere ….to make holy.
That the ancients revered the life giving deaths of animals and sought to make those deaths holy by pouring the animal’s blood on the altar of God is a ritual that escapes us. To us sacrifice has become synonymous with suffering and substitution. And so we fail to understand that ancient offerers never dreamed that the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer. To sacrifice an animal was simply to emphasize one’s reverence for the gift; to sacrifice to make holy.
“Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” …“My blood poured out for you.”
At that strange and yet oh so familiar meal all those years ago, Jesus invited his followers to see the meal itself as a sacrifice in the true sense of the word. Jesus comes as pure gift. The gift of Jesus is made holy, sacrum facerum in the sharing. Jesus invites his followers to participate fully with him in what is about to transpire. And, Yes, the language of body and blood points to a violent death.
When a person dies nonviolently we speak of a separation of body and soul. But when a person dies violently we speak of a separation of body and blood. It would never have been possible for the Followers of the Way to speak of Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice unless, first, it had been a violent execution. And as a blood sacrifice, the point is neither suffering nor substitution, but participation with Christ in the sacrifice.
Jesus gathers with his followers, the ones he’s been teaching for a long time. Although Jesus is their teacher, he humbles himself and performs the actions of a servant and washes his followers feet. Then Jesus and his followers sit down to eat the Passover meal, a meal that signifies an earlier attempt of God’s to free God’s chosen ones from the cycle of violence. And at the Passover meal Jesus makes it clear that one of his beloved disciples will betray him.
Jesus knows exactly what will happen when he is handed over to the authorities, because his own cousin John the Baptist was handed over and within days John’s head was served up on a silver platter. We can only imagine the scene at Herod’s feast when John’s head arrived dripping with blood. It’s as if Jesus says to his disciples, “Enough already, I know I’m about to be handed over, so here take this bread; let this bread be my body, let this bread satisfy your hunger for violence; and this wine let this wine be my blood, drink this wine, let this sacrifice be an end to it.”
“Whenever you remember me, eat this bread and drink this wine, sacrifice no more bodies, spill no more blood.” It’s as if God uses our violence to save us.
Whenever we eat the bread or drink the wine we do so in remembrance of Jesus’ willingness to live fully in our world and to offer himself up to violence in order to put an end to violence. Jesus’ love is so strong that Jesus is willing to submit to violence in order that his followers might see once and for all that violence is not the answer. For in the face of violence Jesus refuses to employ violence but instead insists that God forgive us. We eat the bread and drink the wine to remember Christ’s willingness to sacrifice himself so that no more blood would be spilt and no more bodies destroyed for the sake of sin.
I know that there are a lot of Christians who are content to say that Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins; but this is the 21st century and I don’t know about you but I’m not willing to worship a God that demands the death of his beloved son to pay for my guilt. Violence is our disease. We are the ones caught up in an endless cycle of violence. God is LOVE. Jesus embodied that love.
On the night that Jesus was betrayed, Jesus confronted the evil that constrains us from being the loving creatures that we were created to be. And so we cannot do justice to Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another unless we are prepared to confront the demons that lurk within. And so as we eat this bread and drink this wine we do so, confident of Christ’s promise that God is gracious and violence will not win.
On this night so long ago, Jesus took the violence of blood sacrifice and substituted bread and wine and bid us to remember. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we like those gathered long ago share with Christ.
One with Christ we too are made holy, we too are sacrifice; and in Christ, we too shall die and rise again.
Jesus takes the sacrifice of his body and blood and turns it into the bread and wine that hold’s the promise that unites Christians everywhere in the hope of the resurrection to come and God’s promise of eternal life.
This is the Good News!
The Good News of God’s grace!