Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sermon -- 21 April 2011 -- Maundy Thursday

MAUNDY THURSDAY — 21 April 2011
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:00 p.m.

Ex 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Ps 116:1, 10-17
1 Cor 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Do this in remembrance of me.” [1 Cor 11:24]
“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” [John 13:15]

Liturgically speaking, Holy Week is a very busy week!

But you already knew that! (After all, you’re here tonight!)

This past Sunday, as you recall, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which is what we have always called it for short, but you may have noticed, whether in previous years or just this year, that the full name of the day is “The Sunday of the Passion Colon Space Space Palm Sunday.” That’s because there are in fact two liturgical services that take place that morning: First, there is the Liturgy of the Palms, at which we read the Gospel of the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and bless palm branches and parade around singing psalms and hymns, and then there is the Eucharist of the Lord’s Passion (his suffering, culminating in his crucifixion), which is very very different in its tone. (In fact, old guys like me remember when the clergy types used to stop, take off their festive red vestments, and put on somber purple vestments at the segué into the Eucharist.) But now we scrunch these two services right up together, apparently mostly for the sake of saving time, and so we may not notice how very different these two liturgical “moments” are.

Well, today, Maundy Thursday, is kind of like that. Except that we aren’t celebrating two different services right in a row (well, right at the end we sort of do), we are celebrating two different themes at the same time. The word “Maundy,” you may recall, is what the Brits did to the Latin word mandatum, “commandment,” from Jesus’ words in tonight’s Gospel reading, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” [John 13:34] And in this context this has been applied particularly to the footwashing, which we observed ritually just now, in remembrance of how, according to St. John’s Gospel, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. The footwashing may make some of us uncomfortable, because we find it culturally bizarre. We Don’t Do That Kind Of Thing. Well, Simon Peter and the other disciples found it culturally bizarre too — they didn’t do that kind of thing either. Yes, it was usual in those days to provide your dinner guests with a basin of water when they arrived so they could wash their dusty sandaled feet — on one occasion Jesus chides a Pharisee who is hosting him for neglecting to do so— but usually people washed their own feet, or maybe a slave might actually assist with washing the guests’ feet, But certainly the host would never do anything so menial, nor would a guest ever allow the host to do so. (As usual, good ol’ Simon Peter Just Doesn’t Get It, but at least he shows he has good manners!) And what Jesus says is, “Yes! This is not only bizarre, it is completely counter-cultural! Get Over It!”

So that’s one of the things (one of the many things!) that’s going on in the upper room tonight.

The other thing that’s going on — or at least another thing — is what for many of us may be what most comes to mind when we think about the celebration of Maundy Thursday, and that’s what we refer to as the Institution of the Holy Eucharist — when Jesus took bread and wine, said, “This is my Body — this is my Blood — Do this for the remembrance of me.” And we have been “doing this” ever since. (As the Anglican Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix famously put it, “Was ever another command so obeyed?” And then Dom Gregory goes on for a long paragraph listing some of the myriad ways and contexts in which we have “done this” over the centuries. [The Shape of the Liturgy, page 744])

You may have noticed this evening that the account of this first Eucharist does not occur in the Gospel reading, but rather in the Epistle, from First Corinthians 11. I might note that this is the earliest written account of “the Lord’s Supper” (as we sometimes call it) that we have; pretty much the same account occurs in St. Mark’s Gospel and from there also in St. Matthew and St. Luke. Not to say that they got the story from St. Paul — there’s no evidence that they, even St. Luke, had ever read Paul’s letters — but they are all reciting a narrative from the earliest tradition. St. John, however, does not tell that story in connection with Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. (John does talk about the Eucharist, as we would put it, but in another context; John relates it to the Feeding of the Five Thousand.) At the Last Supper, St. John wants to focus on his own story of the washing of the disciples’ feet, and then to follow up with his long account of Jesus’ farewell discourse.

Related to this is the fact that in the synoptic Gospels, and arguably in Paul, the Last Supper is explicitly a Passover Seder. In John it is explicitly not the Passover, but takes place the previous evening. In John’s Gospel the Passover lambs are sacrificed in the Temple on Friday while Jesus is hanging on the cross outside the city, and that’s the point John wants to make.

So which Last Supper version is more historically, chronologically accurate? Was this a Passover Seder, or not? Biblical scholars and historians have been having a field day with this question for generations. There are good arguments on both sides. (I’ll have to ask Jesus about this when I see him. And Jesus will say to me, “And just why is it that you think it’s important that you know this?”)

“Do this for the remembrance of me.” And here “remembrance” does not just mean, “Oh, yes, I recall how, way back then…”
Remembrance is not an exercise in nostalgia. The Greek word anamnesis that we translate as “remembrance” means welcoming Jesus as living and active into our present and as setting our course into our future.

But, “to do what for the remembrance of him”? To share his Body, so that we may be his Body in the world? To share his Blood, that we may be quickened by his life in the world? So that he may dwell in us, and we in him? Yes.

To follow his example, that we should do as he has done to us — to love one another as he has loved us? Yes.

All this “in remembrance, in re-membrance, of him.”

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