A sermon preached at Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church, Binghamton, NY
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” This is the question that is asked at the beginning of the Jewish Seder supper on the night of Passover. The youngest child asks this question and begins the telling of the story of Israel’s emancipation from slavery, the protection that God gave them in the desert and the sustenance that was afforded them until they came into the Promised Land.
Passover is this traditional meal that Jesus longed to eat with his disciples. It is the Last Supper in which Jesus places a new meaning on the blessing of bread and wine that are shared. Jesus shares with his disciples his body and blood—his presence as they participate in their most important ceremony of their heritage, of their faith and of their people. “This is my body; this is my blood.” Jesus says. And throughout the past two thousand years we have been celebrating his actions, living again and again this one act of self-offering.
Each Sunday I have been with you I have celebrated this feast of God’s making with you. We have sung and communed with our hearts open wide to God’s gift. I would guess that some of us go through the motions sometimes. And at times it is the most profound act of faith that we do in our week--- this sharing in the death and resurrection of our Savior. And throughout the year we probably find ourselves receiving Christ’s body and blood with varying degrees of attention, understanding, theological awareness, emotion or whatever. But is at the point of our reception of Christ’s Body and Blood something stops us and says to us: “I am with you”. “I am always here” “You can find me in the breaking of the bread even when you can’t find me anywhere else.” That is the promise of Maundy Thursday.
It is the reason why we have come to share our sandwiches and eat our soup. It is the reason that in this most hectic of weeks in the Christian Calendar, we stop and wonder why this night is different from every other night. We wonder what is so important that we should receive Communion so often. We wonder why the ritual is so compelling that it should be celebrated every Sunday.
I don’t know about you but the most precious times in my life has been when the whole family has come together for a meal. It is when we hear all the latest gossip about family members. We also tell all the stories of the past so that the younger members know what it means to be members of the family. It is also the most nerve wracking, the most aggravating and most likely when the most horrendous arguments get played out. It is the nature of families, and it is the nature of family meals, I think. Emotions are high; expectations are high, and we want everything to go right. I remember my mother planning for days what was to happen when the family came—and we are a small family.
I would think it was not so different in Jesus’ day. In the Gospel we hear of the preparations that were made for this Passover meal so that everyone could share this holy time with the Teacher. But what does Jesus do? He did something quite uncharacteristic for the host of the Passover meal in that day. According to John’s Gospel, he went around and washed his followers’ feet. He took a basin of water and washed their dirty, sandaled feet. It is hard to duplicate in today’s society what this act was like, because it was the work that slaves did. Jesus took upon himself the duties of a servant.
In the Episcopal tradition we have the ritual of the washing of the feet in which the priest washes the feet of his or her parishioners. When I lived in CA, it worked pretty well because most everyone wore sandals, but when I came back to upstate NY it is harder to get folks to get rid of their socks for the service. It is generally a bit too chilly on Maundy Thursday. But when it does happen it is a holy moment and in a small parish you can allow parishioners to wash each others’ feet. Many grudges are healed in that kind of service.
In the convent it was the superior of the community who used to wash her sister’s feet. It was a profound sign of humility and service. And yet like Peter we find it difficult to do it or allow it to be done for us. I served the soup tonight for a reason. It is the pastor’s duty to feed her people whether here or downstairs.
Whether we find in Maundy Thursday the sign of Christ feeding us in the Eucharist or we find in Christ the humility of servant-hood, the symbol of God’s saving action, it doesn’t matter. This night is different from every other night because Jesus attached to that Passover story a way of participating not only in God’s love for us, but also to participate in one another’s lives at a profound level. We have been called to receive the love of one another and to give God’s love to one another. We not only offer it, but we receive that which Jesus intended us to receive: God’s love.
Some weeks ago I attended a meeting within my own tradition regarding the sharing of communion with the Methodists. A couple of older clergy were there greatly concerned about the Methodist’s understanding of Holy Communion. There was some talk about transubstantiation, consubstantiation and a few other ‘substantiations’ that I hadn’t heard of. Finally I asked: “What is the purpose of a communion service with the Methodists? Isn’t it to make Christ present to the whole of the community? Is it necessary to wonder HOW or WHEN bread is made body or wine is made blood? Isn’t it enough that we stand in the mystery that none of us understand that God may make God present when God wishes? We need but be willing to name what God has done and claim it as God’s continuing work among us.”
An Episcopal colleague of mine tells the story of five-year old Margaret who had been receiving Holy Communion from an early age coming to the communion rail with two of her 5 year old friends and their dad. Dad wanted his children to receive Holy Communion when they understood what it meant. The children were holding their hands out to receive like Margaret, but dad was trying to hold them back. Then Margaret said “Don’t worry, I will share and she broke her host into three parts and gave them to her friends. My colleague said to the dad: “Don’t stop this! They understand the meaning of Eucharist better than we do.” Sometimes it is the child in and among us that allows us to know the profound mystery of God’s love.
I have to admit that even though I looked all over the website at ELCA.com and the last 10 years of The Lutheran magazine, I could find no description of what Holy Communion means except that Lutherans accept that it is the Real Presence of Christ. Is there anything more that needs to be said? Do we need to parse out what that means, or can we accept that definition for gift? I am certainly comfortable with that description. And when others ask, tell them that as Lutherans you believe in the Real Presence of Christ. What we will do tonight around this altar is share bread and wine and most of all God’s love.
The bread that is broken and the wine that is poured out for us is nothing less than Christ. It is through that brokenness that we know healing; it is through that pouring out that we know what it means to be give our all for Christ. And when we receive it, we participate in 2000 years of other faithful people claiming and spreading the love of God too. We participate in our Savior’s gift of grace by living out that love every day of our lives. And if we don’t get it right all the time, we stand in that saving goodness that makes up for all our frailties.
This night is different from any other night because the Passover we celebrate is one of liberation from the fear of everything. It is a participation in the security of God’s love. It is a celebration of the greatest mystery of our faith. It is the living into of Christ’s saving action. It is all of these things and more---way, way more. We need but know God’s forgiveness, God’s acceptance, God’s generosity, God’s comfort, God’s mercy to know that Holy Communion signs for us the wholeness of God’s friendship with us.
This night is different from other nights because we find that it is through this sacrament, this sign of God’s love we understand that when we participate in this Holy Communion we are called to love others. We are to call from our society to live out the justice that Christ’s death demands. We are nurtured by this sacred meal so that we can by grace live out fairness and wholeness not only for ourselves but for others too. It is not enough to just “receive our Jesus” and return to what we have been before. This night calls us to live up to the life Jesus calls from us—the life he lived in honesty and truth. It is not enough for us just to “eat and run” in this holy meal. The Eucharist is not ‘fast food’ wolfed down on the way to something else. This Holy Communion is the center of our lives. To eat this bread and drink this cup means that we honor what God has done for us by sending us his Son. And as a response to this holy meal, we commit ourselves to living lives that proclaim God’s love in every aspect of our lives.
This night is different from every other night because we are invited to live the story once more. We strip the altar in remembrance of Jesus’ Passion and transparency. We honor God in our actions this night as well as honor ourselves with God’s gift of Christ to us. It is the sign of our trusting in the God who makes all life have meaning, who promises life eternal, who gives us signs of Jesus’ presence among us in flesh and blood, and who graces us with saving love every moment of our lives. This night is different from every other night because we have come to believe that Christ is present as he said he would be in the breaking of the bread and in the service of our fellow human beings. AMEN