Traditionally, there are two special features to the Maundy Thursday service. First, it’s the time each year when some of us serve each other by washing each other’s feet. Second, tonight is considered the “birthday” of the Holy Communion.
I may have previously mentioned that I grew up in the so-called “Bible Belt,” in churches that did not observe formal liturgy, in places that never spoke of the word “sacrament” or pondered what that word might mean. Yet, the first time I walked into an Episcopal Church when I was 12 years old, I felt an astonishing thing come over me. At one level, I had no idea what was happening. Instead of sitting still, there was all this movement—what the late great Robin Williams called “pew aerobics.” Up, down. Stand, sit, kneel. Genuflecting. Bowing. Crossing yourself. Juggling a service leaflet and a prayer book and a hymnal—and, this being Oklahoma— a Bible. (Yeah—I know! Episcopalians! Bringing our Bibles to church! But it happened!)
But it was at the start of the Holy Communion part of the service that I was absolutely broken open, heart, body, and soul. It was there that I truly felt to be a part of the great body of the Church, and felt received and accepted as I was, with all my faults. I saw how the practice of communion empowered the church, with myself as a full minister of it, to offer ourselves and all the world’s prayers before God. It left me reeling and rejoicing, all at the same time.
Communion is a radical act to remake the social order, and to draw us together toward each other and toward God without respect to ANY differences. We are reminded of this in our gospel passage, when, amazingly, a disagreement breaks out among the disciples right after they have participated in this sacred fellowship with Christ. Jesus says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” This is sacrament: a making holy of ourselves regardless of place, rank or time. And tonight we are called to remember the grace of the sacrament of Holy Communion that we received as a gift of Jesus even before his Passion, death, and resurrection. We were given this gift for our benefit, and for the benefit and service of the entire world—no exceptions.
And while sacraments are all around us, and we live in what Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple called “a sacramental universe,” this sacrament of communion, along with the sacrament of baptism, melts away our walls and defenses, uniting us as one Body even outside the walls of this parish church. It reminds us that we are not just individuals,
but we are members of the Body of Christ, and charges us to be Jesus’s hands, eyes, and heart in the world.
It’s an incredible thing. “This is my Body, given for you” has a multiplicity of meaning. Through this meal, we accept that gift of Christ’s very body for us. We are also made part of that Body, and are thus called to sacrifice and service, ourselves. This sacrifice is not just done for us, but is done by us, and with us, and in us, and throughout the world. We all are empowered as ministers through this sharing and being willing to share.
We are drawn together to remember that Jesus sets an example for us tonight: in both the foot-washing and the Eucharist, we are called to serve, as well as to be vulnerable enough to allow others to serve us.
“Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” That verse indicates the connections between the two main things we are called to do for each other tonight: we are called to wash each others’ feet, and we are called later to gather together around God’s table, the altar, and give and receive communion together.
Jesus makes it clear that we can’t serve God unless we are willing to also serve each other—and each other doesn’t just mean the people here at this service, or the just the people in this congregation, or even just the people in the diocese or the Episcopal Church. This is not a sacrifice that asks us to give up something as much as a sacrifice that calls us to make ourselves holy, to be disciples who work for what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam—the repair of the world. This is a sacrifice of praise, of thanksgiving, and hope.
When we gather to make Eucharist, we are engaged in a radical act to remake ourselves, and by doing so, remake the world to reflect the continuing presence and healing of the world by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the feast of the world’s redemption, and we make this together—all of us—with God.
William Temple reminds us of that when he remarked: “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” When we gather around this altar, we are not just gathering to be consoled, but to be strengthened, renewed, and fed by the love that Christ embodies for us, and that we are called to embody for each other.
And then, a few minutes after that, we are sent out into the world, to remember that we are called to serve God by serving others as well.
The sick. The friendless.
Happy people. Scared people. Angry people. Hurting people.
When we gather around this table, we offer our thanks, our praise, and our very selves to God through God’s Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus is here: we are participating even now in that same fellowship and service we just heard recounted in our scripture passages. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is in our midst right here in a powerful way. The Rev. John Koenig, in his classic work The Feast of the World’s Redemption, explains it this way:
“At the table Jesus is not only a humble servant and teacher of love by example but also a prophet who shows himself to be the way, truth, and life…. In the strongest possible way Christ makes known to those who approach his table that he ardently desires our company just as we are. He welcomes believers with compassion, refreshment, and forgiveness. He receives all the pains and griefs we bring to the Eucharist, because Jesus has been in those places, and in a way he still is.”
Through communion with God and each other, we are gathered into that cloud of witnesses to the glory of God that has been and is now. We are enticed through the beauties of this fellowship to relax our grip, for a moment, on our own concerns, knowing that they are not just ours but are shared among each other and with God in this fellowship. That is the comfort and solace part of communion. Yet, there is also a “not yet” we also become aware of. The tragic events in Belgium, Turkey and ongoing in South Sudan call us to meet suffering and pain with hope and healing, and the Eucharist equips and even CHARGES us to serve the world in that way.
Eucharistic Prayer C contains this reminder that our commemoration and thanksgiving at this table is meant to prepare us for mission into the world:
“God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”
When we lift our hands for the bread of life, we also offer up our hearts to God in Christ Jesus, that they be taken, opened, filled with light, love, compassion, and power, and returned to us. The altar around which we gather extends out in a plane through time and space. We become partakers not just in the bread and wine, but partakers of the abundant feast of Christ’s grace that is ongoing at all times. We engage all our senses in the mystery of God’s love revealed to us through the mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Son, Jesus. We hear, sing, praise, taste and see the goodness of the Lord right here in this sacrament. In a world where there is often supposedly never enough, we are reminded that God’s love and grace for us is not just amazing but abundant.
Methodist pastor Jan Richardson expresses this abundance, and the mission we are given in this feast, beautifully in her poem, “And the Table Will Be Wide.”
And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
And our sorrow
will be met
And we will open our hands
to the feast
And we will turn
toward each other
And we will give up
And we will taste
And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
will be the feast.
We remember especially in these three days holy days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, that Jesus will be sacrificed for us, but we will be sacrificed too, brought together through love and humble service.
Let us lift up our hands and hearts with all angels and archangels and the saints and loved ones who have gone before us, with those who are here with us and those who have passed momentarily from our lives, to become bread for a hungering world. Let the blessed become a blessing.
Please join with me in a word of prayer.
Lord Jesus, you taught us that to serve others is the greatest way to love and serve God: help us also accept the honor and blessing of being cared for with grace. Help us to serve, and to love each other enough to allow them to serve us. Help us to remember that we are cleansed not through our own effort but in community with each other, for the redemption of the world. Holy One, help us shed our fear of being vulnerable, that we may love You and each other fully, and be healed by love. Help us to join hand and hearts in thy Holy Communion, Lord, to be strengthened and united, giving thanks to You and interceding through our praise and thanksgiving, for the entire world and its cares.