Maundy Thursday Eight Days Early

I don’t know about Christmas being a minister’s busiest time, I usually reckon it’s Holy Week and Easter. So this year I blocked out some time to get ahead with my preparation. I’ve just finished my sermon for Maundy Thursday, and here it is.

1 Corinthians
11:23-26

Introduction
Maundy Thursday: the day in Holy Week when we commemorate Jesus washing his
disciples’ feet, his institution of the Lord’s Supper and his betrayal and
arrest.

Tonight of those themes I have chosen to focus in on the
institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is – or should be – ‘the meal that
unites’, as two authors called their book on the subject[1].
Yet while for some of us it unites across all Christian boundaries – ‘all who
love the Lord Jesus are welcome at his table’ is the invitation – for others
you can only share together if you have come to a substantial agreement on
theological issues (the divisions with Roman Catholicism would fall here).

Moreover, we have different theories about the Lord’s
Supper. Some believe the bread and wine truly change into the Lord’s body and
blood. Others say no, but Christ is really present in the bread and wine.
Another group says it is just a memorial meal and a fourth group (me included) says
that nothing happens to the bread and wine but when we obey Jesus in faith he
meets with us in a special way.

However, this evening I want to side-step these debates. I
have my views, as I have just indicated. But a few years ago somebody bought me
a book that has helped me see Holy Communion in a new light. The author was the
late Henri Nouwen and was entitled ‘Life
Of The Beloved
[2].
Nouwen takes the four actions of Jesus with the bread – he took it, blessed it,
broke it and gave it – and makes them the basis for spiritual living in the
world. For he says,

These words also summarize my life as a Christian because, as
a Christian, god has called me to become bread for the world: bread that is
taken, blessed, broken and given.
(p 42)

Tonight’s theme, then, is about how we are ‘bread for the
world’. Just as Christ took, blessed, broke and gave the bread, so he takes,
blesses, breaks and gives us. And what follows is my take on this wonderful
insight from Nouwen.

1. Taken
Jesus takes the bread in his hands. In our communion services we may mark this
either by processing the bread and wine to the front or (as I prefer) simply uncovering
them.

And he ‘takes’ people, too. He has always chosen people. In
the Old Testament we see God taking a small, insignificant race, Israel, so
that he may make them a people for his praise who will witness to him in the
world.

This theme is not about pride: God tells Israel he didn’t
choose them because they were big or special – quite the opposite – but so that
they might declare his praise in the world.

And it’s not about saying, ‘Why should God choose me? I’m
insignificant and worthless.’ For God precisely chooses the insignificant so
that the world can see he is working by his grace.

And what God did in the Old Testament with Israel he does
since New Testament times with the church. God also calls us to be his people
to proclaim his praise in the world. We are not superior because we know Jesus,
and we are not inferior because we are sinners. It is all about his grace. We
have been taken, or chosen, for the special purposes of God. And that is not
simply true of us corporately as ‘the church’: it is true for each of us
individually as Christ’s disciples. He has taken or chosen us precisely because
there is something unique that he can do in and through us.

This ‘taking’ is not something we should resist. In the Old
Testament Jonah seems to stand for Israel in his resistance of the call and his
desire to go somewhere rather more congenial than Nineveh, where heathen
Gentiles awaited him. But God said, no, I have taken and chosen you for that
exact reason. He says the same to us when we want to resist and choose a quiet,
comfortable life.

For granted, knowing that we are chosen and taken may mean a
rough ride. You will know the apocryphal story of the Jew who cried out to God
in prayer, ‘O Lord I know that we are your chosen people, but couldn’t you
choose some others once in a while?’ But the taking is gently insistent and
persistent. God in Christ takes us; he takes each one of us, and readies us for
his holy purposes, just as Jesus did with the bread at the Last Supper. In fact,
he takes and holds us in his hands when we do not have the strength to hold
onto him, and even when all we want to do is beat our fists against him. Still he
takes and holds us, ready for special use.

2. Blessed
Jesus not so much blessed the bread as blessed God for it. That is, he thanked
God for the bread. The Greek word is eucharisteo,
‘I give thanks’, from which we get our word ‘Eucharist’ as a name for the
Lord’s Supper, and the ‘Eucharistic Prayer’, the great prayer of thanksgiving
in Holy Communion.

Now just as Jesus thanked his Father for the bread, so he
also thanks God for us. Yes, you heard me aright: he thanks God for us. Some of
us find that hard to believe. ‘How could Jesus possibly thank God for me? I am
such a mess. I am a terrible sinner.’

But we are blessed. God made us in his image. That image may
have been damaged, but he is restoring it through the death and resurrection of
Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He blesses each of us with gifts,
talents, passions and particular character traits that shape us into the people
he is calling us to be.

God is not forever angry with us, as some would have us
believe. He may get mad with us and frustrated with us, but that doesn’t change
the fact that he blesses us. Parents know that they can tear their hair out
over their children but still be thrilled with them. It is the same with our
heavenly Father and us. There is a verse in the prophecy of Zephaniah that
captures this:

The Lord, your God, is in
your midst,
   a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
   he will renew you<!– +fGk Syr: Heb he will be silent+e –>
in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
(Zephaniah 3:17).

That is the God who blesses: who rejoices over his people
with gladness, renews them in his love and exults over them with loud (yes,
loud!) singing.

This blessing isn’t just a ritual, such as a brief prayer
over someone who comes to the communion rail but doesn’t want to receive a
sacrament. Henri Nouwen tells a story to that effect in ‘Life Of The Beloved’. He
was working in a community for
people with learning disabilities in Toronto
when one of the residents,
Janet, asked for a blessing. Being a Catholic priest, Nouwen made the sign of
the cross on her forehead. “No, that doesn’t work. I want a real blessing!” she
protested. Nouwen promised to do so at an act of worship.

He announced Janet’s request for a blessing at a service. She
came towards him and snuggled up to him while he covered her with the sleeves of
his white robe. “Janet,” he said, “I want you to know that you are God’s
Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your
kindness to the people in your house and all the good things you do show us
what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and
that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you
are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here
with you.”[3]

God’s blessing – which either comes directly or through
people – is there to remind us how special and precious we are to God.

3. Broken
Jesus broke the bread in order for it to share it with his disciples at the
Passover – just as he also broke the loaves of the boy to give it to the five
thousand.

Jesus breaks us, too, so that we are ready to be bread for the
world. One way is how he graciously addresses our sin, so that we might be
forgiven and renewed. Then our sin – especially our hypocrisy – is less of a
barrier in our witness.

We may find he breaks us and leads us to repentance in
surprising ways. Last week in the Lent course on prayer, we read of Jesus
meeting Zaccheus. Some of us noticed how Zaccheus’ change of heart didn’t come
through Jesus applying a dose of fire and brimstone but because of grace: Jesus
said, ‘I must come to your house for tea today.’ Jesus wanted the company of
someone who was ostracised by everyone else. That grace and love broke Zaccheus
and turned his life around. So too his grace breaks us that we might be better
witnesses.

There are other kinds of brokenness, though. There is the
brokenness of our suffering and pain. Jesus uses this in giving us to the
world. I find the insights of a writer called Brian Jones helpful. He says there are
two kinds of miracles[4]. The
first is what he calls ‘instantaneous miracles’. These are when in direct
response to prayer someone is healed or other suffering is relieved. Instantaneous
miracles are rare, but they do happen. When they do, there is a testimony to
the world of the God who heals brokenness.

But there are also ‘perseverance miracles’. The Greek word
for ‘perseverance’ means ‘to stand under’. When the Holy Spirit enables us to
persevere through our brokenness that too is a miracle and a testimony. How we
cope with our brokenness can be bread for a broken world.

Finally, there is another kind of breaking that Jesus does
with his church. It is the breaking from Sunday to Monday, the breaking from
the gathering as we worship together to our dispersal into the world. Much as
we may enjoy each other’s company, some of us enjoy it rather too much. We make
the church not only the centre of our lives but the circumference too. We expect
it to supply not only our spiritual life but our social life as well. But Jesus’
‘Great Commission’ contained the word ‘Go’. The risen Christ told the
disciples, ‘As the Father sent me so I send you.’ Our unity is intact wherever
we go but are broken up, dispersed into the world as witnesses. It is what we
put rather politely in the liturgy: ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ For
that, he breaks us out of the comfort of our church ghetto.

4. Given
Jesus gives the broken bread to the disciples. And he gives us, with all our
brokenness, whether healed or lived with, to the world.

I once worked with a guy called Javed. He was a very
good-looking bloke who thought he was God’s gift to women. He would boast about
going on a date with a woman who would immediately want him to move in with
her. One year for his birthday we bought him a t-shirt with the slogan, ‘So
many women, so little time.’ To our disappointment, he took it as a compliment.

We tend not to like people who arrogantly consider
themselves ‘God’s gift’ in some way, whether it’s to the opposite sex, a
football team or even the church. There is an ugly pride about such people. But
there is a healthy sense in which we are all ‘God’s gift’. Jesus has given each
of us to the world. It gives us no rights to preen ourselves in front of
others; instead, his giving of us makes us servants in the world.

The Maundy Thursday story and the experience of sharing
bread and wine at the Lord’s Table are not designed to keep us cooped up behind
the doors of a church building. They are designed to unlock our upper rooms
where we have huddled in fear of the world and set us free with Pentecostal power
to be God’s gifts to the world.

There are people each of us know who could do with receiving
a gift from God. Jesus calls us to pray that gift to them, to bear that gift to
them and even to be that gift to them. In other words, it is to experience the
truth of Jesus’ words that it is more blessèd to give than receive. The giving
may be like the simple joy of giving a loved one a present and being thrilled
to see their delight in receiving it. Other times our giving may be
cross-shaped, as it was about to be for Jesus after he instituted the Lord’s Supper,
and for which he reason he commanded us to eat and drink in remembrance of him.

It’s not about being gifted people and feeling that perhaps I
have little to give: it’s about being willing to be given. Nouwen illustrates this
by writing about two of the people with learning difficulties in the community
he served:

Bill, who suffered intensely as a result of shattered family
relationships, has a gift for friendship that I have seldom experienced. Even when
I grow impatient or distracted by other people, he remains always faithful and
continues to support me in all I do. Linda, who has a speech handicap, has a
unique gift for welcoming people. Many who have stayed in our community
remember Linda as the one who made them feel at home. Adam, who is unable to
speak, walk or eat without help and who needs constant support, has the great
gift of bringing peace to those who care for him and live with him.[5]

We may feel as inadequate as the five loaves and two fish
seemed to be, but what matters is not talent and ability but saying, ‘Yes,
Lord, give me to others. Let me be a blessing.’

For this is what the taking, blessing and breaking all lead
towards: that God might give us away in the cause of spreading his love in the
world.


[1]
Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Meal
That Unites?
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.

[2]
Henri J M Nouwen, Life Of The Beloved,
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.

[3] Ibid., p57f.

[4]
What follows is based on Jones’ weekly email, ‘Non-Religious Devotional
Thoughts’ for 28th March 2007: ‘Two Kinds Of Miracles’. You can sign
up for the email at http://www.brianjones.com/devotionals.html.

[5] Nouwen,
op. cit., p91.

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