Thursday Meditation The meal that says it all
Again I want to remind you all to be writing down our community’s grief and sorrows and your personal grief and sorrows and bring them with you on Good Friday to lay them at the foot of the cross.
Exodus 12:1-14 I Corinthians 11:23-29 John 13:1-17, 31b-35
We have been thinking for the last four days of the way in which the story of Jesus functions like a great tune. We listen to it, and then we have to try to put in our bits of the harmony.
Part of the way we know what the harmony ought to be is that we have the bass part, which we call the Old Testament. That keeps our feet on the ground, musically and theologically speaking. It stops us from interpreting the story of Jesus any way we like. Our job is to look out for the two middle parts: the tenor part, which is the story of our whole community, and the alto part, which is our own personal story somehow held in the middle of it all. We’ve seen, in the previous days, the way in which the story of Jesus, and its bass part in the book of Isaiah, invites us to bring the pains and anger of our community, and our own hearts, and allow them to be folded within the larger story, to be sung in tune with the passion of Jesus, so that we can learn to grieve, to go through the bereavement process for all that has been and all that has gone, and so to be ready for whatever new things God is going to do.
But it’s time to point out that the idea of this four-part song is a little more complicated than that. To make it as simple as possible, it is not just a song we sing anymore. This song that we are learning to sing together has actions to it, like the kids songs we all learned. And as it turns out these actions are the part that really matter. In fact the song turns out to be the accompaniment for the actions instead of the actions being the accompaniment for the song.
That’s how it ought to be. When God came to us in Jesus, He didn’t come to fill our heads with nice ideas, or even fill our hearts with a new warmth and gratitude. He came to heal the world. He came to change the bad things that were happening and to make good things happen instead. He came to do that for individuals and for communities. And when people are being sorted out, and when families and communities are getting themselves back in shape, one of the most central and important things they do is have a meal together. And that’s exactly what Jesus did.
Listen, when Jesus wanted to explain to His followers what His death was going to be all about – and they hadn’t even really understood the fact that He was going to die yet, so He had to take it slowly - He didn’t give them a theory, an explanation to hold simply in their heads. There was plenty for their heads to be working on, but that would take time. What He gave them instead was something to do: a meal to share, with a special part that would tell His story more powerfully than any other way.
And of course that meal, that Last Supper, on the first Maundy Thursday, was, like everything with Jesus, a tune with an Old Testament bass part. We heard the bass part in our first reading today: the story of the Passover, when God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and, as a sign, “passed over” their houses on the night of judgment, because of the blood of the lamb on the doorposts. Jesus deliberately chose Passover as the moment to go up to Jerusalem and confront the authorities with the claims of God’s kingdom, knowing what would happen.
He deliberately chose this Passover meal as the framework to give his followers, from that day to this, a way not simply of understanding his death, but of being healed, forgiven, renewed and transformed by it. Passover spoke powerfully of God rescuing His people, making them His own in a new way, and sending them off on the risky journey to their promised land. Jesus’ new Passover speaks even more powerfully of God now rescuing His people in a full and final way, making them His own in a new and complete way, and sending them out into the world with the risky task of making His kingdom happen.
And this is the point at which the melody and the bass part – the story of Jesus and the Old Testament Passover tradition – insist on particular actions, not just ideas, for us to do. For a start we go on day by day and week by week breaking bread and pouring out wine in remembrance of Him. We must remember what is happening when we do that. Paul declares that “every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).
He doesn’t just mean that “communion” is a good moment for a sermon on the cross, though that often may be the case. He means that when you do this – even if it is just two or three of you in your homes, or among the poor, or at celebration services, wherever – you are actually announcing to the world around, to the principalities and powers that keep people enslaved and fearful and angry, that Jesus is Lord, and that His death has broken the power of sin, fear, sorrow and shame. This meal is therefore simultaneously part of our journey through bereavement, acting out the dying of Jesus within which our own sorrows can be held and dealt with, and also part of our mission, because it is the powerful declaration that on the cross of Jesus Christ the living God has dealt with all that distorts and defaces human life. Therefore, this meal propels us out, to go into the community in the confidence that God is at work, that Jesus is Lord, that the Spirit can and does heal and renew.
That is why Maundy Thursday is such an important moment, both on the journey to the cross and already as the beginning of the life and mission of the church. The word “Maundy” comes from a Latin word which means “commandment”, because at the Last Supper Jesus gave them a new commandment, to love one another as he had loved them.
Once more, He didn’t just “tell” them to. He did it Himself, and showed them how to do it. In some churches, on Maundy Thursday, they wash one another’s feet to recapture something of that sense of love-in-action. Maybe we would do well to do the same. But that is the point: it’s all about the actions, and the tune supports them rather than the other way around. Jesus went out from the Last Supper to give himself up, literally and physically, for His friends and for the whole world. He wants us to find out what we can and should be doing, actually doing, to make His kingdom known in the world.
We will come back to this on Easter morning, because that’s where the church’s mission really gets going. But let’s take this action-song just one step further. Here we are, with the last Supper and Jesus’ astonishing action of washing the disciples’ feet, and saying “Now you’ve seen it, go and do it.” And here is our ground bass part, the Passover story which is all about God setting people free from slavery. Question: Where is there slavery of some sort or other within a few miles of where we are right now, and what is God doing about it?
Listen everybody: there are people in Omaha that have lost hope and are very angry and bitter. There are those who are in virtual slavery to alcohol, drugs, sex, and money. There are people who struggle with employment because of their race. There are people who are scared to go outside their home. And we can go on an on – go ahead, take some time to think about this question. Then we need to ask, in relation to all of them: What would it look like for them to be set free from that slavery? And how can our celebration of Jesus’ strange new Passover equip us to be part of that answer?
And again, what about our part? We’ve been reading about bringing things to the foot of the cross – memories, sorrows, hopes, and fears, anger, illness, things we don’t understand. We will do that in one particular way on Good Friday. But the Breaking of Bread, Communion, is itself the classic, regular way of doing just that.
Many of us, if not all of us, have our own stories of sorrow and anger. We have our stories of having messed up lives. I believe if we will come to the Lord’s Table and bring our problems there, offer them up with open hands and then receive Jesus’ own life in return, there is strong hope of freedom, of change, of healing, of transformation. I pray that it may be so with us.
Remember: again and again, when God is up to something new, it doesn’t always start with a bang. If God is going to hear our prayers in this Holy Week and do new things in Omaha, and in our lives, by our working through our sense of loss and bereavement in the light of the story of Jesus, it probably doesn’t mean that suddenly hundreds of people are going to flood into church, crime and drugs will stop immediately and all the problems out there and among us will all be solved over night. No. Jesus often told parables about sowing seeds, about things growing secretly, little by little. There are signs of hope already. Look, Waypoint Church now exists when once it didn’t, there have been reports of healing, and if you will look you will discover other new things happening. Our job is to bring the whole thing, the “out there” stuff and the “in here” stuff, all of it, to the meal which speaks of the cross. And as we sow the seeds of prayer, faith and the word, as we wait in the darkness of Maundy Thursday, as we stand at the foot of the cross – we wait with hope, because the one whose journey we are sharing is the one who, as John says, loved His own who were in the world, and loved them to the end.