04/06/23 – Maundy Thursday

IT’S TRADITION

April 6, 2023
Maundy Thursday
Ex. 12:1-14; Matt. 26:17-30
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

As Tevye, from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” proclaimed: “It’s Tradition!” When I began parish ministry, one task I faced was to discern the difference between a tradition and a recurring event. Although there may be great dissension regarding changing the timing of potluck suppers and bake sales, there were no theological or ecclesiastical reasons for doing so. I also considered the length of time an event had taken place. I gave far more consideration to “traditions” that had been followed for 3 decades than 3 years.

One of the traditions that puzzled me involved their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. At the beginning of the service, all of the communion elements were covered with white linen napkins. I asked why and was told they had always done that but didn’t know why. So I searched books on communion practices and did not find that practice mentioned. I asked my mentor and other ministry colleagues. No one knew the answer. Then I e-mailed a couple of my seminary professors and they also came up blank. Finally, I called a religion professor and ordained Presbyterian minister in my hometown. He looked into it and reported: “The only reason I can find is that it was sometimes done in warm weather to keep the flies off the bread.” Some church traditions are powerful, life-affirming, and faith-proclaiming while others are merely recurring events that do nothing to nourish our faith and spiritual life – and some are just practical.

Today we mark an event in the life of Christ that was part of a Jewish tradition for more than a thousand years before Christ. Jesus invited his disciples to share in his last Passover meal before his crucifixion the following day. We have the account of Jesus’ Last Supper in all three of the synoptic gospels. Usually, we read John’s account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, where there is no reference to Passover or a meal except that this encounter occurred in Jerusalem before Passover. However, John’s poetic writing is filled with eucharistic imagery, not surprising since the practice of re-enacting Jesus’ breaking of bread and pouring wine during Christian worship was well established by that time. At first, the ritual was performed during a full meal shared by the congregation after their worship, but by the second century, the ritual became a part of the worship service, without the full meal.

The oldest Christian liturgies are found in the second-century worship book, called the Didache, In chapter 9, the theological purpose of celebrating the Eucharist has described this way: “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom.”

Since this is a Matthew year in our three-year lectionary cycle, I chose to read Matthew’s account of the Last Supper, which like Mark and Luke’s account, describes Jesus hosting a traditional Passover meal in an upper room in Jerusalem. Matthew’s account follows Mark’s account, which was the first canonical gospel written. There is no indication that Jesus altered the traditional Jewish Passover liturgy in any of the synoptic gospels except for this one detail. When he took the bread and the cup he added the words:  “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the[c] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Here Jesus explicitly stated the purpose of his crucifixion – sacrificing his earthly body so that we might be spiritually joined with him and reconciled to God by the forgiveness of our sins.  Even earlier than the gospels were written, Paul wrote about “the Eucharist,” from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Paul gave us the ritual words used most often as the words of institutions for celebrating this sacrament. What you may not remember is that Paul wrote these words to address a serious problem in the celebration of the Eucharist in the house churches of Corinth.

Before churches were built, Christ-followers gathered in “house churches.” Only the wealthiest members had houses large enough to host the whole congregation for worship. When they gathered on Sunday, they continued to engage in the dining traditions of Roman society, which distinguished first and second-class guests. First-class guests reclined in the most spacious area indulging in the best food and drink provided by the host. The second-class guests ate with the slaves and children in a crowded “overflow” room. When the church gathered for worship, it mimicked this Roman pattern of gathering in its eating together. The wealthy and socially prominent members ate their meals without waiting for the others, often becoming drunk on good wine, while the second-class guests went hungry and thirsty. For Paul this was not a holy meal with Christ as the host, but an affair that mirrored a worldly social gathering. Their worship, including the Eucharist, had betrayed Christ. They had totally missed the theological significance of Jesus’ commandment to remember him in the breaking of bread and sharing the cup.

Creating hierarchies at Christ’s table and denying others a share in the holy meal violated Jesus’ intentions when he commanded his disciples to continue the practice in memory of him and promised to be with them whenever they gathered. Paul wrote to the congregation: “For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-26   Paul’s letter also reminds us of the power of tradition. This evening, we receive what Paul received from Christ and handed it on to the Corinthian congregation, which they handed down to others through the centuries of Christian worship.

Sadly, throughout the history of the Church, Christians have been guilty of intentionally excluding fellow Christians from the Communion table. Part of Jesus’ fame – and infamy –  was his practice of eating with anyone who chose to eat with him. Using the imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus proclaimed that the liturgical practice he instituted was a foretaste of the heavenly banquet at which we will all feast together with him in the kingdom of God. Jesus also made it clear that the inbreaking of the kingdom of God had already begun with him and he commissioned his disciples to continue that inbreaking by following his path.

Matthew’s account of the Last Supper stresses Jesus’ authority and his impending death as an act of reconciliation of sinners with God. In keeping with this focus, Matthew gives more information about Judas than the other gospel writers. This gospel is the only one which gives detail to Judas’ suicide.

Matthew emphasized that Jesus knew Judas would betray him, handing him over to the Roman authorities to be killed. He also knew the other eleven disciples would flee in fear, abandoning him in his suffering and death. Yet, he shared his holy meal with all of them, including Judas. Knowing all of this, Jesus proclaimed to them: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Here he pulls out of their memory the words of Moses when the covenant at Mt. Sinai was ratified: “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you …” (Ex. 24: 8) Jesus was proclaiming a new relationship between God and humankind “for many”, not just for the Jews, not just for the eleven, but for all of humanity — even the Judas sins we commit when we stray from the ways of Christ.

In our eucharistic liturgy, we say: “we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” When we proclaim the Lord’s death, we also recognize the sin in the world that crucified Jesus. At Christ’s table we proclaim a better way, a way in which love resists social divisions, violence, domination, exploitation, and coercion. We acknowledge God in Christ has given us a table big enough for all.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2023, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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