• Exodus 12.1-14
• 1 Corinthians 11.23-26
• John 13.1-17, 31b-35
Today is Maundy Thursday. Lent is now over, and we have come to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Over the next few days, we will be thinking of our Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Tonight, we begin as we remember the Last Supper of our Lord with his disciples.
What we call the Last Supper was a meal to mark the Passover. The Passover was, and is, when the Jewish people celebrate their deliverance from slavery in Egypt in the events of the Exodus. Famously, St John tells us that this Last Meal with his disciples began with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, giving them an example of how they should behave towards one another when he was gone.
Then, during the Meal, he told his disciples that the bread was his body, and the wine, his blood. They were to do this, he said, ‘In remembrance of me.’ The disciples took this commandment so seriously that just 20 years or so later, we know that former pagan followers of Jesus in Greece were gathering to eat the ‘Lord’s Supper’ modelled on this Last Supper of our Lord.
That we should do it is something that Christians agree on. What they understand to be happening when they do it is, however, another thing altogether. The words that Jesus used continue to cause many arguments about the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper for believers in the present.
We even use different names for it depending on our Church background. For Roman Catholics, for example, it is the Mass. For others, Holy Communion. A name common among believers is the Eucharist, and that’s the word we use here at Christ Church.
For the first 1500 years of the Church’s history, the Church universally thought there was far much more to what they were doing than simply remembering, although there was that dimension to it. Focusing on Jesus’ words, ‘This is my body’ and, ‘This is my blood’ they believed that something real was happening when they came together to celebrate this Meal.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Church had developed the celebration into something truly mystical. Critics would even say ‘magical’. The bread was believed to become miraculously and actually Christ’s body and the wine, his blood. Indeed, so mystical was what was happening that most believers rarely physically shared in eating the bread or drinking the wine. This was left to the priest to do alone. Most worshippers simply watched the amazing event that was taking place.
The Protestant European reformers of the 16th century rebelled against this, arguing against what they saw as the superstitious practices surrounding the Mass. At the very least, they thought that every believer should receive both the bread and the wine.
While largely agreeing on what they were against, the Reformers found it impossible to agree on what they were for, and offered their own understanding of what was happening when the Lord’s Supper, or whatever they happened to call it, took place. These various understandings are still with us today.
Two opposite types of approaches stand out:
First, in many Protestant circles, when Christians meet for the Lord’s Supper nothing is believed to happen as such. We are doing what we do to remember Christ. Christ is present just as he is when we normally meet together. He is not, however, present in a different way, and certainly not in the bread and the wine! The bread and the wine are ‘visual aids’ to help us remember him and what he has done for us. They are valuable as visual aids to remind us of his death, but as that and no more.
The problem is that in Churches that think like this about the Lord’s Supper, many Christians don’t feel the need to be reminded of Christ’s death. Christ’s death is something very real to them, and not something they are ever likely to forget.
So, given that nothing else is happening, although we should still do it because Christ told us to, it doesn’t really matter how often we do it. What matters far more is something which actually makes a difference for us here and now. That something for many Christians is the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Churches that think like this consequently place a far greater emphasis on the sermon and learning God’s Word than on anything else.
The second approach to the Lord’s Supper sees things very differently. At the other end of the spectrum, Roman Catholics and those in other churches who think like them, still hold to the belief that something really happens to the bread and wine in the Mass.
Most Roman Catholics have seen the need for the reform of some of the practices that surrounded the Mass in the past. In particular, Roman Catholics now believe that all believers should share in the bread and wine and not just the priest. Nevertheless, for Roman Catholics, something special is happening during the Mass, so that it offers something important that can’t be obtained elsewhere.
On this approach, the bread and wine are more than symbols, although they are of course also that. They are above all else, Christ’s real body and blood. Through regular participation in the Mass, we receive Christ’s body and blood to enable us to serve Christ in our lives.
These are very different approaches. At the moment, however, both Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches all over the world are shut. Services are cancelled. For many Protestants who take the first approach to the Lord’s Supper, this is sad, but not the end of the world. They miss being able to meet together, but happily, thanks to modern technology, they can still hear the word of God being preached and taught online. It’s an adjustment, but they can still get what they need.
For those such as Roman Catholics who take the second approach, the present situation is more of a challenge. Ironically, many have gone back to pre-Reformation days when believers simply watched the Mass being celebrated. And again, thanks to the wonder of modern technology, this is something that we can do from the comfort of our own home. It is even possible to watch the Pope himself celebrate the Mass every day!
However, in the present situation there has emerged two other groups of Christians altogether. The first group is of Christians who have been used to going to Churches where the Eucharist is celebrated regularly and who are used to receiving communion on a Sunday.
They are sad that services have been cancelled, but not receiving communion has not made that much of a difference to them. They miss the worship and seeing their friends, but they don’t feel they are being deprived of something vital and essential to their spiritual life.
To be brutally honest, the cancellation of services due to the coronavirus has shown that for many in our churches, the Eucharist itself was simply not that important after all.
In the UK, for example, churches cannot even open for private prayer. In the present situation, this may seem reasonable and highly responsible. We desperately need to find the way to contain this virus. But then, supermarkets are still open. Off-licences selling beer, wines, and spirits are classed as ‘essential retailers’. So, in the UK, you can break a lockdown more severe than Hong Kong’s to buy wine, but not to receive the sacrament.
Again, you may feel this is entirely right and justified. But what does it say about how important what we are thinking of this Maundy Thursday is to us? I hope we will talk more about this once the present situation is over. For tonight, I just want to ask you to pause and think how important what Jesus gave us the night before he was crucified is to you.
Why did Jesus think it so important that giving it to us was one of the last things he felt he had to do before his death? And if it was so important to him, how important should it be to us?
This brings me to another group that has emerged from the present crisis.
While there are those, on the one hand, who are happy to listen to sermons and, on the other, those who are happy simply to watch, the people who most have a problem in this situation are those who see the Eucharist not as a mystery to watch and marvel at, nor as a visual aid to help us remember. For us, and I am one of them, the Eucharist is above all spiritual food and food to be of any use must by its very nature be consumed.
And so, while COVID-19 is a terrible crisis threatening our physical health, it is also a terrible crisis threatening our spiritual health, depriving us as it does of the body and blood of Christ.
Our Lord told us:
‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28).
I wish we were as concerned for our spiritual health as we are for our physical well-being and that we feared God more than we feared the virus, if I may paraphrase the words of our Lord in this way.
We should, of course, care for our bodily health, but we should care even more for our spiritual health.
St Paul wrote:
‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
Whatever St Paul meant by these words - and good, committed believers often disagree with each other over their meaning - they sound as if St Paul thought we are doing more than simply remembering; we are participating, sharing in the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for us on the Cross.
The question we have to answer tonight, we who so willingly allowed our services to be cancelled, is this. Why did we regard so lightly and abandon so willingly, something so precious, that was offered so freely, but came at so great a cost?
Our Lord famously said:
‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ (John 6:53)
Jesus certainly meant more by this than simply receiving communion, but did he mean less? Surely, the bread and the wine of the Eucharist come into it somewhere or else, to ask the question again, why bother going to so much trouble on the night he knew he was to be betrayed?
And so, our Lord goes now to Gethsemane to pray and where he will be betrayed by one who was at the Meal with him. He will be arrested and taken away to be crucified tomorrow. His precious blood is about to be poured out for the ‘forgiveness of sins’: yours and mine.
May we not only remember it, but also participate in it; always value it and never take it for granted, whatever the circumstances may be that we find ourselves in.