This is the transcript of my second talk for RTHK Radio 4 Minutes that Matter on Fridays in April.
Talk Two: Good Friday
This week is Holy Week, the week before Easter. Yesterday was Maundy Thursday. On Maundy Thursday in Church we remember the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples. It is a meal that has been depicted by great artists, most notably by Leonardo Da Vinci. The Meal itself, however, is notable for a number of reasons apart from being the last one Jesus ate before his death.
Firstly, Jesus wanted to tell them how they were to behave towards one another once he had gone. He did this in a dramatic way. Before the Meal began, he washed each of their feet. This was a task that no self-respecting person would do and Peter, one of his followers, is understandably embarrassed and protests. But Jesus insists saying to him: ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Jesus was trying to tell them that they were to serve one another. It was a way of reinforcing teaching he had previously given his followers about not promoting themselves and not seeing themselves as more important than others. It is teaching, sadly, that has not always played out well amongst his followers since.
Secondly, although this was to be his last Meal with them before his death, he wanted it to be a Meal that they would continue to repeat and eat together. What they were doing was something of extreme importance to him that went beyond enjoying a final meal together. He told them that the bread they shared together was his body and the wine they drank was his blood. After his death his followers made this Meal the central act of their worship and just twenty years or so later we know that pagan converts in Greece were meeting regularly to share in it.
It is, however, one thing doing it and another altogether understanding it. Christians have come to different understanding of what the Meal’s significance is for them today. This is not the time to discuss the differences. What is clear, however, is that Jesus’ first followers saw this Meal that Jesus had given them as something that was both important and significant. St Paul describes the bread that believers eat as a ‘participation’ in the body of Christ and the cup of wine that they share as a ‘participation’ in his blood. This, for St Paul, is not just a poetic way of speaking. He tells them that a failure to appreciate this will result, indeed has already resulted, in some of them getting sick and dying. The Meal that Jesus gave his followers is not something to be taken lightly. It is serious.
What Jesus was doing by giving his followers this Meal, was putting his death at the very centre of his followers’ life and worship. Today is Good Friday. It is the day that we remember Jesus’ actual death on the Cross. So why am I talking about what happened yesterday? It is because it is all too easy to think of Jesus’ death with an eye to Sunday when we will celebrate his resurrection when, as Christians believe, God raised him from the dead. The temptation is to think that Jesus’ death, while being something we should remember, is now something that is behind us. We worship a living Lord not a dead one.
Jesus, however, by giving his followers this Meal and making it so central to their identity was seeking to ensure that his death could never be something that could be relegated to the pages of history; something to be remembered once a year and then forgotten.
Jesus followers are to be people of the Cross. Not simply an empty Cross, but the Cross that has their Lord nailed to it, suffering and dripping blood. It demands that his followers crucify their own desires and ambitions and renounce pride and the longing for position and power. To be people of the Cross is to be people who wash each other’s feet.
But this cannot happen until we have experienced the Cross for ourselves. Jesus went to the Cross knowing that this was the will of God for him and that there was no other way. The Cross is still the God ordained way that those who want to follow Jesus receive the forgiveness of sins, the promise of new life, and future salvation. To be baptized and become a follower of Christ is to be baptized into Jesus’ death.
Today reminds us of that and the Meal Jesus gave us makes sure we don’t forget it.