Maundy Thursday, 2016
Have you ever been given an heirloom gift of unsurpassed value? Perhaps a piece of jewelry that has been passed down from generation to generation. It’s intrinsic value as a costly gem or work of artful beauty may not be all that much. What gives it its unsurpassed value is the story that goes with it, and it cannot be given by one person to another without telling that story.
I don’t have anything like that, but I do have a book that was written about my great grandmother’s life as a pioneer woman on the Kansas prairie. It isn’t great literature. It’s not even well written, but whenever I pass a copy on to another member of the family, I am compelled to tell the story of the story so that they might appreciate how valuable it is.
On this night we remember Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist, as the heirloom gift Jesus gave to his disciples and that has since been passed down, generation to generation, until has been given to us. We cannot appreciate its unsurpassed value until we hear the story that gives value to it.
On this night we remember that he broke the bread, gave thanks, and declared that it was his body given for us. Later he took the cup of wine and declared it to be the new covenant in his blood given to us for the remission of sins. But what does that mean?
For his disciples, it was a moment of such mind bending shock that it would make no sense until well after the resurrection. Then at last they would understand its unsurpassed value, treasure it, and hand it on to the next generation. For those early Christians, it was the most powerful gift they could imagine. It not only symbolized the unbreakable fulfillment of God’s promise given to the Israelites who followed Moses into the desert, it was a participation with God in the event itself.
Many centuries have passed since then, and for many of us the story of the gift has become diluted. The significance of the bread is lost. We don’t know why blood was so important. If this is the new covenant, what was the old covenant? What were once powerful symbols have lost their meaning, and our hearing has been dulled by the overtelling of an over simplified version the story.
When Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it, he was doing what every Jew would have done on a Sabbath Eve, as indeed all observant Jewish households do to this very day. Everyone would have understood that by sharing in the bread, they were sharing in the blessing said over it in the prayer of thanksgiving. What Jesus did was to make his own body a part of that blessing, so that those who ate it participated with him in becoming nourishment for the healing of the world.
When he took the cup of wine, he did something even more extraordinary. And here is where the story gets exciting.
It begins with the ancient understanding that blood was holy. It was what contained the power of God to give and sustain life. Way back in the story of the exodus (Ex. 24.6-8), God instructed Moses to take some sacrificial blood and sprinkle it on the altar, then take the rest of it and sprinkle it on the people. This holy life giving substance, God said, was the symbol of the covenant between God and the people of God. It sealed the covenant that God would never break, but that the people did.
All the disciples knew that story by heart, and they knew it well.
Centuries later, God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31.31), promised that in place of the broken covenant, he would someday make a new and different one in which God’s people would know God face-to-face and in their hearts.
The disciples also knew that story well. Everyone did. It was what they had been waiting for, for such a long time.
They could not have been more shocked and dismayed when Jesus took that cup of wine and said that it was his blood of the new covenant. They were not to be sprinkled with it, but to drink it. The strictest of all the rules was the rule against eating or drinking blood, because blood contained the holy power of God that gave life. And there they were, passing around a cup of wine that Jesus said was his blood of that long promised new covenant.
Moreover, this wine-blood was different. It was not the power of God to give ordinary life. It was the power of God to forgive sins and grant eternal life. It was not to be sprinkled but consumed; taken in and made a part of one’s own body.
Like I said, it must have been very confusing to them. Only the resurrection would make sense of it. The earliest Christian generations also knew those stories well. Their meaning was deep in their memories, and the resurrection made the bread and wine of Christ’s body and blood the most holy of all possible things. By participating in the Holy Eucharist, God was not simply for them and with them, God was in them.
May the power of that story be restored to us as we remember it this night, and as we share in the bread and wine that is the body and blood of Christ Jesus, the sign and symbol of the new covenant, the nourishment that not only gives new and eternal life, but empowers us to become agents of that new life in the world about us.