"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Delivered at St. Vincent's Cathedral Church, March 24th. The text is the Lord's Supper in Luke 22.

The dozen men who reclined in the Upper Room with Jesus that first Maundy Thursday must have been exhausted. It had been a very busy four days. On Sunday their Master had made a royal procession into the Holy City, to the cheers of the multitude. He marched right up to the Temple, displaying righteous anger and fierce dedication to justice as He cast the money-changers and merchants out of His Father’s House. It had been a sight to behold. Finally something was happening! The ministry of Jesus appeared to have reached its climax. Despite Palm Sunday’s dramatic start, however, the following three days had taken a different turn. Jesus took up his familiar role as teacher again, preaching in the Temple against the hypocrisy of the present Jewish leadership. Their Master played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the authorities as he taught around Jerusalem, staying only a step or two ahead of people who wanted to stone him or throw him in jail. And, as if fearing for their lives and liberty had not been hard enough on the disciples, Jesus had also instructed his friends privately about the End of Days, “when the powers of the heaven will be shaken,” “brother will deliver brother over to death,” and Christ’s faithful followers will stand trial before councils and kings. No doubt that news had a very positive effect on morale.

But on Thursday night the disciples looked forward to a bit of normality. They were about to partake in a Passover seder, just as they had done every year of their lives. Thirteen weary men were reclining at a dinner party, ready to recount again the saving acts of God. They would give thanks for that night long ago when the blood of the lamb meant the difference between life and death, when the Lord of Hosts had brought their ancestors out of bondage in Egypt. Of course, even the Passover meal couldn’t be quite normal when Jesus was involved. For some reason he had decided to celebrate it a day early. Other Jews wouldn’t even sacrifice their lambs until tomorrow, Friday, the Day of Preparation. But here Jesus and his friends were celebrating together on Thursday night. But I suppose when you have already seen your Rabbi feed multitudes, calm storms, walk on water, cast out demons, heal the sick and even raise the dead; you probably should cut him a little slack if he decides to reschedule a dinner party. Just relax and enjoy yourself.

But the normality of the evening came to an abrupt end. Jesus took up some bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his friends. Then their Master spoke words that evoked stunned silence from his companions: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He didn’t stop there, of course. After supper he took up a cup of wine saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Moreover, this ritual of bread and cup wasn’t meant to be just a one time thing. Whenever his disciples ate the bread and drank the cup in the future, Jesus told them, it was to be done in remembrance of him.

This must have been truly shocking to the Twelve. Consuming blood was strictly forbidden by the dietary laws God had given to Moses. The very idea of drinking blood, let alone human blood, would have been even more repellent to faithful Jews that it is to us. Blood is the life of an animal. And life belongs to its Creator, not to us. Life blood was to be given back to God in sacrifice, not taken into ourselves. And why had Jesus equated the broken bread with his own flesh? At this point, even the most think-headed of the apostles must have suspected this strange new ceremony had something to do with their Master’s frequent predictions of his impending death. Jesus himself confirmed these suspicions by turning the conversation to the betrayal he would soon suffer at the hands of one of his dinner companions. You and I have heard this story so many times we are used to it, but frankly this is a pretty strange business. Of course, things will get worse.

Following that final supper together, Jesus retreated with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked three of his friends to watch with him as he prayed to his Father. But fallen humanity is a frail thing, and Peter, James and John were overcome by sleep. So Jesus faced that last dark night alone … and he was afraid. Our Savior was at once perfect God and perfect man, but we must remember that Jesus truly was a man. St. Mark tells us that Jesus “began to be greatly distressed and troubled.” He “hurled himself” onto the ground in his distress—the word in Greek is a violent one. Many early copies of the Gospel according to St. Luke record that Christ actually sweated blood, so great was his anxiety. Of course, if any of us were facing the prospect of an excruciating death by crucifixion we would probably become unhinged. But Jesus knew that physical suffering was just a part of what he must undergo. Christ was to bear the spiritual burden of the entire world’s sin even as the nails tore into his flesh. Human minds cannot grasp the immensity of this truth—it remains a mystery to us. But in some way beyond our comprehension, Christ would take all the pain and grief that the entire human race has ever known or will ever know into his very own soul, even as his flesh was racked by one of the cruelest tortures ever invented. And the Savior would endure all this alone. "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,” he told his friends—perhaps the greatest understatement of all time. Yet Christ’s perfect humanity—full of fear and sorrow though it may have been--was also perfectly obedient to the will of His Father. "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt." It was the Father’s will that His Son bear the Cross of our Redemption, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world. Jesus would pay the price for our freedom alone, betrayed by one whom he loved and abandoned by all those who had been most devoted to him—a point we will drive home tonight as we strip this sanctuary of its glories and we leave the church in silence, making our way into the dark of night.

Yet while the atoning sacrifice could only be offered by Christ Himself, its effects were not to be solitary. Jesus made this clear during that first Eucharist, if only his disciples had ears to hear it. Passover was not the only story from the Book of Exodus in the air that night. In the 24th chapter of Exodus, after Moses has received the Ten Commandments and other laws from the LORD, God tells him to assemble the people at the foot of Mount Sinai and offer sacrifice. There Moses “took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood [of the sacrifice] and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” The “blood of the covenant”—Sound familiar? A new people of God had come into existence there at Sinai, bound to Him and to one another by the spattered blood of sacrifice, the blood of the old covenant.

"This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood,” Jesus told the Twelve. Here Christ was remaking the people of God before their very eyes. The Upper Room had become a new Sinai, or rather the true Sinai—a place where they not only met God face to face, but where God Incarnate gave His very self to them. A renewed Israel was coming into existence at the hands of the Messiah, bound together this time by the blood of the spotless Lamb of God. Tomorrow Christ’s people will be consecrated forever at the Place of the Skull when His sacred blood dashes against the stones. Now “Types and shadows have their ending.” The blood of bulls and goats has been left behind. For Christ’s blood is truly Life—a life now infused into the dry bones of God’s scattered people. Christ’s Body, broken at Golgotha and raised from the garden tomb, will abide on earth in the Israel of the New Covenant, Christ’s holy Church, a people who continually offer Eucharist until His coming again in glory.

Bread and wine, Body and Blood, a new covenant—that first Maundy Thursday must have been thoroughly confusing for His apostles. It is one of the supreme ironies of history that the only people who ever received the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ from the Lord’s own hands did not yet understand the treasure they had just been given or what it meant for the salvation of the world. On Thursday night they could not really know what it meant. Good Friday and Easter Sunday were yet to come. But you and I know that the consecrated bread and wine we shall soon receive here were purchased at an unspeakably high price—a price no less than the blood of God.

But this was a price God was willing to pay. Despite our own sin and all the might of the powers of this present darkness, nothing could keep Divine Love from saving us and uniting us to Himself. Tomorrow we will commemorate God’s supreme act of love and forgiveness, when the Savior poured out His life for us on the cross. But Christ’s love is just as great today as during that first Holy Week. He still is offering Himself up for us before the throne of glory, and he will do so eternally. And He still longs to pour himself out for us right here and now--God’s love made manifest in the sacrament of the altar. When we receive His precious Body and Blood, Christ will unite Himself to us again, body and soul, humanity and divinity. And along with the bread of heaven, Christ offers us the gift of eternal life. No wonder St. Ignatius, a great bishop and martyr of the early Church, called Holy Communion “the medicine of immortality.”

The Holy Communion that Christ established on this night so long ago, while one of His most precious gifts to His people, is also a great and glorious mystery. This altar will not be understood by those who cannot see through the material world into spiritual realities. The Holy Spirit must touch our hearts and open the eyes of faith if we are to behold the real presence of Christ here. The altar is a place where time and eternity intersect, where the commonplace and the sacred meet. For those with eyes to see, there is Jacob’s ladder, where angels and archangels and all the company of heaven descend to sing the Sanctus with us. For those with eyes to see, there is Mount Sinai, where the covenant people gather and are formed into one Body. For those with eyes to see, there is the blood-soaked wood of Calvary, the place of atonement. There is the bare stone slab of Easter morning, source of new and unending life in Christ. This is a mystery for the ages. Christ will truly be here with us. You and I are about to hold on our tongues the most precious substance in the Universe. Christ’s Body and Blood will become part of our bodies and blood. Tonight we will kneel before the altar of repose and guard a treasure far greater than that of all the banks and museums on the planet combined. Behold the Living God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. O Come, let us adore Him. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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