Maundy Thursday (April 13, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Ex. 12:1-14; Ps. 116:1, 10-17; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17; 31b-35
On Maundy Thursday, we gather together to remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and tonight it is appropriate that we celebrate this supper as the early church did, in the context of a broader agape meal. For the earliest Christians, the Lord’s Supper was not a ritual separate and distinct from the act of eating and drinking for sustenance; it was a proper supper, and the bread and wine would have been consumed alongside a range of other foods. This practice reflected the fact that, according to the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper took place on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and was part of the Jewish Passover meal. From the beginning, the lines dividing sacred and profane, ritual from ordinary routine, were blurred. Paul underscores the point when, in his re-telling of the institution in 1 Corinthians, he notes that it was “after supper” that Jesus took the cup of wine, implying that he and the disciples had a full meal before they drank from it.
This practice of coming together to share a communal meal was one of the distinctive marks of the early Jesus movement. In a second century letter to the Emperor Trajan, the Roman governor Pliny the Younger reports:
they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it has been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to eat a meal together, of an ordinary harmless kind.
The practice of meeting in houses and taking meals together caught the attention of the Romans because it flouted the social conventions of the time. Rich and poor, benefactors and patrons, were accustomed to eating in separate areas of the house, the elite in an area called the triclinium and the rest of the people in the atrium; but in the Christian house churches, everyone ate together. Each was encouraged to bring what food and drink they could and share with others. It was one of their most powerful ways of showing how they were different from the surrounding culture.
Now the practice was not without abuse. The reason Paul recounts the institution of the Lord’s Supper in tonight’s reading from 1 Corinthians is because their common meals had gone horribly wrong. “When you come together,” Paul chastises them, “it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of your goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (11:20-21). It turns out the rich hoarded their food for themselves, leaving none for the others. Paul says, “Whoever… eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27). Strikingly, Paul’s point is that Eucharistic piety and basic standards of fairness go together; no Communion without justice. Appropriately, his major recommendation is not merely liturgical, but ethical: “when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (11:33-34).
There are hints of abuse and betrayal in John’s telling of the Last Supper as well. As is often the case, John’s depiction of this scene is different from the Synoptic gospels. Here the Last Supper takes place before the festival of the Passover, rather than during it, and there is no mention of any institution of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, John’s Jesus institutes another practice, footwashing.
Footwashing before a meal was nothing radical or new; it was customary for slaves to wash the feet of masters and guests. Traveling everywhere by foot, guests would have gotten their sandaled feet dirty. But a leader washing the feet of his disciples: that was new, and subversive again of the social conventions of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus offers this practice as an example, saying, “you also should do as I have done to you.” Later in the chapter he will frame this as a new commandment: “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love another” (34). This commandment contains echoes of the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount, but here Jesus fleshes out the teaching through the prism of footwashing: not merely, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but do unto others as I have done unto you. What’s new is not the loving of one’s neighbor as oneself, but the more subversive love that manifests itself in the social convention-flouting practice of footwashing: leaders love your servants, servants love your leaders, rich love the poor, poor love the rich. The synoptic gospels focus on the love embodied in the meal; John focuses on the love that motivates the footwashing before the meal. Together, they enjoin the same thing: radical friendship beyond the divisions of the wider society. In instituting footwashing and the common meal together, Jesus is asking his disciples to make a habit of meeting under one roof, to befriend one another, to be with one another. In these ways they will demonstrate their knowledge of what He has taught them, and by this others will know they are his disciples.
Easier said than done. In between the verses about footwashing (13:3-20) and giving of the new commandment (31-35), Jesus foretells that one of his disciples will betray him. When asked who, Jesus dips a piece of bread into a dish and gives it to Judas, who is then told in cryptic words, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (13:27). If bread in the other Gospels symbolizes Christ’s body, here it is a symbol of betrayal. This is paralleled in Corinth, when Paul warns the Christians there not to eat and drink without discerning the body, lest they “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29). It is a testament to the realism of the gospels that in the course of instituting the central practice of the Church and in giving the new command to love one another, we are reminded of our habit of doing the exact opposite, and how easily we can slide into betrayal and denial, even as we affirm our intention to follow the path to love.
Between the longing to love and temptation to turn away: that is where we find ourselves on Maundy Thursday. On Maundy Thursday, we don’t try to avoid our contradictions or minimize our shortcomings. We do not pretend we are something other than we are. The word “maundy” derives from the Latin mandatum, which means mandate or command. On Maundy Thursday, we hear that command renewed: love one another, as I have loved you. We have come this far in Holy Week to hear it. Now, on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus invites us a step further. To love as he has loved will shortly require that we walk with him from the upper room to Gethsemane, and from Gethsemane to the Sanhedrin, and from the Sanhedrin to Golgotha, and from Golgotha to the tomb. To love as he has loved will soon require entering more deeply into the mystery of His suffering, and coming to know more intimately those places in our world where He suffers today. It will require facing our fears and hoping against hope. But for the moment, that journey requires nothing more than what God has already given us: the gift of our being together, the gift of one another’s love, and the gift of this meal. Amen.