A sermon for Maundy Thursday

Tonight we remember the night before Jesus died. The Last Supper, that final meal the disciples and their teacher shared with one another. After all the time they’d been together, all the places they’d been, all of the adventures they’d had together, things were coming to a close. I’m not sure they realized this but Jesus certainly did, and it was the last time they would be together in this way.

Everything would change after Friday, after Easter Sunday, after the Resurrection. While they’re still, Jesus delivers a long discourse. He’s basically trying to tell them everything he thinks they need to know, and it’s his last chance to do this. They haven’t been so good at understanding so far, so there’s a real sense of urgency to making sure that they understand his message.

Of course, this is the night when Jesus took bread and wine, blessed, it, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Do this in memory of me.” That was the first Eucharist, and we followers of Jesus, have been doing it ever since. And we’ve been trying to understand it ever since, because it is a mystery. I visited a museum in Santa Fe, a folk art museum, where they had a little piece that really caught my eye. It was a tableau by a Portuguese artist called The Last Supper. Little hand-painted ceramic figures, all seated around the table. Jesus has the cup raised, he’s looking up to heaven, and the 12 apostles are around him, and their expressions are all over the place.

Some of them are looking very devout. Some of them are totally distracted—they’re having a little side conversation of their own. And some of them look totally befuddled. Like, what?

We still see all of those reactions in church at one time or another, and I think if we’re honest, probably each one of us has had all of those reactions at one time or another.

Because this gift that Jesus has given us, it’s a mystery; we can experience it, but we can never really understand it. Sometimes, I think we church people worry too much about the details, as if we were in charge of the Eucharist, in charge of making it work right. We worry, how should we train Eucharistic ministers? What kinds of vessels should we put the wine in, and what kind of bread is okay?

Then when the churches were closed for covid nobody knew what to do about communion, and different churches found all kinds of solutions. Some of them had little baggies that they gave out as people drove by, so they could take the wafers home and have communion while watching a service on TV. Some people just had Morning Prayer because they didn’t feel it was right somehow to have Holy Communion if all the people watching couldn’t really have it. It was a dilemma.

One of the dilemmas the church has concerned itself with a lot is whether it’s okay for people who aren’t baptized to receive communion. The official answer right now is no, not usually. But when the church gathers again for General Convention this summer, that is going to be one of the items that will be the debated, whether to change that rule or not. I think there are good arguments on either side, so I have no opinion that I’m going to share here tonight.

But one thing I will say is that I have learned a tremendous amount about the meaning of the Eucharist from people who have received it even though they weren’t baptized. I’m thinking in particular of two Episcopal women—I don’t know if you’ve heard of them—Sara Miles is one, and Cynthia Bourgeault is the other. What these women have in common is that they were self-proclaimed atheists, basically, who at different times in their life received their first communion by accident.

In the case of Sara Miles, she was walking down the street on a cloudy Sunday morning in San Francisco, passing an Episcopal church, and something in her heart made her want to go in, and she received communion. Her story doesn’t begin there, but it really takes off from there.

Cynthia Bourgeault went to a church in London, Ontario, strictly because she wanted to hear the London Boy Choir from London, England, and they were singing there. She wasn’t paying attention to what other things were happening in that church, in addition to the singing of the boy choir, and the next thing she knew, she was in the communion line. She also received communion as she says, “by accident.”

What’s really interesting to me is what happened then, because each of those women knew that they had encountered Christ, even though till that moment, they hadn’t been believers. In that encounter, their lives were changed.

Sara Miles went on to join that same church. She was the founder of a huge food pantry program in San Francisco. She began to do pastoral ministry to sick people and people who were really hurting, and she’s written a couple of great books about it. Cynthia Bourgeault went on to be ordained, and she’s also an author and has written some very influential books about spirituality. But their lives were never the same after that encounter with Christ.

I think sometimes when we worry about the little things, we forget what communion is supposed to do for us. What does it mean to consume Christ? What does it mean, by so doing, to become part of a community, to become part of something bigger than ourselves? What does it mean to be the body of Christ? What does it mean to be transformed by this experience?

Jesus in his discourse in John’s Gospel has a lot of things to say about that. But the the church has picked out to emphasize in tonight’s reading, is the new commandment. The new commandment to love one another: “To love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus says,

And how did he love? The washing of the feet that night was a symbolic act in which he demonstrated that that love was going to be different from anything his people had known before. That the Teacher, their Lord and God, would perform the work of normally done by a slave by washing their feet. Peter wasn’t ready to receive that love at first. It was a big thing for him to accept that kind of love.

To love as I have loved you, this tremendous self-giving love. The love that pours itself out on the cross, the love that won’t back down from the truth, the love that will go wherever it takes him and he will do whatever is necessary.

I want to finish with a prayer that sums up some of these ideas about love and the Eucharist.

You might have heard this in another church. I think it sets the tone for the rest of the service tonight.

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready.
It is the table of company with Jesus,
and all who love him.
It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world,
with whom Jesus identified himself.
It is the table of communion with the earth,
in which Christ became incarnate.
So come to this table,
you who have much faith
and you who would like to have more;
you who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time;
you who have tried to follow Jesus,
and you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.[i]

Amen.

Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol PA.


[i] Iona Abbey Worship Book, 53.