March 24, 2005

Remember That You are Alive: Jesus' Last Supper and Sacramental Living

St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
Maunday Thursday; March 24, 2005
Exodus 12:1-14a; Psalm 78:14-20,23-25; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26(27-32); Luke 22:14-30

I love the television show The Simpsons ("One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish," from Season Two), which chronicles the life of an eccentric and flawed, but nevertheless loving, family in the fictional town of Springfield. In one of my favorite episodes, Homer Simpson, the bumbling father of the family, is told that the exotic blowfish he has eaten was not properly prepared, and so is very poisonous -- and Homer has 24 hours to live.

What would you do if that happened to you?

I think Homer does what most of us would do. He makes a long list -- a list that's probably been growing in the back of his mind for a long time -- of things he'd wanted to do before he died, and he hadn't done. He has to cross off the major achievements -- climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, make millions, win an Oscar, that sort of thing -- immediately. There's no time to do those.

But there are a lot of important things he hasn't done yet that he could do, or at least start. He teaches his son to shave. He tells those he loves how he feels about them. He calls his long-neglected father in the nursing home and tries to renew their relationship. And the guy who would rather stay home making his famous ultra-sweet "moon-waffles" wrapped around sticks of butter than go to church gets a recording of Larry King reading the entire bible, and he listens to the whole thing after his family has gone to sleep. He finally gets to some of the most crucial items on his very long list of "things ... left undone," and in the process, lives out what might be the best day of his life.

What would you do, if you thought you were going to die tomorrow?

Jesus faces that question on the night we now call Maundy Thursday.

I do believe that Jesus performed miracles, but on this night, it wouldn’t take a miracle for Jesus to know what was coming the next day. It was Passovertide, when all pious Jews were commanded to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were about six million Jews spread across the Roman Empire, and a significant percentage of them headed for Jerusalem. The city was clogged with pilgrims. Have you ever seen footage of what Mecca looks like during the Haj, the pilgrimage commanded of all pious Muslim men? Jerusalem probably looked something like that during Passover, as thousands upon thousands of pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the liberation of God's people from unjust foreign rule.

Those vast crowds, all aware of how God delivered them in the past from foreign rule, and many eagerly awaiting a new prophet like Moses, who would deliver them from the power of Rome, would make any governor in the empire jumpy, and with good reason. Trouble was easy to stir up in crowds like that, and any governor who allowed such trouble to arise would lose his job, if not his life. Most governors of Judea only lasted a couple of years. Pontius Pilate was not a man to take chances, and he held the populace in such terror that he ruled Judea as governor for nearly twenty years.

But Pilate knew that Passover was a particularly dangerous time for Rome, and to make sure the crowds didn’t rise up, Pilate lined the pilgrims' way into the city with crosses, the victims on them serving as an endless and unspeakably horrific living tableau of what would happen to any who dared disrupt the peace of the empire.

Even then, Pilate made sure that his guards could keep careful watch over the Temple, where streetcorner prophets proclaimed a God who was more powerful even than the Roman armies. Guards stationed in the taller building next to the Temple could see directly into its courts and be ready to respond if there was a disturbance.

That was the situation in Judea as Jesus celebrated the Passover with his friends. And days before, in the midst of all of that tension, Jesus had entered Jerusalem surrounded by crowds who loudly proclaimed him, and not Caesar, as king. That alone would have provoked Pilate, and any local authorities who depended upon Pilate for their positions of power and privilege.

But that wasn’t all that Jesus did. After Jesus took part in this Palm Sunday demonstration, he made his way to the Temple, where -- in the midst of vast and easily agitated crowds, and in full view of the Roman garrisons -- he was shouting, overturning tables, pushing people ... disturbing the peace of Rome in a very dangerous time.

And so, on this night, Jesus knew what was coming. He and his friends had walked by those crosses on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus knew what was coming -- he knew it ever since on the mountaintop, shining like the sun and appearing in the company of Moses, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem to accomplish a new exodus. I do believe that Jesus worked miracles by God's power, but no supernatural knowledge would have been needed on this night to see that he was headed for a cross. Jesus chose this path, and he knew that this night was probably the last night before his death.

What would you do, if it were you? What would you do, if you knew that tomorrow you were going to die?

Here's what Jesus did:

He put on a dinner.

He did what he did every night: he invited people to eat with him. He invited his friends; he also invited the man whom he knew would betray him. He gathered friends and enemies, righteous and wicked and places in between, and he broke bread with them, and offered them wine. He ate with them, as he had countless times before. He celebrated the Passover with them, as he did every year.

That's a life lived with absolute integrity. Jesus knows that in all likelihood, he's going to die tomorrow. This is the time for any unfinished business -- to say anything that needs saying, to do whatever has been left undone, put off.

But Jesus does what he always does, because what he always does, his entire career -- his healings, his parables, his wonder-working -- was doing what he does this night, what he does every time he sits down to a meal. When people want to talk about Jesus' power, they often talk about the spectacular, the stilling of the storm, the raising of the dead. But Jesus' power is demonstrated at least as clearly in what happens when he breaks bread.

When Jesus broke bread, everyone -- the Pharisee and the leper, the rich and the poor, righteous and sinners -- experienced God's welcome at his table. When Jesus broke bread, the hungry were fed. When Jesus broke bread, serving any who came to him, people experienced what REAL power, God's power, does:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)

Jesus, having lived with integrity to his last meal, does what he always does: he issues an invitation in the breaking of the bread. On this night, as Jesus invites us to his table, he invites us to live with that kind of integrity, to remember him EVERY time we break bread -- at the altar, certainly, but also in the lunchroom and the dorm cafeteria, the family dinner table or the counter at the diner. Whenever we break bread, or draw breath, we are invited to do so in remembrance of Jesus, until he comes to complete the redemption of the world for which God anointed him.

And there is another invitation, in this breaking of bread. For on this night, on the night he was betrayed, on the night before he died for us, Jesus broke bread, and said to those gathered, "This is my Body." Not just the bread, but the company who gather to share it: this is Jesus' Body, given for the world. And whenever we gather with others made in God's image, other for whom Christ gave himself, Jesus invites us to do so in remembrance of him, aware of and honoring his presence.

It's a solemn charge Jesus gives us tonight. Paul cites Jesus' words on this night to back up his contention that those who fail to "discern the Body" gathered for the Lord's meal, those who fail to recognize everyone Jesus invites to his table as being members of the Body of Christ, are "eating and drinking judgment upon themselves" (1 Cor. 11:29).

But what an opportunity, to encounter and receive Christ in the homeless veteran in the Winter Shelter where we volunteer, in a client with whom we're having a business lunch, in a daughter as we share a snack before bedtime. What an opportunity, to live every moment as an invitation to feast with Jesus, who held every meal as if it were the Messianic banquet.

St. Benedict in the sixth century gave his fellowship of monks a solemn charge: as a regular part of life together, he said, “remember that you will die.” That’s an invitation we receive tonight, as we witness and reenact what Jesus did when he knew he was about to die. And as we do that, we receive another invitation, one that follows from the first:

Remember that today, you are ALIVE. Today, you have the most precious of gifts, the most important of opportunities: to LIVE as Jesus lived. Today, Jesus invites you and me to experience the fullness of abundant life. TONIGHT. Don’t put it off until you think you’ve earned it, until the nest egg is big enough, until the kids are in college, until you think you have time. This is it! Tonight’s the night! Tonight is our last supper together before the resurrection of the dead. Tonight is the night to experience God’s power as Christ, come among us to serve. Tonight, Jesus invites us to approach this table as he did for his last supper, fully alive, fully receiving and serving everyone willing to receive and be served. Tonight, we are invited to break bread in the presence of the one who celebrated his last supper as he did every meal. TONIGHT, Jesus invites us to BE in the world the Body of the one whose body was broken FOR the world. TONIGHT, we are alive in Christ, and tonight is the night to live into that truth, that abundant and eternal life. Now. Tonight.

Thanks be to God!

March 24, 2005 in 1 Corinthians, Community, Eucharist, Exodus, Holy Week, Luke, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack