Weekly Preaching: Maundy Thursday

April 10th, 2017

Preaching on Maundy Thursday is like preaching on Ash Wednesday: you have to say something, but not too much, since they come, not for a spate of words, but for a little bread and wine (like the ashes on the forehead). It’s hard for me not to think about the semi-comic scene in Jesus Christ Superstar of the semi-drunk disciples singing “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I could make it if I tried…”

I know clergy who focus on John 13 and the footwashing, which is a theologically rich text. But it’s way too easy to flatten it out: Jesus served humbly, so go and serve others humbly. I’m not sure John would say that was his one-liner takeaway, and we have so much all year long about serving anyhow that Holy Week, for me, needs devotion to Jesus and his literally sacramental death. Pope Francis, though, certainly revolutionized footwashing, doing it not only to women (a first in history for a pope) but to Muslims.

I try to imagine that first Holy Thursday night. Maybe like Palm Sunday, the disciples were in a buoyant, expectant mood, while Jesus was mired in a more somber apprehension of what was to come. They sang — and given the Jewish liturgy, we assume they sang Psalms in that Hallel clump, 113-118. I try to imagine what their voices sounded like. Did Jesus or one of the others lead? Did they harmonize at all? Did they sing “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints” or “This is the day the Lord has made”? This is the preaching angle I often suggest: instead of asking about takeaways or relevance to me today, I just ask people to marvel over what happened then.
I picture Jesus staring at the bread and catching a vision of what would happen to his own flesh the next day, and then peering into the cup and seeing in that wine an image of the blood he would shed. How riveting, poignant, emotionally gripping.
When they ate, what did they think? We quiz candidates for ordination about their theology of the Eucharist; just to be clear, a struggling seminarian and even the less-than-average churchgoer today understands more of what was going on that the disciples did. Austin Farrer (in his unfortunately out of print Crown of the Year) put it beautifully:

“Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.”  

I like that. We are mystified, but we know we receive Jesus himself and are thereby committed to him, come what may. As N.T. Wright rightly suggested, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, “we become walking shrines, living temples in whom the living triune God truly dwells.”
While we include or exclude and feel noble about it, Jesus was utterly inclusive; he makes that shrine thing happen for everybody, even those who don’t believe or have a clue. Jürgen Moltmann (in The Church in the Power of the Spirit) writes, 

“The Lord’s supper takes place on the basis of an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. Because he died for the reconciliation of ‘the world,’ the world is invited to reconciliation in the supper.”
In my new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I quote these words and then turn to the lovely interview Krista Tippett had a while back with Father Greg Boyle, whose ministry with gang members in California is impressive and moving: “We’ve wrestled the cup out of Jesus’ hand and we’ve replaced it with a chalice because who doesn’t know that a chalice is more sacred than a cup, never mind that Jesus didn’t use a chalice?” Then he told how he asked an abused orphan and former gang member in his program, “What did you do for Christmas?” The young man said he cooked a turkey “ghetto-style,” and invited six other guys to join him. When he named them, Boyle recognized them as members of warring gangs. As he pondered them cooking together on Christmas day, he wondered, “So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends.”
A few years ago, it occurred to me that my reflections on something as stupendous and tender as Maundy Thursday were growing stale. How to find a new wrinkle? I tend to forget that Maundy Thursday includes Jesus bolting out into the dark to pray in Gethsemane, then being arrested. On that prayer of agony, I am always moved by Jesus Christ Superstar’s “I Only Want to Say.” 
I’ve made a point over the years of correcting a popular image of Gethsemane — that of Heinrich Hoffman’s “Christ in Gethsemane” (hanging in the Riverside Church, NY) — Jesus praying placidly, well-coiffed, almost as if saying his bedtime prayers. Willem Dafoe captured the searing agony in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” and I’d refer you also to the very interesting take in Mel Gibson’s gory “The Passion of the Christ.”
And then, of course, the poignancy of Judas’s kiss and the arrest. I am continually mentioning the detail that I can’t and don’t even want to explain: in John 18:6 Jesus says, “I am he.” What happened next? “The soldiers drew back and fell to the ground.” 

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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