Weekly Preaching: Maundy Thursday 2020

April 6th, 2020

Maundy Thursday, such a lovely night. I can't talk long, for they come, not for the sermon, but for the tangible experience, the bodily encounter. Just a little bread and wine. And now, with COVID-19, they can't even come. What to do? I don't have a great theology around me blessing elements people can pick up on their own. There's something about the gathered community sharing, and now. Would it be suspect to ask everyone to have some bread and juice (or wine), tune in to our livestream / FB live, and I consecrate all the elements and we partake together? 

Clergy and theologians are arguing the propriety of this. To me, there's always a virtuality to the Eucharist. We participate in a meal taking place in another place, at another time. My people can at least be together, and partake together, albeit in differing rooms. We do this at my place anyhow, as often people watch the service from an adjacent room. And while I wish we could share just one loaf, we have several. They are all blessed. Jesus is eager to be with his people this Thursday. Our plan is for me to do a livestream from my dining room table and guide everyone through the liturgy together, and then we'll partake together. There's no precedent being set for having communion at home when you feel like it. On the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus said Do this. He didn't specify precisely how during a pandemic.

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I don't usually focus on the footwashing in John 13, although it's theologically provocative, especially in this season when hygiene, sanitizers, etc., are huge. But it’s way too easy to flatten it out: Jesus served humbly, so go and serve others humbly (although Pope Francis sure revolutionized how we'll forever think about footwashing after doing for women, and Muslims!). I’m not sure John would say that was his one-liner takeaway… Besides, we have so much all year long about serving anyhow that Holy Week, for me, needs devotion to Jesus and his literally sacramental death.

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If we continue tracking Luke's narrative (per this year's lectionary), we find much of interest. Jesus gathers, not with family (as most Jews would) but with his new family, the disciples; Peter Scazzero speaks of the church as "re-familying." God calls us into new relationships, new kinships that sustain us and are the priority for us. "When the hour had come" (Luke 22:14) would be sundown on Nisan 14, when the angel of death passed over the Israelites whose doors were marked with blood. Haunting, and rich in Christological nuance. They "took their places" at dinner: Did they recall Jesus' words about who sits where, and who shows up at dinner back in Luke 14?

Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington remind us how the "words of institution," so rote for us, would then have been "shocking, provocative, and ultimately obscure." Cannibalism? Blood out of the body made one impure. How close does Jesus as God down here want to get to us? Not merely in the same room, or bumping up next to us; he wants to get inside us, so he lets himself be fed on by us.

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

I don't usually re-envision biblical scenes at length, but on Maundy Thursday I invite my people 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 Psalms, any or all of 113-118. What did their voices sound like? Did Jesus or one of the others lead? Did they harmonize? How did "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints” (in Psalm 116, our lection for the day!) or “This is the day the Lord has made” (from 118) resonate with Jesus and the rest of them? 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.

Beyond any doubt, Jesus stared at that bread and caught a vision of what would happen to his own flesh the next day. He then peered into the wine and glimpsed an image of the blood he would shed. How haunting, lovely, gripping, and poignant.

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 frankly 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 we 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 book which came out a year ago, 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.”

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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 before 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 that 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, we must remember 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.” 

What can we say on Maundy Thursday, in Covid-19 Holy Week? originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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