Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Feast of Love (a sermon for Maundy Thursday)

‘Altar smashed in local parish church; who is the culprit?’ If you were to read this headline in the Edmonton Examiner, I’m fairly sure that the local Anglican bishop would not be at the top of your list of suspects! But there was a time in Anglican history when the bishops of the Church of England had a lot to do with the smashing of altars. In 1549, when the first English Book of Common Prayer was published, the leaders of the church wanted to emphasise that the Lord’s Supper was meant to be a fellowship supper, not a sacrifice for sins. And so they commanded that the stone altars standing at the eastern end of each parish church should be destroyed, and in their place, wooden communion tables should be set up in the chancels. For nearly a hundred years, Christians in England didn’t receive communion kneeling at an altar rail, but standing around a plain wooden table. It wasn’t until the middle of the next century that ritualists, who wanted to re-emphasise ceremonies, began to rebuild the altars and do away with the communion tables.

I may not agree with altar-smashing, but I think that those Anglican leaders in the sixteenth century were being guided by a true New Testament idea when they decided to emphasise the Lord’s Supper as a fellowship meal. After all, when we read the New Testament account of the Last Supper, it’s quite clear that it was in fact a meal. And in the book of Acts, the phrase ‘breaking bread together’ is used both for sharing a meal and for sharing the Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, when we read the earliest accounts of Christian worship in the New Testament, it seems very clear that they were centred around meals. Early Christian worship seems to have consisted of shared meals, with prayers and teaching added; it wasn’t until later that these gatherings evolved into what we now think of as formal church services.

And this helps us to make sense of the theme of this service tonight. The idea that binds the whole service together is the idea of love. Jesus says to his disciples:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
The ‘new commandment’ tells us that we should love one another as Jesus has loved us. How has Jesus loved us? Surely the supreme act of his love for us is his death on the Cross. And this is what we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper; whatever else it is, it is a thanksgiving for his death for us.

As Jesus has loved us, we are called to love one another. In the time of Jesus, there was a sacredness about sharing a meal together; to eat with people was to say “This is my community; this is where I belong. These are my family and my friends, and I will be loyal to them to the end”. In other words, a meal together was a sign of the very love that Jesus was commanding his followers to have for one another. And this love is not just a nice romantic theory; they are to be ready and willing to do the slave’s job for each other, washing dirty feet that had been tramping the dusty roads of Judea. In other words, there are to be no social divisions between Christians, no slaves and masters; if the master has washed his disciples’ feet, and the disciples are to wash each other’s feet, then the relationship between the disciples is going to be radically transformed.

So that’s why we’re here tonight - and not just tonight, but every time we come together to share this Supper that Jesus has given us. First, we’re here in thankful remembrance of his love for us. Paul emphasises that remembrance in his story of the last supper, which we read as our epistle for tonight:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said. ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The broken bread tells us of the Lord’s body, broken on the cross for us. The wine poured out tells us of his blood that was poured out for our sins and the sins of the whole world.

This whole service is all about the cross. The Eucharistic Prayer, which I pray over the bread and wine, retells the story of the cross and all that Jesus did there for us. To come forward in faith to receive the bread and wine is to come and receive afresh the blessings that Jesus won for us at the cross. We come empty-handed, completely dependent on him and on his love for us. But the host of this great meal doesn’t send us away empty handed; we eat the bread and drink from the cup, and we feed on him in our hearts as we trust him and give thanks to him.

So we’re here tonight to celebrate God’s love for us, shown to us in Jesus and his cross; everything else comes from this and is based on this. But we’re also here in obedience to his command to love one another as he has loved us. We share a meal together as a sign of this love, and we’re called to be willing to show that the sign is real, by doing real, sacrificial acts of love for one another.

I sometimes wish we still celebrated the Holy Communion around a meal table, as part of a real communal meal. To Paul, it was very important that the unity celebrated in the Lord’s Supper be a real unity. Our epistle for tonight is taken from 1 Corinthians chapter 11, and in that chapter Paul addresses some problems in the way the Christians at Corinth shared the Lord’s Supper. It seems that in those days it was still a real supper. But some of the Corinthians were coming early and helping themselves to the lion’s share of the feast, even going so far as to get drunk on the wine! Latecomers arrived to find there was nothing left for them. Paul was angry about this – and not just about the drunkenness, which we would have expected him to condemn. Listen to what he says:
What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? (v.22)
His concern, you see, is that to greedily take the lion’s share of the food is to show contempt for poorer Christians – and this is a violation of the unity of the Body of Christ!

Imagine the revolutionary nature of the Lord’s Supper in the early church. Slaves and masters sat together at the same table to share the bread and wine – slaves, who were considered mere tools, the property of their masters, sitting down as equals with them. Aristocrats shared a meal with tent-makers and artisans and manual labourers. Men, women, and children sat down together, when the society around them said that women were second-class citizens who ought to be out in the kitchen serving, not in the living room sharing as equals. No wonder the church in later years moved away from emphasising this aspect of the Lord’s Supper – it was far too revolutionary for the Roman Empire! And it’s far too revolutionary for us today, or we wouldn’t tolerate a situation where people come to communion together and then one goes home in a Lexus and another goes home to macaroni and cheese.

We all come to God as equals – all equally in debt to Jesus for our salvation. And so we share at the Lord’s Table as equals – there is no Greek or Roman, priest or lay person, Iraqi or American, manual labourer or CEO, but all are one in Christ. And because of this equality, we serve one another in acts of practical love.

Or at least, we should do; in reality, I know that far too often I’ve spoken words of love and then refused to live out the reality behind those words. When I was living in Aklavik, local native people sometimes asked me if I would do their income tax returns for them. I always refused; I was too busy, I said, which was a lie. I wasn’t too busy; I just didn’t want to be bothered. But I knew how to do tax returns, while for many of them, tax returns were absolutely incomprehensible. One of my predecessors, Tom Osmond, had done dozens of them each year. He understood what the command to love one another was all about; it meant doing practical acts of love, even when you don’t feel like doing it. I was a long way behind him.

One last thing: if this is real, the world will notice. Often the world notices us Christians when we bring discredit on the name of Jesus: when a fundamentalist preacher holds up a sign that says ‘God hates fags’, for instance. But what if we became known for our love? What if we lived lives of such obvious love for one another that people were reminded of Jesus every time they encountered us?

That’s obviously what Jesus had in mind when he got the whole thing going in the first place. Let me finish by reading his words to you one more time – and I want you to pay special attention to the part at the end, where he talks about how people will be able to tell that we are his disciples:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

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