The Last Supper
A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Maundy Thursday, 2016 at St. Mary's, North Castle
Today is Maundy Thursday.
Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation.
But why is this Thursday called ‘Maundy’? It is an evolution of the Latin word, ‘mandatum’, and it refers to the mandate, the commission if you will, that Jesus gives to his disciples when they are gathered in a stone-hewn second floor room of a rented house in Jerusalem sometime around one thousand nine hundred and eighty years ago.
The mandate is quite simply this: we are commissioned to do what Jesus has done. Throughout his ministry he has been a servant of others. He has been a king with a difference: a king who serves. And he has loved without any conditions.
Today, Maundy Thursday, there are two specific actions of servant-hood that we focus on in the story of Jesus. First, he washes the feet of his disciples, and second, he institutes what we now know as the Eucharist.
As it happens, we are not doing the liturgical foot washing ceremony this evening, for logistical reasons, mainly because this lovely rural church does not have running water, or the means to warm up water. But we are, of course, celebrating the Eucharist.
But how come, since Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, that this is not something we do every week? After all, we celebrate the Eucharist every week. I think the answer lies in the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘being’. It’s not the action of carrying out the foot washing, or the Eucharist, that is the most important thing. It’s how we carry it out.
St. Augustine of Hippo came up, in the very earliest years of the church, of the classic definition of a sacrament. ‘A sacrament’, he says’ ‘is the outward and visible symbol of an inward and spiritual grace’. Sometimes we get so tied up with the outward and visible symbols that we end up paying less attention to the inward and spiritual grace. But the old maxim holds true, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it.’ Ella Fitzgerald immortalized that phrase.
So, far more important than the act of foot washing is what is embodied in it – that it is symbolic of the most basic and down-to-earth service to a person that there can be. It removes hierarchy, it removes airs and graces, it makes us human at a very vulnerable level. Which is what true servant-hood looks like.
And what of the Eucharist? Tonight, we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist. And I’d like to take this opportunity to give a short sketch, as it were, of the development of the theology of the Eucharist over the centuries.
I am reminded of a priest friend in North Carolina telling me about one of her parishioners. This person would often said that, for her, the act of receiving communion was the remarkable fact that this small fragment of bread and wine nourished her so much that she was able to “go out and slay dragons” throughout the week.
It made me think about the impact and power of the Eucharist and how it empowers us. It seems extraordinary, does it not, that such a seemingly small thing could have such a huge significance. Today’s gospel reading relates the account of Jesus saying that we need to eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, for if we do not, we do not have life within us. But what might all of this mean, and what might it mean for us?
There are as many theologies of the Eucharist as there are denominations of the Church, as people throughout the ages have tried to make sense of this gift that Jesus has given to us. These theologies have been the source not just of devotional discussion but of impassioned argument and even geo-political strife. So let me relate to you briefly the main theologies. A sort of Eucharist 101, if you will.
Perhaps the best known of those theologies, and perhaps the most notorious for us as Anglicans, is the theology of transubstantiation. It’s difficult to spell, and even more difficult to comprehend but it essentially posits that when the words of institution are recited by the priest (those are the words that repeat what Jesus said in the Upper Room on the night before his death) the elements of bread and of wine actually become the flesh and blood of Christ. There are some issues with this view: first and foremost, no matter what we say, the bread and the wine still resolutely look like bread and wine. Now, those who subscribe to transubstantiation say that the actual change IS effected in every way except for appearance. This seems to me to be a cop-out. When Jesus became incarnate – that is to say he became human and lived among us as a human being, he really was human. He looked human, and he was human. He was the real deal. He was as much human as he was divine. The whole point about Jesus becoming human was, not to put too fine a point on it, that he actually became human. Either he was human or he wasn’t. For me, the doctrine of transubstantiation hits the buffers because our experience surely teaches us that when God says he will do something, he actually does it. When I was preaching here last time, we were looking at the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Now, whatever we conclude about that miracle, what seems to be over-ridingly clear is that what those folks were eating was actually bread and fish, not just some elaborate dis-ingenuity.
When Martin Luther was taking issue with many aspects of Roman Catholicism, he alighted, not altogether surprisingly, on the doctrine of transubstantiation. For him, transubstantiation was problematic largely because of what I’ve just talked about. The incarnation: God becoming human meant that Jesus was wholly and completely human and wholly and completely divine. Although this is somewhat mind-bending a concept for our poor human brains, if we can deal with it in terms of Jesus as fully human and fully divine, then consistency would dictate that the Eucharist must also therefore be as much human as divine. In other words, that the bread and wine coexist with the body and blood. That the bread and the wine are still fully human elements, but that they are also the fully divine entities of the body and blood of Christ. This is perhaps not too surprising a theology from Luther, as he was a Roman Catholic monk. Today, most Lutherans would subscribe to a theology similar to this, and they refer to it as ‘sacramental union’.
Crucially, there is a subtle yet vital distinction that Luther makes when contrasting his theology with the medieval Roman Catholic theology of transubstantiation: at the Eucharist we are not re-creating Christ, but making him present.
Another vital distinction that can be made from the historic Roman Catholic position is this: when Christ died on the cross, it was once for all, and surely not each and every Eucharist requires Christ to be re-sacrificed again and again.
For the German Luther’s Swiss contemporary, Huldrych Zwingli, the Eucharist was simply a memorial meal. That wasn’t to say that it wasn’t significant, but that it wasn’t recreating or invoking Christ’s actual bodily presence but, rather, was a way of us being faithful to Christ’s teaching by doing what he commanded us to do the night before he died. For Zwingli, we were holding a special, sacred meal where we intentionally recalled what Jesus said, and why he said it.
There is a phrase used to sum up Anglicanism: the tradition to which, of course, we subscribe. It is ‘via media’. Roughly translated, it means ‘having your cake and eating it’. Actually, I just made that up. But what it does mean is, literally, ‘the middle way’. Anglicanism often charts a path between extremes, and embraces the best from different traditions. The Anglican position on the Eucharist is often summed up by the phrase ‘the Real Presence’: that the words of institution invite Jesus to be present with us in a special way as we take the bread and the wine and intentionally bless them as holy. Now, I want to point out that there is a wide range of views in the Anglican world on what the Eucharist is about. You will find every shade of opinion from medieval Roman Catholic to Zwinglian. But Anglicanism has always been a broad church, a big house capable of accommodating many different kinds of people. That’s fine. In fact it’s more than fine. Generally, all people are trying to do is to make sense of what it is that Jesus did in the Upper Room the night before he died, and to honor that, and be reverential towards it. People do that in different ways, and reach different conclusions. I really don’t think God minds too much. What God smiles on is that each of these traditions, in their own ways, represent our human attempts to get into closer and deeper relationship with God.
I want to leave us with two thoughts about the Eucharist. My two cents into the centuries-old discussion. First, let’s not devalue the basic , everyday bread and wine: the ordinary things of the world, in our attempt to make the Eucharist special and holy. For me, that we have bread, a wonderful, essential food, created from the nurturing of a tiny seed with sunlight, air and water into something that keeps us alive, and wine through a similar process, is miraculous enough itself to speak of God’s power and glory and care for the world. When we take communion today, let’s celebrate that miracle of creation and nature. Second, let’s remember that in the words of institution, Jesus says ‘do this for the remembrance of me’. Theology has spent an awful lot of time and energy on what is meant by the word ‘remembrance’ and much less on the word ‘this’. When Jesus asks us to do ‘this’ in remembrance of him, what is the ‘this’ he talks about? I think it’s much more than taking the bread and wine. It’s HOW we take the bread and the wine. In that Upper Room Jesus was among his friends. Our Eucharistic Prayers often actually say that. And he didn’t just take the bread and wine, he shared the bread and wine. And when he took the bread and wine and spoke of his impending death, he made himself vulnerable to those around him. When we approach this altar later in this service, whether we are followers of Luther, or Zwingli, or Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin in this regard, let’s keep uppermost in our minds that what God’s calls us in this act of worship is sharing, among friends, among whom we are prepared, as with any true servant-hood, to make ourselves vulnerable.