FYI - I'm in a terribly busy period...loads of papers to write, meetings to go to, etc. So I won't be the most regular blogger for a bit. I've not forgotten you, but my mind is otherwise engaged...or ought to be. If you see me posting any long, involved entries, send me a scolding comment, please.
In lieu of a proper entry I present this sermon, already written for a class and thus presenting no additional work. The text is 1 Corinthians 10:16-17.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today the church celebrates Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday. Maundy - what on earth is that? When I first heard the word Maundy I thought it meant sad, mournful in a maudlin sort of way. "What's wrong, Steve? You look so Maundy."
Of course, Maundy means no such thing. In fact, it really doesn't mean anything at all, at least not in its present form. Maundy is a very English corruption, as only the English can corrupt, of the Latin word mandatum. Mandatum means, roughly, commandment. It survives today in the words mandate and mandatory - something one must do. So today we celebrate a mandatum, something we are to do, and the mandatum that we celebrate is the new commandment to love one another as Christ loved us. It's found in the "Maundy John" gospel, which we'll hear at the end of this evening's liturgy. In it Jesus gives us an example of servant ministry, of love beyond the boundaries of rank and self-interest, and then gives us the commandment to do likewise.
Tonight also commemorates the institution of the Lord's Supper, the sharing of bread and wine that we celebrate every week. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus passed on to his disciples a new understanding of the Jewish Seder meal. He said that the bread was his body, and the wine his blood, and that his disciples (and today that means us) were supposed to eat and drink, "in remembrance" of him. Though Jesus didn't use the word commandment when describing this new ritual, it's no accident that we celebrate the institution of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, Commandment Thursday. The act of taking communion, eating Christ's body and drinking his blood in the sacrament of bread and wine, is directly tied to loving one another as Christ loved us. How so?
St. Paul, writing to his church in Corinth, asks a two-pronged rhetorical question: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?" To answer the rhetorical question - yes. So what do we make of these assertions, that the bread is a sharing of Christ's body and the cup is a sharing of Christ's blood? If you know your church history the hair on the back of your neck ought to be standing on end - discussion of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist has caused a lot of headache ever since some guy named Luther tacked a note to a door saying, "Eine minute, bitte." As Anglicans, at least modern Anglicans, we're normally not too concerned over how one understands the mechanics of the Real Presence. At least, it's been a few centuries since we burned anyone at the stake for claiming or denying transubstantiation. Still, we ought to be concerned with what it means to take communion and what it means to eat Christ's body and drink his blood.
Paul's words here are important. He says that the bread and cup are a "sharing" in the body and blood. Sharing. The Greek word Paul uses is κοινωνία, which means participating. But this isn't just participating as an independent agent; it's full, social intercourse. κοινωνία carries the sense of having a share in something, but it also suggests giving a share. It's not about coming forward and grabbing your own slice of the pie; it's about helping to bake the pie, and then making sure your friends get some, too. Already we see why the institution of the Lord's Supper is celebrated alongside the mandatum to love one another. Yet the connection goes deeper, still.
Paul goes on to say that "because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake in the one bread." Liturgists love this passage, because they can point to it as justification for using a real loaf of bread at the altar. The early church used real loaves of bread, so none of those dry, tasteless little Jesus Discs for us, thank you very much! This point of liturgical use does actually matter, of course. What we do is important because it reflects what we believe, and if we share in one bread then we are making the liturgical statement that we are one body, a collective more cohesive than mere community. By participating in the Eucharist we join in sharing, both receiving and giving, in the life of the church, which is the body of Christ.
To understand how profound a statement this is, just look around the church today. When you take communion in a few minutes, you'll be mystically joining yourself to the lives of everyone you see here. And not only that - because we believe that Christ died once for all, and that this sacrifice of the Mass is a participation in that one sacrifice, then when we communicate we will be linking ourselves not only to everyone in this congregation but to every Christian on earth who takes or has ever taken communion. In a few minutes we will join ourselves to people we've never met, people from all across the globe. We will, in fact, join ourselves to the Body of Christ, which is the whole Christian church. This is why we exchange the Peace before communion, to insure that the body comes together in health. It's also why schism is the greatest sin against the church - it is a tearing apart of the Body of Christ.
Is that a bit daunting, to enter Christ's Body? It should be. By taking communion we're pledging ourselves to a relationship far bigger than any we've ever been in. It's at once enormous - covering the entire planet and involving billions of people - and deeply intimate, demanding total commitment. To take communion with a caveat - oh, I'll just get my slice of the pie and go - is to reject the entire sacrament. To paraphrase Saint Augustine, bread is made from many grains, but once baked into bread the grains become integrated into the whole. While we in the Western world may cling to some sense of individuality, the truth of communion is that it binds us together as one.
If this becomes too unnerving, we may take comfort in the thought that God doesn't pay much attention to time. Eternal beings are like that. So when we take communion we're not just joining ourselves to the present Christian community, but to the whole, vast multitude of faithful souls gone before us. How is that comforting? Imagine joining yourself to the great cloud of witnesses. Maybe Mother Teresa. Or St. Francis. Or, going all the way back, to the disciples and Jesus himself, participants in the first communion. It's not just a piece of bread and some bad wine. You're joining the ranks of the saints.
So then, why might we celebrate the institution of this sharing, this ultimate connection, alongside Christ's new commandment to love one another? The answer should by now be obvious. How can we help but love one another when we are, in fact, joined to each other in such a profound way? Loving our neighbours as ourselves becomes a mere matter of loving ourselves, so connected are we. In a sense we hardly need a mandatum, hardly need a Maundy Thursday at all. All we really need is an awareness of our interconnectedness, an awareness best attained by coming to this table and sharing in the body and blood of Our Lord.
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.