We do not presume
“We do not presume
A Sermon for Maundy Thursday
Texts: Exod. 12.1-4, 11-14
1 Cor. 11.23-32
John 13.1-17, 31b-35
+ May I speak and may you hear, in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
This is an all too familiar prayer. Those of you brought up on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer could, no doubt, recite it from memory--with, of course, the prerequisite “thys” and “thous.” This prayer of “humble access” is one of my favourite parts of the Communion service. Nonetheless, I greatly fear that the prayer is often entirely wrong. All too often we do presume. All too often we approach this table as if it were our right, rather than a remarkable privilege. What is even worse, I suspect that for many it has become simply a ritual that we go through week by week. Tonight, of all nights, when we commemorate the first Last Supper, tonight when we mark that night when our Lord gave us this remarkable privilege it is wholly appropriate to remind ourselves what this is all about.
The key to what we do tonight is found in those words of our Lord recorded by St. Paul: “Do this in remembrance of me” and “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” When eat this bread and drink this cup we remember Jesus, his life and especially his death for us on the cross. But it must not escape our notice that Jesus was a Jew; his disciples with whom he shared that first Last Supper were Jews and that even St. Paul, the former Pharisee, was a Jew. And that meal which Jesus shared with his disciples and which we commemorate tonight, was a Passover meal--that most Jewish of meals. And for Jews the keeping of the Passover meal was never just about remembering, it was not merely the recalling of a past event. No, it is much more contemporary action than that. In the Book of Exodus we read how the Jews were instructed that in the years to come, when they kept the Passover, “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exod. 13.8). And generations after generations of Jews until this present day keep Passover as if it included them. In the introduction to a Passover Haggadah which I have on my shelves the editor writes: “Tradition teaches that in each generation, we must consider ourselves as having personally been freed from Egypt.” It is as if when they eat the Passover meal and repeat those ancient words they are once again in Egypt keeping vigil and waiting for their liberation in the morning.
And so when Jesus told his disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me” he meant for them to do something far more contemporary than merely remembering a past event. Every time we gather around this table, every time we eat this bread and drink this cup we do far more than just remember his death on the cross, the breaking of his body and the outpouring of his blood. Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we participate in his death, the breaking of his body and the outpouring of his blood.
Hear the words of St. Paul, from the chapter previous to our reading for tonight: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not koinōnia (κοινωνi,α) with the blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, is it not koinōnia (κοινωνi,α) with the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10.16). And the Greek word koinōnia means “participation, sharing, fellowship.” Most decidedly, you cannot have participation with something that is not present. You cannot share something which is not there. And you cannot have fellowship with someone who is absent. If the bread were merely a symbol of the body of Christ, if the wine were just a symbol of the blood of Christ, Paul could not speak of koinōnia with them. And Jesus the Jew would not have commanded us, in a Jewish manner, to do this as a remembrance of him.
In the bread of the Eucharist the broken body of Jesus on the cross is not just portrayed and recalled, it is also present. In the cup of the Eucharist the blood of Jesus, shed for your sins and mine, is not just portrayed and remembered, it is also present. You can ask me how this happens and I will tell; I do not know! Nonetheless, I am convinced that it does. When I was a Baptist I thought this kind of talk was Catholic nonsense. I was at that time hung up on the kind language which spoke of change from this to that, from bread and wine to body and blood. It all suggested to my mind a kind of hocus-pocus magic, and I knew that was far away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What I missed was that the central point was not about change, but about presence and encounter. In the bread and wine of the Eucharist Christ comes to us. In this broken bread and shared cup we encounter Christ. Just as God came to the men and women two thousand years ago in flesh and blood, so now he comes to us in bread and wine. Sometimes I wonder if some Christians reject this belief in the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist because it asks too much of him. They don’t wish to see their Lord humbled yet again. They are like Peter in tonight’s Gospel lesson: “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” And I suspect our Lord’s answer to them is not unlike his answer to Peter: “If I don’t feed you, you have not part in me!”
For when we receive the bread and the wine, we receive him--and not just symbolically. We really and truly receive him. By eating him we are join to him. I like the image that when we consume him, he consumes us. He consumes our little insecurities, our petty acts of selfishness, our every tendency toward anger and pride and envy. When we consume him, he consumes us, our sins, and continues the process of our remaking. Just as we live because of what we eat and drink, so in the Eucharist Christ becomes the source of our very life. Food and drink is the source of our biological life and in the Eucharist Christ becomes the source of our spiritual, that is, our true life. As the liturgy says, in the Eucharist we “feed on him in our hearts.” And I would add, “…and not just in our hearts!”
But there is more. Just as this meal joins us with Christ, in the eating and drinking of his body and blood we are united with him; in the same way, just because we are united with him, we are also united with one another. “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share one bread.” This meal makes us who we are. It makes us one with Christ and it makes us one with the body of Christ; his people throughout the world, down through history and in this place.
If all this is true, then does it not follow that this meal is the most remarkable of privileges--one we dare not take for granted, nor one we dare approach trusting in our own righteousness? Now, be careful. I do not mean that one should only approach this table when he or she is worthy of it. For that would mean, none of us would ever come. As the Prayer of Humble Access so poetically reminds us, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.” Rather, the more we eat and drink Him, the more we come to Christ in his Eucharist, the more worthy we become. Do not misunderstand St. Paul’s words in our reading for tonight. He encourages us to examine ourselves that we might not eat and drink in an unworthy manner. He knows we will never, in this world, be worthy of it. But he also knows that we can come in an unworthy manner or we can come worthily. We can come, in Paul’s words, discerning Christ’s body in the Eucharist or we can come neglecting to discern Christ’s body. We can come conscious of Christ’s real presence in the bread and wine and his presence in our brothers and sisters, the wider body of Christ. Or we can come neglecting Him and them. And, in the words of the Prayer Book, we can come presuming it as if were a right, “trust in our own righteousness.” Or we can come trusting in the “manifold and great mercies” of God.
In the words of the Baptist liturgy for Holy Communion, which Bishop John quoted at my induction:
Come to this table not because you must, but because you may, not because you are strong, but because you are weak. Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you right to come, but because you need mercy and help. Come because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more. Come, because He loved you and gave Himself for you. Come and meet the Risen Christ, for we are His Body.
Revd Dr Darrell Hannah