Sermons That Work

When We Enter into the Gospels…, Maundy Thursday – 1998

April 09, 1998

When we enter into the Gospels, how often we find ourselves at table sharing a meal. When we come to this place, St Mark’s, how often we find ourselves sharing food and drink — whether in the Eucharist, at coffee hour, or at any of the myriad “food events” of our common life.

Table fellowship is a marked feature of Christ’s ministry and of Christian life. In Jesus’ day, it mattered terribly what and with whom you ate, the methods and rituals of preparation of food and self. There were no restaurants or drive-thrus, not even the supermarket deli counter. (To say nothing of individual, microwave, so-called “TV” dinners.) Sharing food was serious social interaction.

Today we have to a large extent lost that aspect of eating together, but the innate sacramentality of a shared meal persists. We all have been at table sometimes and been taken over by something far greater than the food before us or the friends around us. We have experienced the Holy, the very presence of God as we conversed and sipped and tasted, as we laughed or fell silent, bathed in candlelight and camaraderie. We may have reflected, like Jacob, “Surely the spirit of the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” We may have marveled at the artistry and effort of the host or the chef, saying, “You really went all out, didn’t you!” or, “You’ve put a lot of yourself into this.” And perhaps you’ve heard or given the response: “Oh, I love to do it.”

On this night we come upon another dinner scene. The disciples are gathered with Jesus for a feast. He has seen to the preparations (even though he himself was not the one spending all day in the kitchen). He has brought them together for a meal as he had done so often. The occasion bears the weight of religious tradition. We will never be sure whether it was a special meal just before the Passover, as in John, or the Passover meal itself, as in the other Gospels. But we know that those gathered share deep spiritual convictions and traditions. They have also shared their lives over a period of years. Yet even now, they both know and do not know one another. Like many of the other meals they’ve shared, this one has its jarring aspect. Often the jarring note was sounded by an outsider — one of the hierarchy taking offense at Jesus’ seeming disregard of their dearly held customs and rules. This time it was within the group. Jesus spoke of being betrayed by one among them. Some harked back to the argument at dinner earlier that week over the expensive ointment one of the women poured over Jesus. “How dare she!” some had said, “we could have sold that to feed the poor!” But Jesus had defended her, even praised her extravagant act and called it his anointing for burial. The awkward moment passed, but its effect lingered. That sort of thing happens at family gatherings. Now there they were again, and Jesus was speaking cryptically about betrayal and darkness and about serving each other. He even identified himself with the meal he was serving. “This is my body, my blood.” And afterward, just as odd, he insisted on washing their feet. All the while he was talking, almost rambling really, but so urgently; like he was trying to get across some really important point; like it was crucial that they “get it.” It was all about vines and branches, and coming and going and the world and the Father and about love–a lot about love.

Think now on this table, this night. Jesus has again gathered us here. It is a night full of religious significance and tradition. We who have come together share deep convictions and many of us have shared our lives with each other over years. We also both know and do not know one another. The meal is familiar, its identification with Jesus is established. As we enter into the story, the action, we know where it is going. We’ve been, and will go to the Garden; we’ve been and will go to the Cross; we’ve been and will go to the Tomb on Easter morning. And yet it still jars us (especially the washing of feet — that above all remains outside our comfort zone — that pushes us beyond our customs and rules, much as Jesus pushed the religious folk of his day. Perhaps that is why it is so important that we do it — and I mean do it, not just allow it or watch it). We are still trying to “get” that point that Jesus is trying so urgently to make — the one about serving, about presence, and absence, and world and God and seeing and knowing, about comfort and strength — and, yes, about love — a lot about love. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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