The With-God Life: Maundy Thursday

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 the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor 11:23-26)

Being “handed on to” is central to Christianity, which would gradually disappear if people stopped bearing witness to each other, inviting each other, teaching each other. My faith was not purely my choice; I first spent time with God because I was spending time with pastors, Sunday School teachers, church friends, and, above all others, my parents, grandparents, and other relatives.

So tonight was supposed to mark a significant milestone for our family, as we formally handed on the practice of Holy Communion to our children. The tradition in our church is that kids — whenever they’re ready to start participating in that sacrament — first take Communion on Maundy Thursday, the night when Christians remember Jesus’ last supper with his first disciples.

South African carving of the Last Supper – Vanderbilt Divinity Library

But while there will be an online service tonight, we haven’t been practicing the “virtual communion” that other churches have started to explore. Our denomination has recommended against that practice, while also suggesting that the temporary inability to take Communion might have some benefits:

This disruption also gives us the time and space to examine our understanding of and practices around Holy Communion…. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last, but it won’t last forever. Fasting from Holy Communion for a time might be a good discipline. This absence makes God’s presence more profound. During this limited fast we might become more aware of God’s presence around us and in creation in ways that we have never noticed before. Even in times when a community cannot gather to share the sacrament, Jesus shows up, and we are still part of the body of Christ.

So what might we learn about Communion from its absence?

I doubt that I’ll gain any more clarity about its central mystery. I’ve served Communion often, passing down the words of the Apostle Paul that he received from his Lord as I tell communicants, “This is Christ’s body” or “This cup is the new covenant in Jesus’ blood.” And I’ve never been entirely sure what I mean by this. Every serious theologian’s explanation makes some sense to me — and seems insufficient.

But that doesn’t mean I stop participating. I don’t put a lot of stock in rote religious practice, but I do trust Paul that keeping this particular tradition, whatever else it does, helps us to remember Jesus and to proclaim his “death until he comes.”

But also to proclaim Jesus’ life.

Williams, Rowan WilliamsI’ve been reading Rowan Williams’ short set of meditations on Being Christian (one of the e-books I noted as being on sale this month from Eerdmans), where that Anglican theologian argues that “Holy Communion makes no sense at all if you do not believe in the resurrection.” If all we are doing is proclaiming the death of a wise teacher from the 1st century, then “the Eucharist becomes simply a memorial meal, recalling a rather sad and overpowering occasion in the upper room.” But Williams urges us to read the story of the Last Supper in tandem with post-resurrection accounts like Luke 24:36-49, where the astonished disciples share some fish with the risen Christ. He notes that these same followers, as apostles of the ascended Christ, identify themselves later as “witnesses… who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

There are many more layers of meaning that Williams peels back from Communion, but it’s his opening theme that sounds most loudly in this season:

For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests — that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted. It is, perhaps, the most simple thing that we can say about Holy Communion, yet it is still supremely worth saying. In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.

In that sense, the Last Supper is just the greatest example of something Jesus practiced throughout his ministry on Earth, as he ate with everyone from tax collectors to Pharisees, meals “in which he begins to re-create a community, to lay the foundation for rethinking what the words ‘the people of God’ mean.” Likewise, in her commentary on today’s lectionary passage, Presbyterian pastor Catherine Taylor understands Paul as carrying on “the tradition of Jesus, who repeatedly established community for people who were denied community or cast in the position of outsiders.” (Which is why it’s so important not to ignore the verses before and after these words we hear so often: Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of the Last Supper because they’ve been abusing the Lord’s Supper; by leaving little for the poor to eat or drink, the wealthy in that church were taking the bread and cup “in an unworthy manner” and inviting judgment.)

In gathering people around a table, Williams concludes, “Jesus is not only someone who exercises hospitality; he draws out hospitality from others. By his welcome he makes other people capable of welcoming.” Because it reminds us that “we are set free to invite Jesus into our lives,” Communion “also reminds us that we are given the freedom to invite others to be guests as well.”

And so in Communion we participate in the “communion of saints.” In Communion we pass on what has been passed on to us, through a chain of witnesses going back to Paul, and then to his Lord and ours, Jesus Christ.

That’s easy to take for granted when Christian adherence and practice is still everywhere in our society, when you can’t go more than a mile without coming across a community that gathers together around the Lord’s table. But in a season when I can’t walk a block down my street to our church and take Communion with my family, the inability to gather, invite, and welcome this Maundy Thursday makes me all the more eager to gather, invite, and welcome in the weeks or months to come.

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