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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday 2019

Our Lord Jesus Christ offered his back to the smiters and his body on the Cross on Good Friday.

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Thursday, 18th April 2019 at 5.00 PM

Our Lord Jesus Christ offered his back to the smiters and his body on the Cross on Good Friday.

And tonight, on Maundy Thursday, at the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples his own Body and Blood for food in order to unite them with him for ever.

We heard this evening the earliest surviving description of this event in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, ‘He 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.”’ St Paul wrote this letter, it is thought, between AD 53 and 57, about twenty years therefore after our Lord’s death and resurrection.

Do this as often as you drink it, Jesus said. This was not to be a one-off event. He was surely, truly instituting a new way of worship, a new religious practice that would take hold quickly in the post-resurrection Church and become utterly normative very quickly.

St Luke gives his own account of the emerging life of the early Church in the second volume of his writings, the Acts of the Apostles. There St Luke writes of the first new followers in the Way of Christ, the first new Christians, though they would not be described as such for some time, ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ Four aspects of the life of the Church, all key and vital.

First, these new Christians had to learn and know what the apostles were able to teach them about what Jesus had said and done in their life together.

Second, they should live together in love for one another, as Jesus had commanded. Eating the Last Supper with his twelve apostles, he gave them a new mandate: that they should love one another. Jesus said to them, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ So, just as important as listening to the apostles, they had to live in fellowship, loving one another. This became widely known of Christians. One of the accusations against the early Christians when they faced persecution by the Roman authorities was that they indulged in incest. That surely is a perverse view of what was meant by living in fellowship, in love with one another.

Third, they were to break bread together. As we know from St Paul writing to the Corinthians, at first the early Church celebrated the Eucharist, the great Thanksgiving with the bread and the wine, at their regular suppers. In the early days, everyone brought with them their own food, the rich with their hampers, the poor with their loaf of bread, at a so-called agape meal, a meal of love. St Paul accused them of living ungenerously with one another, not really loving one another, when the rich failed to support the poor with food. So, in due course, the Eucharist would be celebrated apart from an agape meal.

Finally, St Luke reminds his hearers and readers that prayer is fundamental to the Christian life; we all need to pray, personally and privately, and corporately within the body of the Church.

Around AD 96, we have a surviving written account of the way of life of the early Church, in a short text known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or in Greek Didache. Amongst other matters, the author discusses the practice of the Eucharist at the end of the first century. It describes the words of thanksgiving over the cup of wine and over the bread and their distribution to the people. The passage includes a beautiful reference to the grains of wheat that go to make up the bread, and the dispersed character of the Christian people being brought into one into God’s kingdom through the Eucharist. ‘As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains, and was gathered together to become one, so let your body of faithful be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for the glory and power are yours forever.’

Our gathering this evening brings together people from many parts of the world, as well as people from these islands and this city. So we are gathered into one through the Eucharist, and through the Eucharist we are gathered into God’s kingdom, united with Christ, as we receive the astonishing gift of his Body and Blood through the means of the bread and wine.

Jesus gave his back to the smiters and his body to the Cross and he offers us, unworthy though we be, his Body and Blood as eternal food, bringing us into eternal life with him. When we really think about the wonder of this reality, we must see it as a most astonishing and marvellous gift, too often taken for granted, but precious and to be honoured and to be cherished.

All this takes place at a very particular and special time. Jesus has decided to come to Jerusalem at its most crowded and busy, when the city is full of people gathering for the greatest festival of the Jewish year, the festival of Passover. We heard the account in the first reading this evening. The Passover lamb was sacrificed, according to the accounts in the first books of the Old Testament, in order that the blood of the lamb could be smeared on the doorposts of the homes in Egypt of the people of Israel so that the angel of death would literally pass over those homes and not strike dead the first-born son. In the confusion and panic of this disaster for the Egyptians, the people of Israel could flee from Egypt, where they had lived since Joseph had come there, but where they were now in bondage, and escape through the wilderness, across the Red Sea, to their true home in the Promised Land.

The Passover lamb, the Paschal lamb, was sacrificed to bring freedom to the people of God. In the same way, Jesus chose to come to Jerusalem and to offer his life in sacrifice on the Cross, so that the people who would follow him could themselves be free from sin and death and come to him in his eternal kingdom, during their lives as Christians and beyond death in eternal life. And the means of delivery from sin and death would turn out to be baptism, which he initiated early in his public ministry, and the gift of the Eucharist, which he initiated before his death on the Cross.

In St John’s Gospel, we have an account of an extended discourse at the Last Supper, in which Jesus prepares his apostles for what is to come and teaches them about what his presence means and his purposes imply. At the end of the discourse, Jesus prays to God his Father, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.’

The glory of Christ is the glory of the Cross; his suffering, his passion, brings salvation to the world and eternal life for those who follow him. In the Eucharist, he gives us his very life, his Body and Blood, to feed us and to unite us with him, as a pledge of the eternal life he wins for us on the Cross.

We adore you O Christ and we bless you; by your holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.

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