Complementary Text: Psalm 116:12-15
Preaching Text: Matthew 26:17-30
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
This Friday night, our Jewish brothers and sisters will begin the celebration of Passover, one of the most important festivals in the life of their community. In homes all over the world, people will gather to tell the story of Israel’s salvation and eat the traditional meal – including matzo, vegetables, bitter herbs, and cups of wine. One of the most poignant parts of the evening is during the section of the meal called the Maggid, or “story”, when the youngest person present asks the first in a series of questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” As the story is told, the answer to that question becomes clear: this night is different because it is a night to celebrate God’s power in bringing Israel out of slavery and into freedom.
As we gather on this Maundy Thursday, we might ask that same question ourselves: Why is this night different from all other nights? The answer might seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking. The reading before us tonight recounts the story of Jesus gathering with his disciples for the first meal of Passover. We don’t know how similar the Seder of today is to the meal that Jesus shared with his followers, but the basic shape of the meal likely hasn’t changed much. They would have remembered the same story and eaten the same unleavened bread in obedience to God’s command. They would have passed around cups of wine, blessing God for delivering their people with a mighty hand. But this meal would also be different from all the other Passover meals shared in Jerusalem that night and the next. This meal would become the model for a new kind of supper shared by those who would one day bear the name of Christ.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and give it to the disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then, taking a cup of wine and blessing it, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is being poured out for all in order to effect the forgiveness of sins. I’m telling you, from this point forward I will never drink from this fruit of the grapevine until the day I drink new wine with you under my Father’s Reign.” (Matthew 26:26-29, my translation)
The apostle Paul referred to this meal as one of the most important aspects of the tradition that he received from those who had known Jesus, and in First Corinthians 11, he sets down that tradition for generations to follow:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed down to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was handed over, took bread and, after giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given for your sake. Keep doing this in my memory.” In the same way he took the cup after the meal, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Keep doing this, as often as you drink it, in my memory.” For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (First Corinthians 11:23-26, my translation)
What makes this night different than all other nights? It is the night our Lord Jesus instituted his supper, a meal that continues to give life to the church every time we gather to receive it. It is a tangible sign of the love of God, expressed in gifts of bread and wine, broken and poured for us and for all people to grant us forgiveness and grace and new life in him. It is also, of course, the night of his betrayal and arrest, and we can’t separate this meal from the events that follow it, because they give meaning to one another. There is something incredible, for example, about the fact that in Matthew’s telling of this story, Judas – the one who was actively planning to betray him – was a full participant in that meal. He heard the words of promise as the bread and wine were passed around the table. He received the gift of fellowship with Jesus and his fellow disciples, even as the schemes he had set in motion continued to unfold outside that room. Though his own actions would later lead to his removal from the Twelve, that evening he was treated in the same manner as the other eleven. That fact should be a great comfort to each of us as we approach this meal tonight. The invitation of our Lord is not altered by our faults and failings, because this meal is given to us so that our faults might be healed.
In the end, this meal points us to the larger reality of Christ’s suffering and death, and that is perhaps the most important thing for us to remember this night. One writer, reflecting on the meaning of Holy Communion, put it this way:
To know Christ sacramentally only in the terms of bread and wine is to know him only partially, in the dining room as host and guest. It is a valid enough knowledge, but its ultimate weakness when isolated is that it is perhaps too civil… However elegant the knowledge of the dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, in the slaughterhouse; amid the quiet violence of the garden, strangled cries, and fat spitting in the pan. Table manners depend on something’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge that ignores these dark and murderous human acts is losing its grip on the human condition. [Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Pueblo: 1978)]
Tonight, we receive the gift of a meal. That meal comes to us at a price, and so we approach it with awe and gratitude. By giving up his life for us once, Christ has given us his life forever. Take and eat, brothers. Take and drink, sisters. This is Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you. As often as you eat it, but especially on this night, do this in remembrance of him and all that he has done for us and for our broken world. Amen.