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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2006

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Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler

April 13, 2006
Maundy Thursday 2006

Some time ago I read a poem written from the point of the view of the man who had rented out the room for the Last Supper. It ended with something to the effect, “I didn’t know, when I let out the room, that the meal they were serving would go on forever.” [citation lost]

It has gone on forever because it’s continuation isn’t dependent on us; it’s dependent on God’s love. And nothing we can do can inhibit that love. Nothing we can do can stop God in Christ offering himself to us. For on this night, we remember not only the institution of the Holy Eucharist, but the betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter, the agony in the Garden and the trial. At the end of this service, just before the stripping of the altar, there will be a reading about the betrayal from John’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel, when none of the disciples can figure out who is the betrayer, Jesus says, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread.” After dipping it, he gives it to Judas.

In other words, as writer Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out, Jesus identifies his betrayer by feeding him—not by condemning him but by feeding him. Knowing full well that Judas will betray him, he feeds him nonetheless. Jesus gives himself away even to the one who will give him away—because Jesus faithfulness was not contingent on the faithfulness of others. (See God in Pain, p. 45) To quote Taylor “When [Jesus] dipped the morsel in his cup and handed it to Judas, he not only revealed who Judas was, he also revealed who he was. The one who feeds his enemies—[the one who] goes on treating them as friends, [as companions]—loving them to the end.” (Id.)

It’s interesting that the word companion comes from two words “com” and “pan” meaning respectively “with bread.” Through the sharing of bread on that night, Jesus made it clear that he was Judas’ companion as much as he was anyone else’s companion. And through the sharing of bread on this night, Christ becomes our companion as well—no matter who we are or what we’ve done.


Perhaps it is for that reason that we can receive communion even on Good Friday. Certainly on Good Friday the Eucharist cannot be celebrated because every Eucharist is a celebration of the resurrection and we don’t celebrate that on Good Friday. But even then, the Church has made provision for us to receive communion from the Reserved Sacrament, which is why we consecrate additional bread and wine on this night for use tomorrow.

The Church realized that even in the midst of the crucifixion it would be Christ’s wish to feed us, to be our companion along the way, to accompany us on our journeys, for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Even in the midst of betrayal, of impending denial and abandonment, even in the face of our sins and lack of compassion, even in the face of death at the hands of our humanity, Christ continues to feed us.

There is a story from the great Jewish tradition of the Hasidim, a strict sect of Jews. It concerns a young member of the Hasidim who married a young Jewish woman outside the sect. In the eyes of the Hasidim, the woman’s family had compromised with the culture. They were part and parcel of what was seen as a secular community.

The young man soon decided he couldn’t live with this betrayal of his heritage and in the end, abandoned his wife. His father-in-law went to one of the rabbis and said, “What should happen to this man who has abandoned my daughter?” The Rabbi consulted the law and said, “The law proclaims that this man should be cast out.” So the father-in-law took his son-in-law by the scruff of the neck and threw him into the gutter, where eventually, through remorse and starvation, he died.

At the Last Judgment the Messiah is seated on his throne; the son-in-law is lying at his feet. The rabbi stands nearby holding the Book of the Law and next to him is the father-in-law. The Messiah is ready for judgment and the question is, “Who is responsible for the young man’s death B who is at fault?” The father-in-law says, “It’s not my fault. I went to the rabbi.” The rabbi says, “It’s not my fault. It’s right here in the Law.” The Messiah gets down from his throne and lifts up the young man, broken and poor as he is, and says, “The father-in-law is right, the rabbi is right, and the Law is right. But I have come for those who are not right.” And he takes the young man into his Kingdom.

The Good News of Christ is for those who fall down and fail; the Eucharist is for those who sin and forsake. This night is indispensable, not only to the institution of the Holy Eucharist, but to our understanding of it.

Judas’ presence at the Last Supper—as well as the presence of all those other disciples who will soon abandon Christ—their presence and Christ’s feeding them is our lasting reminder that this is a meal not only for the good, the right and the faithful among us, but also for those who betray, deny, and abandon.

The meal served on this night goes on forever because it is not dependent on our goodness but on God’s. The Eucharist is a remarkable gift from a loving God, a gift which brings us into the presence of a Lord “whose faithfulness does not depend on ours and whose death-defying love knows no end” (Id.); a Lord whose grace is even for those who are not right. In other words, a Lord whose grace is for people just like us.

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission