By Jordan Hillebert
This week, in churches all over the world, Christians from a vast spectrum of backgrounds, and countries, and cultures, and languages will all be telling the exact same story.
The Church is one big family, and like every family, we are bound together by the stories we tell. I don’t know about you, but my family loves to tell stories. My poor wife, in the nearly twelve years that we have been married, has probably heard my father tell the same five stories a thousand times – nearly all of them meant to embarrass me. Stories shape our identities; they tell us who we are and where we’re from. They tell us why Aunt Sue is no longer speaking to Uncle Ted, they help us to cope with a shared loss, and they fill us with gratitude.
From the very first moments of the Church’s existence, the stories of Jesus have been her most treasured possession. Remember the time when Jesus calmed the storm? Remember the time when he fed all those people with just five loaves and two fish? Remember when he healed? Remember when he forgave? Do you remember the time when Jesus wept at the death of his friend? Remember how he in the end he was stripped, and beaten, and killed?
The stories of Jesus shape the way that we worship and the way that we pray – they shape how we see the world around us and how we live our lives. Through the Church’s calendar, they shape our entire year. And tonight, we come to one of the church’s most beloved stories, the story of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples.
Long before the New Testament was written, this story spread like wildfire among the earliest Christians. It was one of their favorite stories to tell. We see evidence of this in our reading this evening from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth years before any of the Gospels were recorded. And he tells them, ‘I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it…’ (1 Cor. 11:23).
This is especially surprising because Paul doesn’t usually record stories from Jesus’ life in his letters. He has a lot to say about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but he seems to just assume that the churches and the people he’s writing to already know the stories about Jesus’ life. And yet he chooses to focus on this story in particular: On the night he was arrested, the day before he was crucified, Jesus ate a meal with his friends. He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
Why does Paul tell this story? Why did the early church hold a special place for this moment in Jesus’ ministry? Why does the Church continue to tell this story, not just every year on Maundy Thursday, but every time we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist?
For starters, at a rather superficial level, it is normal to fixate on the last moments we had with someone before they were taken from us. Our minds often replay our final moments with a loved one. I remember vividly my grandmother’s hospital room the last time I saw her. I can tell you exactly where I was sitting with my doctoral supervisor, in an Italian restaurant in St Andrews, Scotland, the last time we met before he passed away.
In the midst of all the noise, and the trauma, and the terror of those final days – before Jesus was betrayed, and arrested, and tortured, and killed – there was this moment of profound intimacy, a last supper with his disciples. And in those agonizing days between death and resurrection, the disciples must have returned again and again, in their minds and in their conversations with one another, to that shared meal in the upper room.
Jesus also had some pretty strange things to say during that last supper, the kinds of things that you would definitely remember. ‘This bread is my body.’ ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’ Who says something like that? What on earth did he mean?
The disciples had gathered with Jesus that night to celebrate the Passover, the great Jewish feast commemorating Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, and in particular, the evening when death had literally passed over the Jewish people. But Jesus seems to be pointing them to a new Passover – an even greater liberation than the first, where death isn’t simply avoided for some time but defeated once and for all. Jesus speaks of a new covenant, a new way of relating to God. Jesus seems to be pointing to himself as the path that God travels to be with us and the path that we travel to be with God.
So we have here the disciples’ final meal with Jesus and some rather cryptic statements from Jesus about a new covenant and an even greater Passover. Both of these things surely make this a story worth telling. But we also have in this story the promise, the assurance that Christ is still with us. The last supper is not a story we tell to console ourselves because Jesus is absent. It is a story we tell to remind ourselves that he is still present with us, in us, and among us.
This is why St Paul writes at another point in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread’ (10:16-17). The Lord’s Supper is not just a story we tell – it is a story we’re drawn into. Just as the disciples gathered around Jesus on the night that he was betrayed, so we are ushered into his presence in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The feast that Jesus shared with his friends is a feast we’re all invited to.
Now, I know it’s only Maundy Thursday, and we’re not supposed to be talking about the resurrection for another three days, but of course we know how the story ends. We know that while this might have been the disciples’ final meal with Jesus before he died, they would soon enjoy another meal with their friend after his resurrection. We know that the one who was crucified is alive. And because he’s alive, he’s not just tucked away somewhere in the past, he is nearer to us than we could possibly imagine.
So as we continue this incredible journey together from Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, to Holy Saturday, and finally to the joy of Easter Sunday, as we enter this week into the story of Jesus, let us do so with the assurance that Jesus has entered into our stories. The one we remember is the one who is always with us, comforting us, meeting us in our prayers and in our fellowship with one another, feeding us in the Eucharist with his presence, and transforming us ever more into his likeness.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Revd Dr Jordan Hillebert is Director of Formation at St Padarn’s Institute, Cardiff, Wales. This sermon was originally delivered at Christ Church, Roath Park on Maundy Thursday 2018.