‘Mandatum’ is a Latin word that means ‘commandment.’ The Anglo-French rendering is ‘Maundy.’ We call this day, the Thursday before Easter, the day we commemorate the Passover meal Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested a crucified, Maundy Thursday. English words ‘mandatory,’ and ‘mandate’ come from this Latin word. Jesus sits at the table with his closest followers, gives them bread, and says, “Take this,” and “Do this in remembrance of me. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a commandment. Gathering for the Lord’s Supper is mandatory for his followers.
What exactly is the commandment? What does it mean? And when does it take effect?
What exactly does Jesus command his disciples and us to do when he tells us to take the bread and drink the wine? From the writings of Paul and the practice of the very first Christians, we know all in the church were invited to the table for the bread and wine. The Lord’s Supper was not reserved for elites within the Christian community. There were not to be elites. Regardless of one’s social status, rich or poor, powerful or unimportant, all were welcomed as one family at Jesus’ table.
The assumption is that anyone who desired to follow Christ or claimed to be a follower of Christ would join with the church for communal worship. There was no such thing as a solitary, individual Christian. In the earliest Christian Communities, the Lord’s Supper happened within worship. When Jesus commands, “Take this bread, drink this cup, do this to remember me,” he’s commanding us to worship with one another in the gathering of the church.
In the tradition of the practice of the first century Church, when we gather for worship and come around Jesus’ table, we are to welcome all as equals. Here, there are no rich or poor. People of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are welcomed in love. Jesus commands it to be so. Come to worship. Remember him by eating the bread and drinking from the cup. And tell of the salvation he gives by inviting people you know outside the church to come with you. This was recorded in the gospels. All four gospels were written with the intention that they be read publicly and repeatedly for the purpose of telling Jesus’ story and drawing lost people to him.
It’s Maundy, mandatory: gather with the church family; worship; eat and drink; remember; and, bring others with you.
What does it all mean?
Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body.” It sounds bizarrely cannibalistic. In some worship traditions, believers are certain the bread literally becomes his body as we eat it, and the wine literally becomes his blood as we drink it. Such thoughts would not have occurred to the disciples at Jesus’ table or to the earliest Christians. They were eating the Passover and as they did, Jesus transformed it.
The unleavened bread hearkened back to the meal the Jews ate when they were slaves in Egypt and the angel of death killed the firstborn in each Egyptian family. Moses instructed the people to kill the lamb and spread the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their houses. The angel saw the blood and passed over the homes of God’s chosen. The lamb each family sacrifice died in their place.
Jesus is the final sacrifice covering not only Israel’s sins, but the sins of the world. Remember, we’re commanded to take this supper. It means we are all sinners, every last one of us. We are cut off from God because of the sins we have committed and there is nothing we can do to atone for our mistakes. Sin has stained our souls. Without Jesus, we’re eternally lost.
But, we’re not “without Jesus.” He has come, died on the cross, and rose. When he says, “Take, eat, this is my body,” he means he is going to suffer violence on our behalf. In Paul’s rendering of this passage, 1 Corinthians 11, Jesus says, “This is my body that is for you.” Jesus is for us. He - God in the flesh - came for our good, our benefit. However hard life might be, and life can be pretty trying, God loves us. Jesus gives himself for us. We’re not alone.
Nor are we trapped in our sins. “He took a cup ... saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant which poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). In Jesus blood shed on the cross, sin loses its hold on us. All are invited to drink, but Jesus knew not all would. Even though this is a command, Jesus knew not all who heard it would obey it. Many people meet God, receive his invitation to relationship through the forgiveness of sins, and reject that invitation. God honors that response and those who meet Him and choose to turn away from Him, are cut off, separated from God by their own choosing. Those who obey and turn to Jesus and take the bread and drink the cup are forgiven. Our sins are washed away and we become new creations.
We’ve said what Jesus commands. We are commanded to worship with God’s church treating all people as equals, as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to come and worship, take the bread and cup and receive forgiveness, and to tell the story of salvation to others who have not heard.
We have said what Maundy Thursday means. God is for us because God loves us. Thus our sins are forgiven. That which would cut us off from God has been removed. In Christ, we have access to God. Nothing stops us from living in relationship with God as His sons and daughters.
When does this story take effect? That happens when we respond to the grace of God, the Holy Spirit speaking to our hearts, and step to God in faith. The original disciples took this step after they met Jesus in resurrection. Shortly after this Passover meal, the last supper, Jesus would be arrested, and his disciples fled in terror. They abandoned him and went into hiding.
However, when he rose from death and they met him and touched his resurrected body, they were changed. From fear to courage, they went through dramatic transformations. Tradition tells us that the disciples became so determined to tell the world about Jesus that most of them ran afoul of the Roman Empire. Under the governance of Rome, the law dictated that all subjects acknowledge the emperor as divine. “Caesar is Lord,” was the decree. The disciples could not abide by such a sentiment because they knew that Jesus is Lord. Most of them died deaths as gruesome as Jesus because they would not recant and acknowledge the divinity of Caesar. They didn’t care what Rome did. They believed and insisted that Jesus and only Jesus is Lord.
We mostly likely won’t be threatened with death as our forebearers were. It doesn’t happen that way in our culture. So how will we know we have obeyed the command of Jesus? Obviously we are all here in this worship service, singing songs of faith, confessing our sins and turning to Jesus as we prepare to take the bread and cup. In that sense we are actively obeying his command.
How we will know this obedience has taken hold in our lives once Holy Week has passed and we are away from the church family? We become self-giving, following the example Jesus set. We look out for others and give of ourselves for their benefit. This happens 100’s of ways, from donating blood to investing in someone else’ life to giving generous monetary donations to works that help people who need it. The giving of ourselves happens in relationships with people we’ve know all our lives and in interactions with strangers. We become love-banks extravagantly doling out the love of God to everyone we meet.
In addition to becoming self-giving, we also become storytellers and the story we share is the Good news of forgiveness of sins people can have in Jesus. God is building the kingdom of God through His church. Every time we share the story of Jesus, a brick is put in place. Every time we invite someone to church, a brick is put in place. Every time we help someone see what the life of a disciple of Jesus looks like, a brick is put in place. God is building the Kingdom. He works through the work of the church and the witness of individuals in the church; people like you and me.
Are we saying all that stems from the dinner we call the “Last Supper,” a simple remembrance in bread and wine? Yes, that’s exactly what has been said.
Tonight, perhaps you needed to put it all together, the connection from what the 12 went through that night to the life of faith you are currently living.
Or, perhaps, you’re in a different place. You needed to be reminded that yes, you are a sinner, and yes, your sins cut you off from God. However, Jesus has covered your sins and opened the way. The pathway is clear for you to walk into God’s loving embrace. Tonight, maybe communion is time for you receive forgiveness and begin truly living as God’s daughter or son.
Or, maybe you’re getting a sense of this entire story for the very first time. You never knew what it all meant, but now you do, at least a bit. Now that you know, you realize how much you need Jesus. Tonight, for the very first time, you want to ask Jesus into your heart to be your Lord and Savior. You can do that as you come to eat and drink.
Everyone is invited to come and meet Jesus in this bread and cup. Take a few moments in silent preparation. Pour out your heart to God and ask Him to reveal his love to you.
After we’ve had silent contemplation, join in as we gather at the tables to receive what Jesus has for us.