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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Maundy Thursday - 2020


Together in Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-34)
Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2020
*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience.  We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.”  It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.

            What do you hear in 1 Corinthians 11?  “The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed 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.’”  What comes to mind?
            Do this.  Gather.  Jesus was with his disciples.  Paul wrote of that night in a letter that would be read to the gathered church.  Join together.  Come around the table where there is bread and drink.  Break the bread and share it among each other. 
            In remembrance of me.  In the ancient world, sharing a meal was no small thing.  The guests were linked to the host in fellowship.  With one’s guard down, one was vulnerable and intimate.  The guests trusted the host’s intentions.  The guests received the host’s gift of food, drink, conversation, and companionship.  The guests felt safe at the host’s table. 
            Jesus, the host, welcomes the guests, who, as a group, become one body linked in solidarity to him.  He, the sinless one, will, on the cross, take their sins on himself.  He who has no need to die, will die for all who are guilty – every one of us.  In his death, he joins himself to our condition.
            He also invites us to be joined to him, in his death, but also to his resurrection.  In fact, the meaning of Jesus joined to us in our sins is only fulfilled when he rises from the grave, and we are joined to him in resurrection.  Thus, the church is the body of Christ, him at work in the world today.
            Theologian Stanely Hauerwas believes that when Jesus is gathered with the disciples for what will be the last supper and offers bread they are to eat ‘in remembrance of him,’ they would associate the bread with abundance.  They have seen him take a few loaves and feed thousands.[i]  They got full on the leftovers.  They know that with Jesus there is always more than enough, and all who come to him will be satisfied.
            The two-way solidarity, Jesus with us in our sinfulness, us with him in God’s redemption of the world, is only one aspect of the unity we find at the Lord’s table.  As we are united with Jesus, so too, we must be united with one another.  The picture of the body of Christ, developed so artistically by Paul throughout 1 Corinthians and especially in chapters 10-14, is an image of many believers joined together with one heart. 
In church lingo, drawing from the New Testament, we refer to one another as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ united in Christ.  Twentieth century Baptist scholar George Eldon Ladd takes this a step further when he writes, “A bond exists between all who are in Christ that is unique and transcends all other human relationships.”[ii]
I’m not sure if American Christians are this tightly bound to one another.  We attend one church until it stops pleasing us and then switch to another.  Such a casual approach would have been unthinkable to Jesus the night he pledged himself to his disciples knowing one would betray him, another deny him, and all abandon him hours before he gave his life for them and for all of us Christians who sometimes take such an individualistic, casual approach to faith.  Perhaps the isolation forced upon us by weeks of “stay-at-home” orders brought about by the specter of the Coronavirus makes us appreciate those times we can be together.  The church is not a collection of individuals who have each made individual commitments to Jesus.  The church is a group of people joined in agape love to one another in Jesus’s name.  Can we be the church and truly take communion when we are quarantined?
Contemplating this, I thought of a couple people forced to join with Christ when they could not be with the church in the body.  Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand, a Romanian Jewish couple, came to faith in Jesus during World War II as they opposed Nazism.  After the war, Communism overtook Romania.  The Wurmbrands publicly declared that their sole allegiance was to Jesus and not the Communist party.  Sabina ended in prison for 3 years, and Richard for over a decade, much of it in solitary confinement.  Eventually they made it out of prison and out of Romania, but their faith grew strong when they leaned on Jesus while in isolation.[iii] [iv]
John McCain also grew closer to the Lord when he was forced into isolation.  Before the late senator and presidential candidate served in the military, he was a navy pilot.  Flying missions in the Vietnam War, he was shot down and ended up as a prisoner of war for over 5 years.  During much of that time he was forced into solitary confinement.  Growing up, McCain had memorized passages of scripture as well as the Lord’s prayer and worship songs.  When he was allowed to be with other P.O.W.’s in Vietnam, and they were denied access to Bible, the passages he remembered became their scripture.  Reluctantly, he became the prison chaplain.  The faith that had been an intellectual assent in his younger life became a heart’s passion and a lifeline when he was in solitary confinement.  Cut-off from the world, he was joined to Christ. 
When we gather at the Lord’s table, taking the bread, and the cup, we are joined to Christ and to one another.  Ours is an embodied faith just as Jesus was bodily resurrected.  We are promised that we too will be.  Our expression of faith requires that we be with one another in person, able to shake hands, embrace, and eat and drink.   God in human flesh, touchable, real, dead and resurrected is the very foundation of our story.  We may itemize our beliefs as Christian; we may list our values; but the list only holds up when it stands on the story that has formed us.  It is the story of God in the flesh constituting a people, his body, doing his work in the world.[v] 
The reason the Wurmbrands could unite to God in Christ while in isolation and John McCain could do the same is they were formed by the story.  They were part of the communion of the saints.  For that same reason, we, each one of us locked in our homes by COVID-19, the dangerous, contagious Coronavirus, can be united to one another. 
It’s Maundy Thursday and we expect to be in Church, singing reflective songs of worship as we hear the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.  He washed their feet.  He shared the bread and the cup with them. As we reflect on the Lenten commitments made on Ash Wednesday, we expect to be together as we retell these stories.  The stories come alive in our gathering.
We can’t do it that way this year and that’s disappointing.  It’s OK to acknowledge our sadness.  Obviously in our homes, with internet connections and other comforts, we’re not enduring the hardships McCain or the Wumbrands or other persecuted believers suffered.  It’s not about comparison.  The isolation takes a toll on us.  We miss each other.  I was in a Zoom call with a dozen pastors on Monday and every single one looked stressed out.  We pastors don’t know recognize ourselves when we’re apart from our churches for too long.  One of our Hillside members said it quite well to me in a phone conversation.  “Pray until you run out of prayers and then pray some more.”
God is with you.  God is with us.  God will bring us back together again.  Even though we, an embodied community, tonight are separated, we are joined in spirit.  Where you are, you and I and the entire church family will take the Lord’s Supper together in remembrance of him.
At your home, have the bread ready and the juice poured. 
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus gave thanks and broke bread and shared it will all who follow him.  He said, “This is my body, which is broken for you.  Take and eat.”
Then he poured the cup and said, “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”  Take and Drink.
After they had finished the meal, they sang a hymn and then went out to Mount of Olives.  We will close our worship with a hymn.  Please sing with me.

1 Let us break bread together on our knees;
let us break bread together on our knees.

When I fall on my knees
with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.

2 Let us drink wine together on our knees;
let us drink wine together on our knees. [Refrain]

3 Let us praise God together on our knees;
let us praise God together on our knees. [Refrain]

[i] Stanley Hauerwas (2006), Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Books (Grand Rapids), p.218.
[ii] George Eldon Ladd (1974), A Theology of the New Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p.543.
[v] James W. McClendon Jr. (1986), Systematic Theology: Ethics, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.214-217, 332-333.

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