In a recent interview, our Presiding Bishop was asked how it was that his father, a Baptist, had become an Episcopalian and (eventually) an Episcopal priest. He said:
He was dating my mother, who was an Episcopalian, and he went to church with her at some point. When it came time for communion, in the Episcopal Church people drink out of the same cup. They were one of the only black couples sitting in the congregation, and this was in the late ’40s, in southern Ohio, which then really was still the South. Watching that, he said that it just hit him that any church where people of different races drink from the same cup knows something about the Gospel, and that he wants to be a part of that.
For us, the oneness of this Sacrament, instituted this night by Jesus, is essential. It shows the one-ness of our whole life as Christians: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of us all;” one Church in heaven and on earth, spread through the ages and across the globe; One Body sharing in the Lord’s once-for-all self-offering of his Life and Death. But, beyond this the essential oneness, wholeness, and integrity of our life and witness in Christ. There can be no division is what is essentially whole.
Sin is, by definition, a division between God’s will and ours. The tragic sweep of human history is filled with stories of people who were absolutely certain that their will was right, unassailable, and—perhaps worst of all—the will of God. Instead of coming before God in humility, we have all too often chosen to come before a mirror in arrogance and cry out, in one form or another: “Thy will be done.”
Today we have begun the Holy Triduum, another experience of one-ness. These Great Three Days are treated by the Church as one day, one reality and mystery in three parts. Each is essential and has its integrity but may not be separated from the other. Together they form one collective Truth: the Paschal Mystery of our salvation.
At this service we experience the unity of Christ and his disciples. It was not a perfect unity, of course; one of them was about to betray Jesus; others were soon to abandon him. But, it was a unity nonetheless. In Jesus Christ, human and divine natures are brought into a perfect union. He gives the disciples the bread and wine, now his Body and Blood, as the means to remember him, to make him present, not only that night but always. And where Christ is, there is always available his union with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Thus, this and every celebration of the Eucharist is a sacrament of union, of “knowing something about the Gospel.”
Yet, this union is not something that exists only in the realm of the mind; it is a dynamic, active unity made known in our actions, our wills, our affections. What we do and how we do it are essential expressions of who we are and what we are becoming. To show this, after supper, he washes the disciples feet in a tender, personal, yet almost invasive expression of what following him must entail. There is no standing at arm’s length, no turning away. There must be a sacred encounter where I become “me” by serving, loving “you.” That is the unity of Communion not only in the elements of the Eucharist, but in the Body of the Church.
These two commandments we see instituted this night, to “Do this in remembrance of me,” and “Love one another as I have loved you,” are one commandment: to dwell so truly in Christ that we may share in his very life. In the words of St. Augustine: “behold what you are; become what you receive.” Only then, in this unity, may our wills be shaped and reformed into his. Only when Christians take their participation in the Body of Christ so seriously, so lovingly, will the divisions in families, communities, and nations be challenged and healed.
In the early 1960’s, in a parish in New York, the rector became aware that a local golf club had refused to allow a young man who had converted from Judaism (with his parents’ blessings) and whom the priest had baptized two years before from being a chaperone at a club event because of what was termed “Jewish parentage.” The priest also knew that members of club who had supported this were members of his own parish. In personal conversations with them, he urged them to recognize that, whatever their so-called “private” lives, their life as Christians required they forsake their membership in such a club for the division, the disunion, it had forced upon the Body of the Church. Taking the nature of the Sacraments and his ministry with complete seriousness, he preached a sermon noting that if Jesus Christ himself were to come to their town that day, he would be barred from attending the event by members of his own Church for his “Jewish parentage.” The priest then stated that all in the parish who maintained membership in the club would be barred from receiving communion. As the Prayer Book says, to this day:
When the priest sees that there is hatred between members of the congregation, he shall speak privately to each of them, telling them that they may not receive Communion until they have forgiven each other.
And, so they were. This event shocked many who thought they understood the Church, but had done so on purely social, human grounds. Instead, the true nature of life in Christ and his sacraments was revealed—perhaps for the first time—to members of Christ’s own Body in that parish.
And so we come to the altar this evening judging ourselves that we may not be judged. If we want a way to gauge our maturity in faith, we may reflect on this: how unified is my life? How much of my ethics, my use of money, of electronic media, my politics, my response to people different from me, my treatment of those I know well and those I know hardly at all is fully in communion with Jesus who washes my feet? What am I still holding back? How am I receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood but looking the other way while doing so, not looking into his eyes of truth and love, his soul of perfect unity with the Father— a unity that I may share through him if I but have the faintest desire?
Speak truly and openly to Christ who kneels before us—yes, on this night, kneels before us now—and do not put it off until the day when we come before him and he says: “All this time I gave you, and what did you do with it?”
Thus, perhaps the greatest tool any of us have for spiritual self-judgment is this: “In thus many days, I will take Christ’s own Body and Blood into myself. How does my life reflect this?” When we do so, we—in the Presiding Bishop’s words—“know something about the Gospel” and are ready to follow Christ and share him with others.
But tonight—it is essential to come to him; come in imperfection, with humility, for this is what he desires from us as we gather with him. Here, let us receive the medicine that heals, that binds together, that reveals the one cup revealing the one Lord in the one Body.
The Collect for Maundy Thursday:
Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.