Holy Communion and Holy Service
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 6th: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and John 13:1-17, 31b-35. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is Maundy Thursday. Our Lenten journey has entered its final stages. On the evening of this day, Jesus will gather with His disciples for a final meal. The church’s worship for practical reasons must sometimes conflate the different biblical accounts of an event in Jesus’ life. Take Christmas for example. The two different stories of the manger and the shepherds, and then the Magi and the star are often blended in worship. Our church manger scenes have everyone gathered for Jesus’ Bethlehem birth even though this obscures the distinction between the Infancy Narratives of Luke and Matthew. Worship is allowed a bit of poetic license in this way.
This evening we run into a similar occurrence. When we gather for the Maundy Thursday Worship Service, we will focus on the Institution of Communion and we will also read the Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. It is the same Gospel as we share here. This account is not found in any other Gospel; it is unique to John. Another uniqueness of John is that there is no account of the words of Institution at the Last Supper. There is no reference to the sacrament of Communion at John’s Last Supper as there is in the other three Gospels.
John shares his “‘I am the bread of life’” Communion message much earlier in the Gospel at chapter 6. In John, the discussion of Communion takes place among the crowd, not within the smaller circle of the Twelve. It takes place well within the life of Jesus’ ministry, not at its completion as Jesus awaits His execution. There is merit to this theological treatment that should be kept in mind when we speak of Communion. However, what I would like to have us think about now is that for John the Last Supper’s memorable act is not the bread and wine, but the washing of feet. In the liturgy of the church, the Institution of Communion and the washing are forced together, but this is not to be found in the biblical text. This, again, is the church’s liturgical poetic license. It serves a practical purpose, but also it blurs John’s message.
The title Maundy Thursday is derived from the Latin word for commandment, and it is based upon Jesus’ words after he washes the feet of His disciples: “‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’” For John the emphatic image of the Last Supper is not the gift of Communion, it is the new commandment. The culmination of Jesus’ life, in John’s Gospel, is not the “Do this in remembrance of me” Communion. It is “love one another just as I have love you.” It is the new commandment of seeing glory in humble, loving service. “Love one another” is not left nebulous so as to be interpreted as we choose. It is defined quite strictly by Jesus. It is to love as Jesus loves. It is to imitate the startling humility of Jesus taking on the role and appearance of the servant as He offers a loving, final gesture to His companions.
Both the Communion and the new commandment will be combined this evening, as they should, but there is so much to contemplate in John’s reformulation of the Last Supper centered on holy Service rather than holy Communion. We treat Communion with the profound sanctity that it rightly deserves. John’s message is that we should treat the new commandment of humble service with an equal sanctity. Both are communions with Christ.
I invite you to join with us in Hatfield this evening at 7:00pm as we will gather as God’s People in God’s House to remember the Last Supper’s Communion and the washing of feet, and also the beginning of Jesus’ Passion. Liturgy in a profound way can help us not only remember but feel the power and presence of Christ’s life. In a mystical sense, there is in our worship a timelessness we share in.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
Faith, love and chitchat.
Children Sunday School 9:30-10:30am
Nursery care available during worship
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