Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday sermon: Making ready

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2016, Maundy Thursday C
Exodus 11:1-4, 11-14; Luke 22:7-23

Making Ready

Jesus knew what was coming. Again I say, you didn’t have to be the Son of God to know that between the religious authorities and the Romans, Jesus’s time was short on this earth.
And as one of his last acts, Jesus was bound and determined to host a really good Passover meal.
While Judas is out conspiring with the chief priests and scribes (and with Satan, as Luke tells it in the first six verses of this chapter), our scripture for this evening begins with Jesus giving Peter and John an assignment to go and make preparations for a meal for the first night of Passover, a meal which Jesus says in verse 15 he had “earnestly desired” to have with his disciples. Apparently it was important enough to Jesus to go out of his way to make advance arrangements for a room for observing Passover, and to send the two disciples who had been his right-hand men for so much of his ministry.
Peter and John are sent to look for a sign that doesn’t sound like much, but in context would have been hard to miss. A man carrying a water jar was not typical – women were the ones more likely to be performing that task – so Jesus was giving them a clue that was hard to miss. They indeed follow the carrier and he indeed leads them to the place where a room has already been prepared.
The story is not dissimilar to the one we heard on Sunday, in which Jesus sent two disciples to fetch a colt for the ride into Jerusalem. Jesus, it seems, has been going to great pains for his disciples in this week in Jerusalem.
And so the disciples find the room, and presumably make the preparations for the Passover. This wouldn’t be unfamiliar to them; any good Jewish adult would have been familiar with the instructions for this festival, a portion of which we heard in the reading from Exodus earlier. They would have experienced it numerous times in their lives by now. This would be the one that would stay with them, though, for the rest of their lives.
If Jesus knew what was coming, his disciples might not have been so clear on it, or so willing to admit to it. Thus the meal being shared that evening, one last meal together, became Jesus’s one last chance to tell them, to leave them with an act that would bind them together, and bind them to him, and indeed bind all of the church together.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this meal, as Luke portrays it, is found in verse 21. Jesus’s betrayer is at the table with them. In case there was any doubt that Jesus knew what was going on, he dispels it right in the middle of this most dramatic moment of sharing, leaving the bread and the cup as his bond to them as they had shared so many meals across their time together, leaving them new meaning for the ordinary stuff of bread and wine; in the midst of this he names his betrayal.
Not his betrayer, though. Let’s be honest: Jesus could have identified Judas by name and his disciples might well have torn him limb from limb. Instead, the meal and the meaning are shared, with Judas’s identity as the betrayer not revealed until later that night, in the garden.
Peter and John could not know this as they followed Jesus’s instructions, making ready for the observance of Passover. They were simply doing as Jesus told them to do, getting everything together for a meal with Jesus and the disciples. While that preparation might have been a little odd, it certainly couldn’t prepare them for what was to come.
They weren’t given the latitude to decide who was in and who was out for the meal. Peter and John may have made many of the preparations, but Jesus was still the host.
Jesus didn’t tip them off as to what Judas was up to at the same time. They couldn’t know that one of their own was going to collude with those religious authorities to betray Jesus to the Romans. For that matter, Peter didn’t get tipped off to his own denial to come later, deep into the night, when three times he would deny even knowing Jesus, much less being a disciple.
If you want to look at this one way, neither Peter nor Judas had any business being at that table. If you go by our way of defining who is “worthy” or who “deserves” to be seated at Jesus’s culminating meal, both of them would have been barred, told to go away.
And yet Jesus served them, shared the cup and the bread with them, even knowing that Peter would deny him, even knowing the woeful end to which Judas would come after committing his act of betrayal. This final message was entrusted to them nonetheless. This final bond did not exclude them.
Coming to this table is a good time for self-examination and repentance; this much is true. However, we need to lose the idea that we can ever be “worthy” at this table. This side of our eternal reunion with Christ, we will never be “worthy” to be at this table. Our rebelliousness, our disobedience, our unwillingness to follow where Christ leads clings to us. We do not ever make ourselves worthy. We can’t. Only in the loving graciousness of Jesus Christ do we ever have any business coming to this table. And the  Christ who did not turn away the conspirator who was even then hastening his own death, nor the bumbler who would deny his very presence in Jesus’s life, is not turning us away.
And so, here is the table, unguarded, no gates or walls around it. Christ simply bids us to make ready, to share the bread and the cup, to know that it is Christ who bids us come and eat. We may yet end up in Peter’s shoes. We may yet end up in our own denial or betrayal of the Christ we love and serve. But Christ does not send us away from the table, no matter how unworthy we know ourselves to be, or how unworthy Christ knows us to be.
Christ bids us come and eat. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “An Upper Room Did Our Lord Prepare” (94); “Now To Your Table Spread” (515), “For the Bread Which You Have Broken” (508)

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