Maundy Thursday - a Shared Supper

A sermon preached at St George's on 17 April 2014 by Martin Carr

I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

This morning at St Paul’s Cathedral the clergy and licensed ministers of the diocese gathered for the annual renewal of vows and blessing of the holy oils. It was a truly splendid occasion, under the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpiece, in the presence of extravagantly robed bishops and canons, accompanied by the fine music of the cathedral choristers, and all done with precise and solemn ceremony. And there, amidst all this pageantry to the glory of God, each of us, from the greatest to the least, ate a small piece of bread, and sipped from a shared cup of wine, just as, 2000 years ago, one man broke bread in an upper room and shared it, and a cup, with his friends.

For those who are interested in the origins of the Eucharist, there is little hard evidence in the New Testament. The passage we heard read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians points to a shared meal of the community, together with the remembered words of Jesus from the last supper. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, in similar but not identical words, recount the last supper as a prelude to the story of Jesus’ passion and death. John, as we heard this evening, focuses on the washing of the disciples’ feet rather than the supper, though in the feeding of the 5,000 and the wedding feast of Cana, both earlier in the gospel, the symbols of the Eucharist are clearly prefigured.
Recently I have been reading about an early document of the Christian Church, written around the same time as the gospels, though, having not made it into the New Testament, is now little known. It gives details of the earliest practises of the Church, including baptism, fasting, prayer, and, critically, the celebration of the Eucharist. The name of this text is the Didache, a Greek word meaning ‘teaching’. It was clearly meant as an instruction manual for early Christian communities, giving very practical details of how life together was to be lived. In its directions for the Eucharist, there are details which, to some, might seem quite unexpected, even shocking.

The most important detail is that the Eucharist was not a symbolic or token gesture, but part of a proper meal around a real table. In focusing on the Eucharist as a theological event, and in arguing about whether or not Jesus is really present in the bread and wine, we have lost sight of the fact that we are participating in a very routine yet essential act of human culture, eating together. During this meal, the early Christians, so the Didache tells us, took a loaf, broke it and shared it. We do this of course with a birthday or wedding cake, and we even parcel pieces up to send to friends and relatives not present, but it is arguable whether the small fragments of wafer used in modern practice do justice to this quality of the Eucharist. The cup of wine is a shared cup, an intimate symbol of the unity of those at the meal, and one without parallel in ancient practice. There are no set prayers in the Didache, no mention of the Last Supper in particular, and no instructions about who should preside at the celebration. Indeed, since it took place in a domestic rather than religious setting, it was probably the case that the host of the meal would say the prayers, rather than any specially designated minister or official.

The Eucharist of the first Christians differed wildly from the extravagant celebration of a Mass in a cathedral. It was a homely affair, a shared supper. Perhaps we capture some sense of that meal this evening, an intimate group meeting together around a table for fellowship and worship. The most important continuity which the Didache stresses with the life of Jesus is that the early Christians frequently ate together without social distinction as their central act as a community.

Eating together has formed a social bond in most societies throughout history. Some of those meals, like the Passover meal described by the book of Exodus, or the Last Supper itself, become greatly elaborated and adorned with theological and ceremonial overlay. There is nothing wrong with that, but we must, at the same time, not lose sight of the Eucharist as a continuation of Jesus’ own dining habits. Jesus ate with well-off Pharisees, and with hated tax collectors. Jesus ate with his closest disciples, but also with the one who would betray him. As he ate with respectable male Jews, he drew attention to a woman of the street who anointed his feet with oil and wiped them with her hair. The table fellowship of the first Christians also stressed this unifying and inclusive ideal – all were equal despite social status, there were to be no divisions, quarrels were to be laid to one side. All were to be given enough to eat – not just a sip of wine and a fragment of bread.

In our church today the Eucharist has become a symbol of division and exclusion rather than unity and hospitality. Can Catholics and Anglicans share the same bread and cup? Ought a woman preside over the celebration? Should divorced people receive the sacrament? Should we use incense at our celebrations? Modern language or traditional? Altar or table? Vestments or ordinary clothes? Whether you think these are important issues or not, they would have left the early Christians who read the Didache scratching their heads. For at its heart is a shared meal, a meal of welcome, in which, they believed, and indeed we should believe, God is with us.

As Jesus prepared for his final hours, he performed no great miracle or sign, but rather humbly washed feet and shared food. ‘Love one another’ he told the disciples, not really a new commandment at all, but the oldest in the book. In serving one another, in sharing with one another, we show that love which God had for us, shown so clearly in the life of Jesus Christ. Let us then, serve one another, let us eat and drink together, and let us, through these simple acts of love, welcome God into our midst. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice