Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday - 04/21/11

Holy Communion is important to us because it is one of the ways that God has established to give us this forgiveness.  And it is a particularly special way because we have the story of its institution, of how it began.

On this night that it begins, Jesus gathers his disciples together in a room in Jerusalem.   This is the last meal that they will all have together:
·        For it is tonight that Judas will betray him.
·        Jesus will be arrested in a few hours and convicted by the religious authorities.
·        It is in the wee hours of the morning that Peter will deny him.  
·        The others will slink away into the shadows out of fear.  
·        Tomorrow morning he will be brought before the Roman authorities and convicted there too.
·        He will be beaten, then crucified.
By the time the sun goes down the tomorrow, Jesus will be lying dead in a tomb. 
So, as Jesus and his disciples gather together tonight, Jesus has less than 24 hours to live.  Time grows short and so he shares something very important with them.  
  • He shares with them a simple meal.
  • He shares with them a way by which they will know his forgiveness, even when he is gone. 
  • He shares with them a way by which they can give this forgiveness to others. 
  • He shares with them his last will and testament.

So what exactly is a last will and testament?  And how is this meal a last will and testament?  Martin Luther explains it.
A testament, as everyone knows, is a promise made by one about to die, in which he designates his bequest and appoints his heirs.  A testament, therefore, involves first, the death of the testator, and second, the promise of an inheritance and the naming of the heir....... Christ testifies concerning his death when he says: “This is my body, which is given, this is my blood, which is poured out.”  He names and designates the bequest when he says, “for the forgiveness of sins.”  But he appoints heirs when he says, “for you and for many,” that is, for those who accept and believe the promise of the testator.  For here it is faith that makes men heirs, as we shall see.

You see, therefore, that what we call [Holy Communion] is a promise of the forgiveness of sins made to us by God, and such a promise as has been confirmed by the death of the Son of God.  For the only difference between a promise and a testament is that the testament involves the death of the one who makes it.  A testator is a promiser who is about to die, while a promiser (if I may put it thus) is a testator who is not about to die.  The testament of Christ is foreshadowed in all the promises of God from the beginning of the world; indeed, whatever these ancient promises possessed was altogether derived from this new promise that was to come in Christ.  Hence the words “compact,” “covenant,” and “testament of the Lord” occur so frequently in the Scriptures.  These words signified that God would one day die.  “For where there is a testament, the death of the testator must of necessity occur” (Hebrews 9).  Now God made a testament; therefore, it was necessary that he should die.  But God could not die unless he became man.  Thus the incarnation and death of Christ are both comprehended most concisely in this one word, “testament.”  (Luther’s Works 36, p38)

Jesus Christ is forgiving his disciples and appointing them as his heirs.  That is to say, he is telling them what they will receive upon his death.  When he dies, they will receive forgiveness.  This promise of forgiveness will be delivered to them in his body and blood, in the form of bread and wine.  Given what is about to happen and the shame and the guilt that they will be carrying for letting their teacher die unjustly, they will need this.  They will need this desperately.

But why couldn’t they just remember his forgiveness?  That’s not the way human beings work and God knows this perfectly well.  As I explained to the First Communion class last Sunday, on the day that I married my wife I told her that I loved her.  Imagine that I left it at that, never again telling her, “I love you.”  Never again giving her those words.  Never making them real by delivering them with a kiss, something tangible and real.  Imagine that I just left it up to her to remember this love that I had once professed.  Do you think that she will continue to believe that I love her?  No, she would begin to doubt.  Without hearing the words again she would begin to doubt.  Without feeling a kiss upon her lips she would begin to doubt. 

The disciples will need to hear this word of forgiveness.  They will need to hear it and taste it over and over and over again in order for them to believe.  In Holy Communion, in his last will and testament, Jesus is giving a way for his words of promise, his inheritance to be given over and over again, reinforced by something tangible, something that they can taste, bread and wine.

Later on, after his death and after his resurrection, the disciples, these heirs of Jesus Christ, will begin to give away his inheritance.  They will teach about Jesus.  They will preach.  They will baptize.  They will share Holy Communion with people who desperately need the forgiveness of their sins, who desperately need to be reconciled with God. 

This inheritance of Jesus Christ, this forgiveness of sins in the form of a promise given with wine and bread, has been passed down all the way to us.  From those sinful disciples who ate the body and blood of Jesus and heard his promise, all the way to us, who still hear his promise and who still eat and drink his body and blood.  And tonight, this inheritance is passed along to nine more heirs.  Nine more sinners who need to hear the promise of forgiveness and to taste it on their tongue and to believe.  And because we have the last will and testament of Jesus, such a promise can be given.  Amen.

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