In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.
After looking over my Maundy Thursday sermons from the last three or four years, it seems that I have fallen into a pattern of alternating the basis of my message between the Gospel lesson from John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples' feet and gives them the new commandments to love one another just as he has loved them, with the text from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, which is the basis for the Words of Institution – the blessing of the bread and wine that I speak every time we celebrate Holy Communion. That being the case, this is the year for me to focus on our second lesson for the day.
But besides that, one of the major reasons for my choice to preach on this text this year is an online conversation between Lutheran Pastors on these words that we hear so often – especially the beginning of the phrase, “For I received what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread…” The discussion centered upon the fact that by quoting these words from our passage this evening when we begin the words of institution, we focus our attention on the act of betrayal, and thus we think about the betrayer and his sinister deeds on that fateful night. If we get so focused on that one word, “betrayed” in the sacrament, then we have removed God as the primary actor in this drama, and we highlight human sin as the star in this liturgical action. This is a shame since it seems that Paul is seeking here to proclaim God's redeeming grace in the midst of the sinfulness that is still present in the Corinthian community. In the verses before these, we hear Paul criticize them: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” Paul is trying to proclaim to the church of his day that the tradition that he received is not primarily about human sin, but about God's new covenant.
Maybe in order to move from the sinfulness of humanity toward the goodness of God, it is best to reconsider what Paul means when he says the word, “betrayed.” The Greek word Paul uses here, that has been translated in some versions of the Bible as, “betrayed” is more accurately translated, “handed over.” As a matter of fact, Paul intentionally uses the same word the verse earlier to describe this tradition: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” so he continues, “that the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was handed over, took a loaf of bread…”
So what difference does this subtle change in translation mean for us? It links our modern day Eucharistic celebration with the goodness and grace of the original historical act as well as the way that God's love has been understood from the time of those earliest Christian people. God handed Jesus over on that night to a death that he freely accepted. He was not the victim of an evil plot or one person's misconception of his message. This was God's gift to a creation that he made, loves and still cares for. And to understand that it happened on the night when he handed his son over “for you” means that we grasp the generosity and the gift of the events that happened on this night so long ago.
Since in this supper we share in the body and blood of this Lord who was handed over by God, Paul insists that the life of the church will be shaped accordingly. We will find, by God's grace, that for the sake of the world we too are being handed over in service, in pursuit of justice, and in costly love for all, even our enemies. We will find that the church too is called and sent in order to be poured out rather than to acquire, that we are sent to be broken for the sake of others rather than kept somewhere safe and unbothered. We will find that we too are called to stop, “humiliating those who have nothing (as Paul says in verse 22) and to stand with them”…or more accurately, to sit and eat with them of the Lord who was handed over for all of us! In this meal, we receive the gift of our Lord's body and blood with gratitude for the forgiveness that is ours; we also become what we receive and consume, the body of Christ for the sake of the world. The story of this meal is the story of God's grace at work, beyond any human betrayal! It is God's love handing over Jesus on the cross, and then into our hands and mouths, and then through us into the world!
Now I don't want to totally deny the place of the betrayal in the story of Jesus' death and resurrection! Judas' act of betrayal was a sign of the sin and evil that are still present in our world today! But to see God as the lead actor in all of this – who handed his son over to death, who was handed on through the apostles like Paul, who is handed out every time we gather at the table for his supper – is so important! In the grace of his continued presence with us, we, the body of Christ in the church, are handed over into this world to love as Christ showed his disciples to love on that final night with them – by becoming the humble servant that he was created to be. As we prepare to receive once again the body and blood of our savior, may we remember that it is God who is at work here, at this very table, handing over his son once more to his sinful creation. And as we prepare to remember the gruesome events of his suffering and death during tomorrow's liturgy, may we consider the profound love with which God acted through his son. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord; Amen.