Maundy Thursday is a turning point.
Up to today Jesus’s ministry has continued — preaching and teaching, proclaiming the kingdom. But after today the pace quickens considerably, with his arrest, trial and death before another 24 hours have passed.
Maundy Thursday is a turning point too in the story of the relationship between God and humanity.
Throughout his ministry we see Jesus acting out the very message that he was proclaiming. He tells his listeners that the kingdom of God is at hand, that it is among them — and all the while he is doing the things he is talking about. He proclaims that in God’s kingdom the blind will see, the lame will walk, and the sick will be healed — and he goes around restoring sight, raising the paralysed, curing the sick; he proclaims that the kingdom is like a feast to which all will be invited — and he goes around eating and drinking with everyone, from members of the Council to the outcasts of society and the ritually impure, in their ones and twos and in their thousands.
Jesus is not just proclaiming the kingdom, he is also living it: he is inaugurating it and embodying it. And he draws his disciples and others into this realization of the kingdom, above all when they share a meal together.
And then in the last meal before his death, Jesus does something new.
Earlier in the week we saw Jesus’s challenge to the sale of sacrificial animals in the Temple, a challenge to the Temple cult and the covenant which underpinned it. The time of the old covenant is past, and now Jesus inaugurates a new covenant.
In the Temple a person would offer for sacrifice an animal with which they had virtually no connection.
Jesus, however, takes in his hands something which every household would have, a loaf of bread, the work of human hands. As he has eaten with his friends throughout his ministry, so they are to remember him when they break bread together. And it is not an animal that he will offer for sacrifice. This bread, he says, is the body which is his sacrifice. This cup of wine, he says, is the blood of his sacrifice. Jesus’s new covenant between God and humanity, a covenant of fellowship with God in his kingdom, is inaugurated.
Jesus has taken ordinary bread and ordinary wine and declared that these are the sacrificial objects which his friends can offer. This gathering of friends is the temple and this table is the altar for the sacrifice. Forgiveness is offered, and its acceptance is signified by fellowship with Jesus. There is no need any more for the Temple in Jerusalem with all its failings. And at the same time, this meal is itself an enactment, a part, of the feast in God’s kingdom.
And there is one more thing to come.
Before another day has passed Jesus himself will be hanging from the cross, his broken body and out-poured blood now once and for all identified with the bread and the cup. To the remembrance of Jesus’s table-fellowship is added the remembrance of his cross and passion.
Together, identification and remembrance form a sacrament: in remembrance we make present the once-and-for-all actions of Christ at the Last Supper and on the cross; and in identification we can truly see the bread and wine as one with the body and blood of Christ hanging on that cross. In the sacrament the sins of the penitent are wiped clean. And together we proclaim and feast in the kingdom. Here, then, is the sacrament of Jesus’s new covenant.
And yet this is a sacrament that in our human failings manages to divide the followers of Christ. It divides us in our theology and understanding of the sacrament, and it divides us into groups that forbid sharing the sacrament with others or won’t accept it from others who are willing to share. So, our prayer today should echo some more words of Jesus on this day: May they all be one, that the world might believe (John 17.21).