What we have before us are ‘death table’ words, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2007

April 5, 2007

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Reading deathbed quotations can provide information and amusement, bewilderment, and boredom. Seldom, though, do famous last words produce meaning and inspiration.

Such is not the case with Jesus, however. Commonly, Good Friday sermons reflect on Christ’s last words from the cross. But his truer deathbed quotations come in the lessons for today’s worship.

Okay. What we have before us are “death table” words, but they are the famous last words of our faith and of all creation – words that provide meaning and inspiration, words that give us hope and life, in the deepest sense.

Jesus used his last moments with his inner core of followers to profound effect. He knew he was about to die. He knew they would have trouble going on without him. So he knew he had to leave them with words that would sustain them.

We heard the first of his famous last words in the Epistle reading. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

By following these instructions after he was gone, the disciples could keep Jesus among them – by recollecting, by recalling him to their presence. Through a special act, using common food, he taught them to become what he was, and to perpetuate him within themselves. As they ate what he called his body and his blood, his life itself, they became the love that Jesus was and is. Those who would accept his mission and live into his vision would become the Body of Christ in the world he was leaving behind.

Eat the Body of Christ. Drink the blood of the holy one whose self-sacrifice made you the most special and valuable beings in creation, by making us all worth dying for. Be ever connected with him. Be ever aware of God’s presence with you and God’s love for you. Do not be afraid to risk living, really living, as the reality of Jesus that is in you gives you courage and strength and comfort in the midst of this often troublesome world of ours. In this spiritual food we gain spiritual and emotional energy to sustain us on our way.

Take the body of Christ. Become the Body of Christ. Become love in unity with all others through the love of Jesus. We are united at the Lord’s Table, are we not? At least at the moment of receiving the sacraments alongside our fellow Christians, we are one. We are united with one another in all our intentions and with all our focus as we recall Jesus among us. We are at total peace with one another and all of humanity in this special, holy moment.

Sometimes it may be only for that moment, as we perhaps stray into negative or judgmental thoughts, noticing something or someone even as we return to our pew. Nevertheless, the action stands for us as the benchmark for what we can become. The loving, peaceful unity of the Lord’s Table can become reality in our day-to-day lives. Theses famous last words of Jesus can transform us. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

The other famous last words of Jesus come to us from St. John’s version of the Last Supper. He gives us a more specific understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ. As the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, fills us up, it overflows from us onto others in the form of loving actions.

Jesus got down on the ground before the disciples and washed their dusty feet as a way to lead them into actions of love for others. To be the Body of Christ, he says, reach out with your resources to serve others as I am serving you. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.”

These famous last words in this startling exemplary action tell us what to do as his followers. Remember this, he tell us. Remember me in front of you, serving you, and do the same for others.

On the eve of his death, Jesus did not focus on his need but on the needs of others. The one who was the leader – the focus of all attention, the master – became like a slave to those who by all logic should have served him. In taking the towel and basin to himself, Jesus turned the realities of the world upside down and shook them out so the values of God could pour out on us. He transformed the traditional understanding of power and laid priority on values that rest only in God.

In the light of the events of the night before Jesus died, could his closest followers have failed to remember his teachings about caring for the least among us? After he was gone, must they not have connected his washing their feet with his continual reminders about loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves – about denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses in following him?

Did Jesus’ famous last words provide meaning and inspiration – giving hope and life, in the deepest sense? The answer bears itself out day by day as we, his followers, remember – as we recall him to presence and face the challenge of becoming the very Body of Christ, loving others as Jesus loved us.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

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