Thursday before Easter


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1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Luke 23:1-49

Whatever the precise form of the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (cf Paul Bradshaw: Eucharistic Origins), Jesus’ wish that it should be performed in his memory had gained wide acceptance by the late ‘50s when Paul was writing his First Letter to the Corinthians but it seems to have moved its domestic base to some kind of meeting hall where the general rules of hospitality were difficult to apply. Not only were there Christians with widely different backgrounds—Jews and Gentiles; Judaisers and Pauline radicals; slaves, free artisans and aristocrats—but there was still an underlying controversy about the status of meat offered to idols. There was not only a good deal of disorder, including drunkenness, but also a basic lack of charity (cf James 2:1-9). What counts is not the precise form of the observance—Paul’s account comprises bread and wine but on the ship off Malta (cf Acts 27:35) he simply broke bread—but its purpose and meaning. The celebration of the Eucharist is the defining, uniting, event of our Church. An occasion of such significance and power is always, as Paul sees, open to exploitation by the significant and the powerful and Paul establishes a contrast between the church and heresy, a point that might well have been in the compilers’ mind, still deeply preoccupied with what they regarded as the Eucharistic extremes of Catholic Transubstantiation on the one hand and radical Protestant Memorialism on the other to which the BCP was a middle of the road response. Although the 1552 version of the prayer Book was decidedly Protestant, the settled format, contained in the 1559 version, was designed to attract at least the nominal adherence of Catholics as well as Puritans. Paul might not have recognised the precise terms of the controversy but he would have recognised the polemic rhetoric.

It might seem almost disrespectful on this most bitter/sweet days of the Church’s calendar to refer to such controversy but there is a more important positive point to be made than the negative observations so far: for all its controversy and evolution, the Eucharist has remained the historical, universal continuation of the reality of the incarnation, the perpetuation of Jesus’ physical presence with us.

Luke’s account of the trial of Jesus picks up with that incarnational controversy. The Jews, who had no notion of incarnation, were genuinely puzzled by Jesus. This can be seen in their rather muddled accusation that he is refusing tributes to Caesar and claiming to be The Christ. When Pilate asks the direct question Jesus resorts to the already remarked odd phrase: “Thou sayest it”. In one sense Pilate was less puzzled than the accusers; if Jesus really claimed to be the King of the Jews then to the Roman titular King of the Jews he should go, so Jesus is sent (unique to Luke’s account) to the rather Janus-like figure of Herod who was known to be cruel, according to the severest of his Evangelical critics (Matthew 14:6) but was also an authority on Judaism and had, according to Mark (Mark 6:206:20[/passage]) killed John reluctantly because he regarded him as holy. Herod’s sadism took the form of theatre, torturing Jesus and dressing him in a gorgeous robe. How this reconciled him to Pilate it is impossible to say because Herod had not solved Pilate’s problem, so he went on with the quasi-judicial process until, as a matter of policy, he finally caved in. In Luke’s account Simon of Cyrene, not Jesus, carries the cross, which explains why he is able to talk to the women. His lament over Jerusalem reflects Luke’s literary and theological positioning of Jerusalem at the centre of his narrative (cf St. Luke) until, in the latter part of Acts, the emphasis moves dramatically to Rome. Typically, Jesus talks to women and, equally typically, when he arrives at his final earthly destination, Luke finds good as well as bad in the dregs of society. Jesus’ forgiveness of the repentant thief is the essence of Luke’s core belief that the mission of Jesus was to the poor and weak, those (in the words of a physician) who needed a physician. The repentance of the thief is shown in stark contrast to the rulers of the people who mocked. With something of the technique of Mark, the final minutes of his life shift from the wide focus of the public event to the private dialogue with the thieves and then back again. His final cry is as submissive as his commitment at the Mount of Olives, praying with the support of the angel. The narrative closes in a way that only Luke would depict, with the women, standing at a distance, watching the terrible suffering reaching its inevitable climax.

Looking back on Luke’s account, the quality that stands out is his understanding of human complexity. With the exception of the utterly simple Jesus, everyone in his narrative is plagued by a variety of factors which subtly alter their balance as the narrative unfolds. None of us, says Luke, has an unchanging set of attributes to which we stick regardless of circumstances; we shift the balance between the elements within us almost without knowing it. From the dominant figures of Pilate and Herod, through the rather caricatured figures of the religious leaders, to the women who at one point talk to Jesus but at the last can only stand far off, nobody gets through these two Chapters without experiencing change; how true is that for us?

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How significant are the different accounts of the Institution of the Eucharist?
  2. Are our celebrations of the Eucharist too formulaic and too focused on ‘people like us’?
  3. Draw up the bitter and sweet accounts for what most Christian traditions call Maundy Thursday (including John 13-17)
  4. Remind yourself of the Stations of the Cross
  5. Pick a character or group in Luke 22-23 and chart the changes in attitude and action.

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