Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday - Christ: The Sacrament of Love

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” – John 12.24

These words come out of the mouth of Jesus while in the temple, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Some Greeks come to the disciples, expressing their desire to see Jesus. Perhaps, they had heard of his power, how he heals the sick and broken, how he claims to forgive sins. They may even have heard rumors that this Jesus is possibly the messiah, the promised king who would restore Israel and gather together God’s dispersed people. They are curious and they are attracted to his spiraling celebrity. In a similar way, later we learn that Herod wants to see Jesus so that he can see one of his miracles. The crowds are curious and, like a moth to a flame, are attracted by his fame.

We behave much the same way if we see a famous person, say, your favorite actor. I wonder what she is really like in person, you ask yourself? Should I say something to her, or should I pretend not to recognize her and just coolly say hello? And what would really impress us is if she behaved towards us as if we were friends. And then asked us what our favorite movie is in which she appeared, and obliged us with an impersonation of the character. In other words, we would love it if she would indulge our curiosity and glory in her fame. The same thing could be said if we saw an admired statesman, say Ronald Reagan. Except we might wish that he would give us some display of his superior eloquence and political power.

Jesus, of course, rejects the trappings of fame and the hunger of popular curiosity. In a way, he rejected these when he would not worship Satan, to gain all the kingdoms of the earth, when he would not cast himself off the pinnacle of the temple—a public religious house—thereby proving that he is God’s Son. He would not feed our hunger for miracles by turning stones into bread, and for the same reason, he tells many of those he heals not to spread what he has done. He rejects our curiosity and attraction to his fame. Why? Well, not for the usual reason that he wants to maintain his privacy. Rather, Jesus rejects human curiosity, the power of fame, the power of might, in order to proclaim something so fundamental that it is like the very air we breathe: He comes to proclaim love.

The disciples of Jesus approach him to arrange a meeting between the curious crowds and our Lord, and this is what he tells them, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” This temptation to embrace fame and power is just like the ones he had at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus will not oblige them in the way they wish because now is the time for him to be the seed that falls into the ground and dies. It is self-evident that the seed that does not die abides alone. How many interviews with celebrities evince the fact that even with the acquisition of fame and wealth, happiness and abiding love can remain elusive? How many great and powerful leaders have died having wealth and power but essentially alone? And their great empires soon turned to dust.

In the northern frontier of the eastern European country of Ukraine, there is a city by the name of Pripyat. It is a city like many others: there are streets and schools, homes and civic buildings, apartment buildings and even a ferris wheel. Only this city is not like other cities, for no one lives there. And even though the skyline is filled with modestly tall apartment buildings, not one is inhabited, and in fact, in the spring, streams of water run through many of the buildings. The other striking feature of the skyline is the amount of green that meets the eye. Abundant poplars fill out much of the space between the decaying buildings, their long, narrow shape bulging out of concrete parking lots and asphalt streets. Pripyat is the city of 50,000 that was evacuated permanently on April 27, 1986, a day after the Chernobyl accident in which an explosion at a nuclear plant sent a huge cloud of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Although the decaying city of Pripyat may have something to say about the wisdom of utilizing nuclear power, it has a much more important and powerful message: the things of this world fade, deteriorate, and die; even things that appear to have great permanency can have that permanency threatened in a day; most things that are thought of as permanent have a permanence that is illusory. Furthermore, fame and power are transitory; crowds are fickle and merciless, and power wanes, sometimes without explanation. But love alone abides. Love cannot be stolen. It cannot be corrupted by decay. True love is that which is freely given without any expectation of reward or reciprocation. This is the love that a mother gives when she puts her child’s needs and wants before her own. This is the love that Christians are commanded to give one another; they are told: seek not your own good but the good of others. This is the love that Jesus freely gave to us when, though he was rich, he became poor, taking our broken human nature upon himself, and, though not obliged to do so, declaring himself to be one of the family, our elder brother. This is the love Jesus gave when he offered up his life on the cross, as the one perfect, eternal sacrifice for sins and not for ours only but for sins of the whole world.

On this night, we gather to remember the last supper of our Lord Jesus before his arrest, and to remember that on this night he instituted the simple meal of bread and wine that is a feast of love. It is interesting that in John’s Gospel the institution of the Lord’s supper is not recorded, as in the other three Gospels. Instead, on that night, John records our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet, an act of service that symbolizes what Jesus will do for them on the cross in less than 24 hours. But John does not fail to mention this all important meal. You see, in John’s Gospel, the Last Supper, the institution of Holy Communion actually occurs on Calvary. Jesus says before his arrest, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” He is the grain of wheat, that does die, that gives his life freely. And as he pours out his life on Calvary, this single seed of wheat—this single seed of love—bears a great crop of wheat. The wheat engendered by his death is the bread that we eat in this Sacrament of Holy Communion. As he dies on Calvary, Christ is the true sacrament of love. He is the sacrament that we receive and commemorate every time we gather at this, His table, to be nourished once again by Him and to eat of this wheat, his flesh, given for us and for the life of the world. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

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