Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday Meditation

(What follows is the devotional I will be sharing tonight as we have our special Maundy Thursday celebration of the Lord's Supper.)

Text: John 6:28-60

Our readings for this evening come from Jesus's famous discourse on His being the Bread of Life. To be clear, this passage is not technically a discussion of the Lord's Supper. It comes long before Jesus institutes that meal, and we shouldn't read too much into it. However, it is appropriate to think about it as we come to the table because both the imagery and the underlying message are connected to this meal.

As we reflect on those words, and as we prepare to celebrate the Lord's Supper, I want to just have us ask two questions to help us engage. Two questions from the text we just heard. 1) Why is This Saying Hard? And 2) Why is This Saying Good?

Why is This Saying Hard?
First, why is this saying so hard? It's there in the last verse we read - “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, 'This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?'” (60) It's there in the grumbling of the crowds. In their demand to know “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” (52)

This is a hard saying to these people. But why is it hard?

On one level, we probably just forget how shocking this language is. We view these sayings through the full teaching and work of Jesus. We view it through the cross and the Lord's Supper. Yet to these first people, it had to sound bizarre. “Eat my flesh.” “Drink my blood.”

Yet it wasn't just the violence of the imagery that startled them. It was something deeper.
Listen to the question of the crowd. They ask Jesus for a sign, and they join it to this point: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (31) You can almost hear the pride in that statement. “Look at the mighty sign God gave our ancestors.”

This pride is at work all through the questions. You can hear it in their response a little later. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’” (42) “Oh, that Jesus, getting uppity. We know who your daddy is.”
But what is it about Jesus's statements that so sting their pride?

For Jesus's hearers, religion was a mark of privilege. It meant that you were better than others. Closer to God.

Yet Jesus is intentionally attacking this way of thinking. Throughout this sermon, he keeps linking salvation not to good works or your ancestry or whatever but simply to faith. To belief. In verse 28, the crowds want to know what good works they should perform. “Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”” (28) And then the next verse, “Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”” (29) He hammers this point over and over – for instance, later in verse 47: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life.” (47)

More than that, Jesus doubles down on this grace by stressing that whatever belief His hearers have, whatever place in God's people, it is only because God first pursued and called them. In verse 37, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” Or verse 44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.” (44)

All of which culminates in the images Jesus uses Himself – that of eating flesh and drinking blood.
In the first place, eating is not about deserving. If Jesus said, “Do these acts. Pay this tithe. Be good enough and you will be saved,” then we might be able to take credit. But eating is not a morally remarkable act. It is just what we do to survive.

That becomes clearer because of the givenness of this meal. It isn't that Jesus invites us to work hard and earn our supper. It isn't that he tells us to plant and water and eat the fruit of our labors. This is bread come down from heaven. Like manna, in a sense. God-provided bread. It is Jesus offering Himself as our food.

At the same time, because this bread is Jesus and He is offering it to all, it also destroys his hearers' sense of privilege. “Moses and our ancestors were fed by God,” they say. Yet in verse 49, here is Jesus: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died.” (49) Instead, with Jesus as the feast, he says: “But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die.” (50) “It doesn't matter who you are,” Jesus is saying. “It doesn't matter what you've done. Anyone may eat of this bread, and if they do, they are in a more exalted place than your exalted ancestors.”

All of which is to say that the bread and cup, and the gospel they embody – it is a gospel that should humble us. It should destroy our pride. And that is what makes it hard.
Think about what this table tells us about our posture in relation to God. It is something we come to, not something we serve. This bread is not our goodness; this cup is not the new covenant of our performance. It is Jesus, given for us. All that we do is take and eat.

We are terrible at believing that is true.

We spend so much time trying to make ourselves worthy. So much time trying to justify ourselves. To repair or hide our weakness. Yet the call of the table is simply to come and eat. A part of us hates that. Just like the crowds, we find the grace of God to be a hard teaching.

Why is This Saying Good?
And yet we need it. This is the hope we need. Which is where I want us to shift from thinking about why this saying is hard to the second question: why is it good? Why is this saying good?

Answer: Because this table is for the people we truly are.

The irony of being proud and self-righteous is that you are always unsteady. You are always afraid because pride and self-righteousness require you to lie to yourself. There are lies that, the more you tell them, the more you come to believe they are true. Have you ever told a lie like that? Where you almost start to remember it differently? The more you engage in deceit, the more you end up working to deceive yourself.

Our pride and self-righteousness are the ultimate forms of self-deceit. They require us to lie to ourselves constantly about who and what we are. We have to justify all of our sins to ourself, or deny them. And the truth is, we do that. As we spend our whole lives doing it, we even might start to believe the lie.

Of course, that ties back into what we said before, about the table being hard. This is Jesus calling us on our crap. Jesus telling us that we are lying to ourselves.

Yet it is also what makes the table so freeing. As good as we might get at lying to ourselves, somewhere deep in our hearts we still know it isn't true. Indeed, the volume of our insistence that we are good, upright people is often a measure of how deeply insecure we actually feel. There is nothing as freeing as being able to say, “I am not strong. I am not righteous. I am not perfect.”

What is the right posture to come to the table? It is not the posture of being full. It is the posture of being hungry. This bread is not for the people who are unbroken. It is not for people with no sins to be forgiven. It is for those broken ones for whom Jesus's body was broken. It is for those who thirst to have their sins covered.

So this table is good because it lets us own our weakness. Yet it is also good because it speaks to us that our weakness finds what it needs in Jesus Christ.

In the blood of Jesus Christ, we find forgiveness for our sins. Their guilt has been paid. God sees us as righteous and beloved. As we drink of His blood, we are actually righteous before God.

In the flesh of Jesus Christ, we find new meaning for our lives. As we become a part of Him, so He provides us with a new humanity and new purpose. A new definition of who we are.

So this table is an invitation to come and acknowledge our weakness and to find that weakness healed. To hear again of God's love for us and see it signed and sealed to us. To have Him set for us a true feast declaring to us true life and true healing.

So let us prepare ourselves to celebrate the feast.

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