Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Objects of Holy Week: Bread, Cup, and Basin

(A Maundy Thursday devotion based on John 13:1-7, 31b-35; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Some objects function as memory prompters. I look at my wedding ring and I remember the love and commitment that my wife and I share and I remember the vows that I took all those years ago. I look at the ordination certificate on my wall and I remember the fact that on a Sunday afternoon thirty-one years ago I was commissioned to do the Lord’s work. I look at the diplomas in my office and I recall the years of study that went into earning those degrees. I look at the photograph of Hank Aaron hanging in my study and I remember the pleasure and pain of following the Atlanta Braves for most of my life. Such objects are all memory prompters; you have yours, too. Notice this about those memory prompters: they remind me not only of the experiences of the past but also of my commitments in the present. I am still married to Debra, I am still a minister, I am still trying to learn, and I am still an Atlanta Braves fan.

Maundy Thursday worship is about memory prompters, too. On the Thursday night that he was betrayed, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples and after that meal he wrapped a towel around him, took a basin of water, and washed his disciples’ feet. After he had washed their feet, he said to them,
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 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. (John 13:12b-15 NRSV)
When we see a basin, then, it can remind us of the call we have from our Lord to wash one another’s feet. That is, we are called by Jesus to follow his example of humbly serving one another.

It is funny how often we let ourselves think that we deserve to be the ones being served rather than the ones doing the serving. Yet we are disciples of Jesus Christ; he is our Lord and Teacher. Therefore, we are called to follow his example. If anyone deserved to be served rather than to serve, it is Jesus. He is the Son of God, after all. But he served. As he said elsewhere, he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. We who follow him are always to be looking for opportunities to serve others and then to take advantage of the opportunities; that is the Jesus way to live.

Perhaps the baptismal pool or font is also a kind of basin that can remind us of who Jesus is, of who we are, and of how we are to live. When Jesus knelt before Peter, the disciple protested, “You will never wash my feet.” When Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Peter responded, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” While I know that this passage is not about baptism, it surely makes me think about it. When I participate in or witness a baptism, I am taken back to my baptism and I am inspired to remember the salvation I received and the commitments I made. I was baptized into Christ Jesus and so I am bound to follow him and to live like he lived.

The basin reminds us of the servant life and the servant death of Jesus. It also reminds us of the servant life that we are called to lead. It reminds us of what has happened in the past but also of who we are to be and what we are to do in the present.

It was also on Thursday night that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. As Paul reminds us, when Jesus broke the bread he said, “This is my body that is broken for you.” When Jesus took the cup he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Ever since that event the followers of Christ have taken the bread and the cup. Every time that we do it we are reminded of the death that Jesus died; we are reminded of the great suffering he went through in order to make possible our salvation.

But that is not all that is going on. Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). We are declaring the ongoing effect of Jesus’ death and we will so until he comes again. The bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper cause to remember what Jesus did for us but they also cause us to remember who we are to be and what we are to do here and now.

There is more to proclaiming the Lord’s death than partaking of the bread and cup of the Supper, of course. The context of Paul’s words here reminds us of that truth. He was giving the Corinthian Christians instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper because of abuses that were taking place there in relation to the Supper. In the early church the Eucharist was taken in the context of a fellowship meal. The more wealthy members who had more leisure time would get there early and eat the food and drink the wine and working folks who had to come when they could had to go without. Paul railed against those members of the Corinthian church who were doing their fellow Christians wrong. The Supper was about what the Church was about which was what Jesus was about: creating a family of faith in which everybody was treated the same way. No doubt is was this mistreatment and neglect of some church members by others in the fellowship meal to which Paul was referring when he talked about eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner (11:27).

So we proclaim the Lord’s death when we partake of the bread and the cup in the context of treating each other with care and respect. We tell the world that we are Christians and we tell the world who Jesus Christ is when we treat each other like we should.

After Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and after Judas had gone out to betray him, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34-35).

That’s what it all comes down to; that’s what the basin and the cup and the bread should remind us of and push us toward. We have been transformed by the servant life, the sacrificial death, and the amazing love of our Savior. Because we have been transformed, we are serve and to love one another. Thereby they will know we are Christians. Thereby they will see Christ in us. And thereby they may just come to know him.


Anonymous said...

No one else I know gives Holy Week the time and seriousness it deserves. I knew you would.

Mike Ruffin said...


Thank you for the kind words. I think that lots of other preachers (and normal folks, too) do give much attention to Holy Week, but I am grateful for this medium through which I can share my thoughts with you. We can't think and do enough about it, after all!

Blessings to you!