Called to Love
Maundy Thursday, April 6, 2023
Deacon Stephanie Anderson
John 15:3-5,12-17, 34-45
Grace and peace to you from the One who promises to here among us this day. Amen.
It was about three weeks into my time in South Africa when the shine of this new home and new adventure began to wear off and the homesickness set in. I had committed, as a part of the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program, to spending one year living with a Lutheran pastor and his family, just outside of Cape Town, as a missionary alongside the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa.
It was one of the very first Sundays that I worshipped at Grassy Park Lutheran Parish, a small, brick church on the outskirts of town that smelled like candles and old books. I felt about as far away from home as I could imagine. The entire three-hour church service was in the language of Afrikaans and in those first weeks and months I mostly had no idea what was happening. I was trying to catch any of the Afrikaans being spoken around me, but there I was, sitting in my pew, stumbling through a completely foreign hymnal, and feeling totally overwhelmed. I was lonely and homesick and exhausted.
I did recognize that it was time for communion as the pastor headed to the table and began what I assumed were the Words of Institution. As I sank into the liturgy more deeply, I began hearing the word ee-yer-ah over and over again throughout the service. Ee-yer-ah, ee-yer-ah, ee-yer-ah. When I finally had the courage to ask the person next to me what it meant, she told me that ee-yer-ah was the Afrikaans word for Lord. And when I looked down at my hymnal in my lap, I saw that the word ee-yer-ah, Lord, was written in Afrikaans h-e-r-e.
And there I was, sitting 9,000 miles away from home, churning with anxiety and homesickness, worshipping in a foreign language, and as we prepared to gather around the table, God’s very name was illuminated as “here.”
A couple weeks later, this anxiety and homesickness had continued and I really wasn’t well. It was then that God’s face showed up in Margot. Margot was a member of the Lutheran church and had invited me to serve at the elementary school where she worked as principal. Unbeknownst to me, Margot was a recent empty-nester and looking for someone to nurture. She had silently noticed that I hadn’t been eating well; that I had gotten quiet and sad, and actually sick from new food. She asked me if I would accompany her to the local market because she needed to get groceries for the teacher’s training that was to happen after school that day. As her volunteer, I obliged, and she walked me through every aisle. In between her selections, she asked me what food I liked to eat and what food I missed from home. I casually pointed out this and that – peanut butter, garlic bread, crackers, yogurt – the familiar. We bought the groceries for her workshop and left the store. Curiously, the teacher’s training event didn’t happen that afternoon, but the next day, when I arrived at school, I found that the staff fridge was stocked full of peanut butter, garlic bread, crackers and yogurt. The fridge that I had access to and from which I was welcomed to eat… and that fridge remained stocked that way for the rest of the year.
Tonight’s scripture readings offer us some of the richest, most foundational texts of our faith, all centered around the most familar act of a shared meal.
Jesus is gathered among his friends and closest acquaintances, observing a Passover meal. It’s a holiday evening for them; a commemoration of their ancestors who had been freed from slavery in Egypt. They were gathered in the dark, around a meal, celebrating the story that they knew in their bones: that their people had been delivered from bondage, from violence, and from the cruelty of unchecked power, into the liberation of God’s holy embrace.
This story of liberation was welcome to their ears, as they were gathering that night in the shadow of Roman abuse and power. Their lives and the reality in which they found themselves mirrored their ancestors. This celebration of a past deliverance was good news; a story that they clung to and in which they put their hope. God had delivered them before; maybe God would do it again and maybe God would put Jesus on the throne this time, instead of Caesar.
It was during this evening together, resting in these stories of their ancestors and holding hope that Jesus might become an earthly king, that Jesus got up from dinner and made it very clear that whatever throne they might be envisioning wasn’t it. That Jesus’ idea of power and might was through humility and service. He tied a towel around his waist, knelt to the floor, and washed the feet of those gathered. They protested and insisted that he not, but Jesus assured them and continued, embodying a humility that his followers could hardly imagine of a leader or ruler.
And then, shortly after, Jesus gives us the words that we hear when we gather at this table: he takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples. He says, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he takes a cup, and after giving thanks he gives it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
On this Passover night, Jesus is echoing the story in Exodus; this story they know in their bones. In the setting of this Passover meal, Jesus boldly claims that just as God has redeemed the Israelites in the past, God is redemptively active in Jesus’ journey to the cross. That this body and blood now signify God’s eternal covenant of forgiveness. That no matter the circumstances, Jesus promises us that he is “here”, at this table and all tables where we remember him, to tend to our bodies and our spirits.
Because we don’t just eat to fuel our bodies. When Margot fed me, she not only healed my body, she healed my spirit. She met me at my most anxious and chose love – that love brought me back to myself.
We eat together because the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine heals our spirits; turns a table into a center of belonging. We know the healing that can come with a shared meal, with the thoughtfulness of a stocked staff fridge, or the generosity of having cooked for one another, or the hard work and commitment it takes to make sure that all the hungry are fed.
“When Jesus says, ‘This is my body, broken for you’, maybe another way to understand this is Jesus saying, “Don’t look in the tomb; don’t look in heaven; look at one another. Look around you – at the food you eat together, at the community you build across the table, the life you share together. I am ‘here’, I am ‘HERE’; in the faces of one another and the gathering at the table.”
This great mystery binds us together as Jesus ends this meal with a final prediction of his passion. He says, “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Jesus knew that as the events of the coming days would unfold, he wouldn’t be with them physically, but yet promised to join them over a meal in God’s kingdom.
We gather at this table with Jesus and with the communion of saint throughout all time and space. When we eat this bread and drink this wine, we do so alongside the characters in this story tonight; alongside those who have gone before us in faith; alongside the faithful in South Africa and Tanzania and Guatemala and the Middle East; the neighbor in your pew; and those who will come after us. The kingdom, a divine banquet, a meal set for us that we remember when we gather at the table.
Tonight’s story is just one point in this Holy Week journey. And so as we move forward, we take our cue from scripture and do as scripture says: verse 30 reads “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives”, where we know he’ll be handed over to the authorities for his arrest and execution. And so we sing together and follow Jesus to the cross…