Today is Maundy Thursday, when we remember Jesus’ final meal with his disciples which we often call the Last Supper. Recalling the gathering from which we inherit Holy Communion is especially difficult this year when we can’t gather in physical community, because being together and sharing the sacrament in community is a core part of what communion is. Churches are struggling with this, and pastors are responding in different ways.
Some are having communion on the internet, inviting people to use their own elements at home. This has led to debates over whether online communion is valid when recorded, or only when live. Others are trying drive-thru communion, although our bishop has asked us not to. All of this within our United Methodist connection, which had previously determined that communion is something we do only when gathered in physical community.
One colleague of mine raised a very succinct argument as to why we don’t need to struggle with other ways to celebrate Holy Communion. The Last Supper is a means of grace, a particular mode for the movement of God’s grace into our lives. We have other means of grace. There are acts of personal piety like prayer, fasting, searching the Scriptures. John Wesley also included acts of mercy, including doing good works. All means of grace are equally useful.
In John’s Gospel we’re told that Jesus shared a different act with his disciples: “So [Jesus] got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.” (John 13:4-5) This is an act of humility, of giving, of self-sacrifice – a good work. This is the sacrament we will practice this Maundy Thursday.
There is no need for us to struggle with whether or not to celebrate online communion, no need for theological or liturgical gymnastics. Staying home and not gathering in community is an act of humility, of giving, of self-sacrifice. By staying home and not gathering in community we are doing a good work. Staying home and not gathering in community will be our means of grace. Staying home and not gathering in community will be our sacrament.
The name of Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment. As in, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35) Right now the best way that we can express our love for each other is from a distance, fasting from the feast, and waiting again to gather.
Peace for the journey,