A Sermon for
Maundy Thursday, 1981
King's Chapel, NS
By Dr. Robert Crouse
"Then said they unto him, what shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. They said therefore unto him, That sign showest thou, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert, as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat."Among the hearers of Jesus, there were many people with a certain religious insight, and with excellent intentions. They wanted to know how to "work the works of God"; they longed to know and serve a good above and beyond the ephemeral satisfaction of worldly ends. They were weary and fed up with "meat that perisheth", and to them, Jesus' promise of the "bread of life", seemed winsome. But they knew, also, that one must be cautious in such matters; one must not be carried away by some visionary foolishness. They had heard lots of prophets and pseudo-prophets, and found it hard to tell the difference. One must have some demonstration, some clear proof, that this is not just another promise which turns out to be empty in the end. And therefore, they sought a sign: "What sign showest thou, that we may see and believe thee?"
They did not understand that there could be no sign of the sort they sought. There were, and would be, signs and wonders; but no earthly sign could provide certain proof of heavenly things. Stones could be turned to bread, no doubt; but the effect would be only to make the word of God to serve "meat that perisheth". "You followed me, not because you understood the sign, but because you ate of the loaves", said Jesus to the multitude that followed him around the lake, Manna stored up for earthly security would turn rancid overnight - it would be just more of that "meat that perisheth". And therefore, Jesus spoke harshly of the lust for signs: A wicked and perverse generation seeketh a sign, but there shall no sign be given them, except the sign of Jonah" - except the sign of death and resurrection.
And thus, Jesus did provide us with one sign: the sign of his own death and resurrection, the sign of the love of God which heals and reconciles, the sign that "God so loved the world". It is not, indeed, the sign for which we lusted; it is not a sign we could even have imagined . Yet, it is not a sign which demonstrates in worldly terms. It is a sign which inspires and enlightens faith, as we look faithfully upon it. It does not necessitate assent nor make assent secure in worldly terms: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe though one rose from the dead". Faith is surely demonstrated only from the starting-point of faith. But for faith, this sign is food and drink, it is manna in the desert, it is the bread of God which giveth life unto the world.
And therefore, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave us this sign as sacrament, that faith might eat and drink his body broken and his blood poured out, that inwardly we might know and outwardly show forth the reconciling love of God in Christ and find in that sacrament the means of grace and pledge of glory.
We call this Thursday "Maundy". The word probably derives from the Latin word " mandation", which means "commandment", and this is indeed the day that celebrates Christ's new commandment. All the traditional ceremonies of this day - the washing of the feet, the blessing of the oils - embody that idea. Today our Master calls us not his servants, but his friends: it is the day of caritas, the day of friendship. And therefore, it is the banquet day, in which our friend will give himself, "that we may dwell in him, and he in us".
Tonight is the night of his betrayal, and the altar will stand cold and bare; but we have the sign of reconciliation to be our sustenance. And we shall treasure up that sign not as proof of worldly gain, but as pledge of new heavenly life. This is therefore a moment of festivity, when faith gives thanks for food and drink which do not perish, but endures to everlasting life Therefore do we give thanks, and in celebration of the bread of God, we learn, if only just a little bit, to "labour not for meat that perisheth".