We gather tonight to remember Great and Holy Thursday, one of the most remarkable days in human history. There is much to celebrate and much to mourn. We celebrate the Jewish Passover meal at which Jesus Christ Himself told the Apostles and us in the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 26: “Take, eat; this is My Body. Then He took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to [the apostles], saying, ‘Drink from [this cup], all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” But in the midst of our celebration we mourn the arrest of Jesus Christ and how Peter denied Christ three times and then “went out and wept bitterly.” We are challenged to combine the celebration and the mourning. We are confronted tonight with both how much Christ has given us through the Eucharist and of how, like Peter, we are at times inadequate in our own personal response to the love of God.
The reading from First Corinthians chapter 11 that we have just heard warns us to examine ourselves and not to “eat of the bread and drink of the cup . . . in an unworthy manner.” A helpful note in The Orthodox Study Bible explains that “we prepare for the Eucharist by examining ourselves. This includes confessing our sins and being reconciled to one another . . .” But it is important to remember, as this note in The Orthodox Study Bible continues: “Being ‘worthy’ does not mean being sinless, but [rather] being cleansed.” We commit ourselves “to walk in righteousness before God.” In other words, like Peter, we can each turn our lives around; we can know ourselves as sinners who have been cleaned up by our confession of sins and our receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.
Remember those words from the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 26, when Jesus Christ urged the apostles and us to eat His Body and drink His Blood. Christ was quite specific: He said “all of you.” That has remained true throughout the centuries. If we wish to live the full life that Christ has offered to us through His life, death, Resurrection and Ascension, then “all of us” need to prepare for Holy Communion and to receive it often, especially tonight. Why all of us? Because together we are a Christian community—a strong and growing group of people who have chosen to follow Christ in our lives, in our families, in our work and in our worship. We can support each other and seek to help each other face whatever trials come our way as we live out our lives through prayer and action to the best of our ability.
This day was certainly a day of great trials for Jesus Christ Himself. He had foreknowledge of what might happen to Him, which made the day even more difficult. Happily, we do not have such foreknowledge. Like us, Jesus Christ did not wish to suffer. He prayed to His Father and our Father: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup [that is, this cup of suffering] pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” That is a good prayer for each of us when we face any kind of suffering, whether it be ill health, prejudice from others or problems with our families, unemployment or work. What did Jesus Christ ask of His Apostles when He was confronted with the greatest suffering of His life—the Crucifixion? He asked that they would “stay here and watch with Me . . . stay and pray.” That is precisely what we ask of our friends when we face trials—to stay with us, to stay and pray, to listen to us and just to be with us.
Unfortunately, the Apostles did not stay and pray. They went to sleep, because they had just eaten a magnificent Passover Meal—a meal that remains today the grandest meal of the Jewish year. The Hebrews, before they left Egypt and went boldly into the desert, celebrated how the angel of death had passed over the houses of all of those who had smeared the blood of lambs on their doorposts. That act by the Hebrew slaves took considerable courage, because they were identifying themselves as followers of Moses. They were opposing Pharaoh and trusting Moses, even though it was Pharaoh who appeared to be in charge of their world. They judged that they needed to follow Moses even though they did not know where he might lead them.
Remember that Jesus Christ said explicitly to the apostles and to us in the reading from First Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 31 and 32: “If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened [that is, restrained or punished] by the Lord, that we may not be condemned [with] the world.” A short note in The Orthodox Study Bible says simply and profoundly: “God’s promise is that if we judge ourselves we will not be condemned with the world.” That was what happened to the Hebrews who placed the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. That is what happens to us when we commit ourselves to the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. We too will not be condemned by God when we confess our sins, go to Holy Communion and separate ourselves from the values of the world.
St John Chrysostom preached beautifully about these words from St Paul on the importance of judging ourselves. He urged: “Let us take the initiative in passing sentence on ourselves with all good will, holding the court of conscience unbeknown to anyone. Let us examine our own thoughts and determine a proper verdict . . .” That is an important insight from St John: we all live in “the court of conscience,” in our own intuitive awareness of what is right and wrong, of how we can best live our lives. When I made the decision fifty-seven years ago to become a Christian, it was within my own “court of conscience.” I was sure that Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, would be with me if I followed Him. I felt that if I did not become a follower of Jesus Christ and His Church, I could no longer respect myself. I would be rejecting what I knew was right in my conscience in “all good will.” I made that decision despite the strong advice of my parents and many friends not to become Christian, because I knew in my heart and in my mind that following Christ was right, even if I did not know precisely where He would lead me.
On this Great and Holy Thursday it is good for each of us to move into the future “with all good will . . . in the court of conscience.” It is not appropriate to consider whether in the first century it was the Jews or the Romans who were most responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. All of us are responsible whenever we sin, but we can each choose not to sin. Therefore, it is right to celebrate far more than we mourn. We can join in the Eucharist and participate in the fullness of Christ’s love for each of us.
So be it, as we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.