Today of all days is about communion. It is the day Jesus shared his last supper with his disciples which became the template for the Eucharist.
It is the day Jesus, knowing he was leaving his disciples, prayed for them: ‘Father, may they be one.’ And the unity they have with each other comes from communion with God: ‘even as you, Father are in me, and I in you, may they also be in us … that they may become perfectly one’John 17.11,21
You could say that the whole of Jesus’ earthly ministry was about gathering people into communion. His first act was to gather disciples. He constantly sought out the excluded and the marginalised to bring them back in. So he lived out the parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep.
On one occasion when he healed a man who was blind and dumb he was criticised by the Pharisees. His reply is significant:
‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.’Matthew 12.30
It is the nature and work of Christ, and those who are with him, to gather into communion.
It is the work of evil – or the evil one – and all who are against Christ, to divide and scatter.
That verse may have something important to say to our society in the light of divisions over Brexit.
But now, as Jesus was preparing to leave his disciples, he was concerned about their communion with each other and with God. What would hold them together as a group when he was gone?
And that concern, that purpose, lies behind the two great symbolic acts on the night of his arrest: the footwashing and last supper.
Footwashing was a very lowly act of service – always done by the youngest servant. It’s not surprising that Peter tries to stop Jesus doing this. To him it was all the wrong way round. But Jesus says to him: ‘Unless you let me wash your feet, you have no communion with me.’(1)
It is a puzzling and striking statement.
Most groups and organizations, then and now, tend to be held together by a strong leader, who imposes their authority or personality or will on the whole group. At its worst, this kind of leadership becomes an evil dictatorship, compelling people into conformity through fear or force. Even with a benevolent and charismatic leader, the unity is fragile and temporary. When such leaders die or leave the unity falls apart. Sadly we can often see this in churches which are built around a dominant personality.
Jesus knew he was leaving his disciples. He knew that if his followers were to remain in communion they needed a different kind of unity. One based not on fear or force, or on the charisma of individual leaders.
So he took a towel and modelled a radically different kind of communion – where the leader is the servant.
This turns upside down the whole idea of hierarchy. Instead of a top down model, with the leader at the top giving commands to those below who in turn command those below them, Jesus is showing us a model of communion starting at the bottom with the master as the servant of all. And we his followers, knowing we are served by him, are called to follow his example and serve each other and others.
In a separate story, according to Luke a dispute arose at the last supper among the disciples about who of them was to be regarded as the greatest.(2) Jesus replied that in the world powerful rulers exercise lordship over their people. But Jesus’ disciples should be different. Among them the leader should be a servant, and the greatest should become as the least. It is the same point but made in words. But Jesus knew that symbols are more powerful than words and so he also washed their feet – an act we repeat symbolically tonight.
His other symbolic act that night is one that has been repeated on a weekly, daily basis, who knows how many millions of times since Jesus died. Jesus took bread, broke it and said: ‘This is my body – broken for you.’
Through this symbol at the last supper, made real the next day when his body was broken on the cross, Christ gave us and all who follow him, in all places and at all times, a means of communion with him, and through him with God. If Christ had not been broken we would not have been able to be in communion with him.
For we, though we are many, are one body, because we all share in the one bread.
That is what we celebrate today – the fact that Christ came into a broken world, a world full of division, inequality, the excluded and the marginalised, and Christ turned that brokenness into sharing and communion.
Brokenness, Jesus is saying, is the way God has chosen to work through him, and in the world:
‘Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest’.
This reminded me of some words I once had on a bookmark:
God uses broken things.Vance Havner
It takes broken soil to produce a crop,
broken clouds to give rain,
broken grain to give bread,
broken bread to give strength.
It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume.
It is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.
When the disciples on the road to Emmaus invited a stranger into their home to join them for supper they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Not just in the bread – but in the breaking of it. And that was the first name for Holy Communion; all the way through the book of Acts the shared meal of the earliest Christians is called ‘the breaking of the bread’.
Unless the loaf is broken it cannot be shared.
Unless a grain of wheat dies there is no harvest.
Unless there is brokenness there is no communion.
Unless there is dying there is no resurrection.
Sometimes we experience brokenness ourselves. When all is going well we think we are in charge, independent, self-sufficient. But self-sufficiency does not leave much room for communion.
When things go wrong we feel helpless, vulnerable, dependent. It might happen to us in failure, tragedy, in bereavement, or unemployment, or perhaps when a health scare reminds us of our mortality.
I do not believe that our suffering is part of God’s plan – I find it offensive when people justify suffering, claiming God has a reason for it even if we can’t see it yet.
But it does seem to be the case that suffering can break open that hardened shell of self-sufficiency and allow God’s grace into our lives. So brokenness can open the way for communion.
Many of us, perhaps all of us here, are carrying burdens of worry and trouble. I have a daughter who has been suffering with anorexia, self-harm and suicidal tendencies for the last five years. That is my story of brokenness.
You will each have your own story of brokenness. And you will know that very often these are the times when we receive amazing support and compassion from others. Put together brokenness and a loving, serving community and communion is created or deepened.
But the communion which comes from our brokenness goes further than that. In some mysterious way, our own brokenness allows us to enter more deeply into the story of Christ’s suffering, and the suffering Christ comes alongside us in ours. In holy week his story and ours become bound up with each other, so that we share first in his passion – and then also in his resurrection.
So I pray that where there is brokenness and suffering in your lives this may be like grain buried in the earth, made ready through brokenness to bring forth the green shoots of God’s Easter life growing up within us.
May God who uses broken things,
make himself known to you
in the breaking of the bread,
in the brokenness of his son upon the cross,
through the brokenness of the world around us,
and through the broken hearts and spirits within us.