WE DO NOT PRESUME
I Corinthians 11:23-26
Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.
Today is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is an old English word that refers to the commandment which Jesus gave to his disciples to love one another during the Last Supper (Jn. 13:34) just after he had told them that one would betray him and another deny him. The irony is that while this new commandment to love one another was given to them at the Supper, the Supper soon became a source of controversy and division amongst Christians, and used as a means of discipline and exclusion instead of grace, and known by different names that reflect this.
But whether we call this meal the Lord's Supper, Mass, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist each name tells us something important about what we do here. It is the Lord's Supper, because it is Jesus who invites us to his Table; therefore it is his and not ours. It is the Mass, because we are remember Jesus' sacrifice for us and are sent into the world to serve others; it is the Holy Communion because we are united in communion with Christ and each other; and it is the Eucharist because it is a feast of thanksgiving for God's creative and redeeming love for us in Christ. Whether we celebrate it simply or with much ritual, we come to this Table to meet the risen Christ who makes himself known in the breaking of bread, and offers himself to us in the bread and wine. There is nothing magical about what we do, but in celebrating this gift beyond words we acknowledge that the mystery of God's love for us in Christ is far greater than we can understand. But we do know that in coming to this Table we commit ourselves to love one another and serve others in the world. So who is worthy to participate? Are there rules and regulations that govern those who wish to come and take communion?
During his ministry Jesus often invited others to share with him in the meals he celebrated with his disciples, many of them regarded unclean or unworthy by the self-righteous and pious. In like manner today he invites everyone who wants to come to do so. It is not for anyone to exclude those whom they deem unworthy, and to be so presumptuous as to decide who should be allowed to participate. Unlike so many other religious meals, this one is especially for those who feel unworthy, for these Jesus always made most welcome. As he said, he did not come to call the righteous to the banquet, but sinners. So accepting the invitation has nothing to do with our own worthiness; it has everything to do with Jesus' grace and love for us which makes us worthy because in his sight we are even worth dying for! Amazing grace, how can it be? So we come with great gratitude, and we come humbly to receive a gift beyond words.
All of this is captured in the prayer of humble access we say together. While we use a modern form of the prayer, the original is, I think more beautiful. It was first written for the Anglican Prayer Book in the 16th century and begins: "We do not presume to come to this table ... trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies." We don't presume to come because we consider ourselves righteous and entitled to: we come because of Jesus' considers us worthy and invites us all: "Come to me all who are burdened and heavy laden." Some people react negatively to the prayer of Humble Access because they think it suggests that we are like dogs scrapping for morsels under the master's table!! But the truth is the very opposite. It has nothing to do with our own worthiness or lack of it; it has everything to do with God's embrace of all of us as sons and daughters, and telling us that in his sight we are worthy!
The Roman Catholic Mass does not have this prayer of Humble Access. Instead it does uses words from the gospel on which the prayer is based. Jesus was asked by the Jewish elders of a town to go to a Roman centurion's house to heal his slave because, as they said, "he is worthy of having you do this for him." But the centurion stops Jesus in his tracks. "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed." It is a remarkable story. As a Gentile and part of the occupying army he was unclean. He knew that. So he did not presume to be righteous, or worthy of Jesus' time and ministry. But it is this man, Jesus said, who had more faith than anyone else who were insiders. We remember him every time we come to this table and say "We come to your Table Lord, trusting not in any goodness of our own, but only in your great mercy... You have declared to us your grace; you have called us to your banquet. So by your Spirit feed us now with your body and blood, that you may live in us and we in you."
We may not understand precisely what all this means, and may even wonder whether we believe it can be true. But we come at Jesus' invitation nevertheless, and that for him that is sufficient indication of our faith even though we may not think we have any. And time and again we go from this place renewed and strengthened, and even healed, which is sufficient evidence that Jesus is truly present to welcome and make us whole. I don't begin to comprehend this mystery, but ever since that first Maundy Thursday when Jesus broke bread with his disciples, told them to love one another and do this in remembrance of him, those who have come to his Table without presumption, without trying to prove our worthiness, have discovered that in God's sight we are of infinite worth. That is the good news of Good Friday. "But God," so St. Paul writes, "proves his love for us in that while we were all sinners Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8)
April 2014 Maundy Thursday