Scriptures: Matthew 4:1-11; Matthew 26:17-30
Stones to Bread
(Based on Journey of Stones: A Sermon Series for Lent and Easter by Steven Molin)
Tonight is a night that is rich in tradition in the Christian Church. Those traditions very greatly from congregation to congregation. Some churches this night focus on the poignant scene of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the night before he died, as it is described in John, and they re-enact it.
In full view of all worshipers, a husband might wash the feet of his wife, or a Sunday school teacher may wash the feet of her students, or perhaps the pastor would wash the feet of the church custodian and wipe them with a towel. (Obviously since the COVID pandemic start, those practices have gotten a lot less frequent.) The message becomes clear through that particular re-enactment: humility and servanthood are the marks of the Christian Church, because they were the marks of Jesus Christ.
In another church – for instance, ours, as we just finished doing this a few minutes ago – the focus of this night might be confession:honest, humble, and contrite confession. And not just because we are confessing our sins to God, but also by the confessing of our sins to each other.
It is the tradition among Christians in Africa on Maundy Thursday that, before the sacrament of Holy Communion is served, worshipers move about the sanctuary and seek forgiveness from everyone they have hurt or offended or sinned against – known or unknown – in recent months. It may take a few minutes; it might take an hour. They don't have the sense of time that we do when it comes to worship.
But the service does not continue until every worshiper has been reconciled with every other worshiper. I would add that even in our tradition, in American Protestantism and our own Presbyterianism, it used to be a regular practice, before receiving Communion, to make certain that you had sought reconciliation with your Christian brothers and sisters in the church whom you might have something against or who might have something against you.
What all these traditions seem to have in common, of course, is that they draw us near to Jesus on the night before he was crucified, and remind us that his love is the most powerful force this world has ever known. And not simply that we would know his love, but frankly that we would be his love in this hurting world, that we would be his servants in this self-serving world, that we would personify his grace in this harsh and unforgiving world.
There is a legend that the Church Fathers used to tell, that when the apostle John was old and dying he was asked to bring one last message to the church. Slowly, haltingly, he stood before the congregation and said in a whisper, “Love one another.” Then he was asked if there was anything else he would like to say. “Yes,” John said. “Love one another.”
When the service had ended, his assistant asked him, “Brother John, why do you continue to repeat this same message?” And John replied, “Because if we would do this only, it would be enough.” (He was much kinder than some pastors, who might say, “Because you didn't get it the first time.”)
That is the message we have come to receive from Jesus tonight: a new commandment that tells us to love. We hear it. We'll see it. We'll even eat it and drink it. And then hopefully, we will go from this place and we will be it.
At this particular church, because of the Lenten series that I have been doing, Journey of Stones, we have carried small rocks into worship with us, and at the end of each service, we have laid them at the foot of the cross. They are our sins, of various types, that we have done, our failures to meet God's call.
People have been uncomfortable about it. They didn't want to come forward. We had washed the stones so they weren't all messy, but maybe we should have left them a little messy. Because it occurs to me that sin is like that: it's messy, it's unattractive, and it can leave ugly marks upon our lives. That is the nature of sin.
I don't know if you can see from where you are sitting, but the base of that cross is now covered with stones. Our stones. Our sins. They represent our hatred, and our gossip, our pride and our prejudice, and our failure, and our fear. Tonight, Jesus will do business with those stones.
As our Lord was beginning his public ministry, he spent forty days out in the middle of the Judean wilderness. Forty days – the same as Lent (it's not an accident). At the same time, the Devil came to Jesus and tempted him.
“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. But Jesus answered and said, “It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”
The Devil was trying to tempt him, to forget his role as servant, and become who he will ultimately be but was not to be at that time. He was trying, with all of his temptations, to tempt Jesus into taking shortcuts, challenging his very identity as the Son of God.
But the really amazing thing is Jesus did not turn the stones to bread, but said man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. He was the living Word. He fulfilled the word of God – the prophecies of God, the promises of God, the laws of God.
And then he became our bread. He turned the stones to bread. All the ugliness of our selfishness and sin is swallowed up by Jesus Christ. Now, the messy residue of our sins stains not us – they stain Jesus instead – and we are left without a blemish.
Tonight, no one was handed a stone or asked to pick one up. Instead you were given a little cup that also has a piece of bread, a combo we are using because of COVID. With it comes a promise, a promise that was read in the second passage in Matthew today, Matthew 26. “This is my body, broken for you, for the forgiveness of sin. Eat it and remember me.” The stones are gone, transcended by the Bread of Life.
If we are bewildered as to how this transaction happens, imagine the disciples on that first Maundy Thursday. They did not yet understand that the cross was just 24 hours away. They didn't have the slightest idea that in the span of one day, every one of them sitting at that table would bail out on their master.
How clueless were they? They were still sitting at the dinner table when an argument broke out among them as to which of them was the greatest disciple. They just didn't get it. If Jesus was ever going to withhold his gift of grace, out of anger or frustration, that would have been the time. If Jesus was ever going to renege on his promise of forgiveness, that would have been it. But Jesus gave them the gift anyway.
And lest you think that it was something simple, he was afraid. When he went into the Garden of Gethsemane, he actually prayed to the Father, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me. I don't want to die or be tortured. Nevertheless, thy will be done.” You see, obeying the Father and fulfilling the plan is the most important thing. If he had given up, that would have meant he gave up on loving us. And God will never, ever give up on loving us.
One of the great myths of Holy Communion is that we have to understand it before we can receive it – which I've always found kind of amusing, because every denomination, just about, has a slightly different understanding of Communion.
Our Catholic brothers and sisters believe in something called transubstantiation. Our Lutheran brothers and sisters have something called consubstantiation. We Presbyterians have pneumasubstantiation, and Baptists and Pentecostals say it's just an ordinance, we just remember. What does the bread become? What does it mean?What does the cup – the wine or juice – become? What does it mean?
Well, can you explain how something that looks like bread, and smells like bread, and feels like bread, and tastes like bread is actually the body of Jesus? I dare say, no, on all counts. All we can do, all we must do, is believe the promise of Jesus, and forgiveness is ours. Frankly that's why we call it “faith.”
The other myth about Communion is that it's for the righteous. Well, as Jesus said, those who aren't sick don't need a doctor. The righteous don't need Communion. We do. Only we sinners need the gift that Jesus had to offer.
In a few minutes, you will take the combo cup, as I'm calling it, and whether you have a Ph.D., are a millionaire, are famous (or infamous), alone, or part of a loving family – our status before Jesus, and our need, is the same. As the one song says, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. The only thing that can fill our need tonight is the Bread of Life.
I'm going to close with this story. A young woman, who was a first-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary, was assigned to do her contextual education at a local nursing home. Every Wednesday, Janine would read scripture and pray prayers and serve communion to the elderly who would gather. And every one of the residents would gladly receive this gift of grace.
Everyone, that is, except Madaline Jacks. Madaline never said a word to Janine during her visit. In fact, Madaline never said a word to anyone. She had stopped speaking years ago.
But one Wednesday afternoon, something happened. Something very special happened. As she did each week, Janine handed the wafer to Madaline, with the words, “The body of Christ, Madaline, broken for you.” But this week Madaline spoke. Holding the wafer between her thumb and forefinger, she smiled and said, “For me. Madaline Jacks. For me.” And then she ate that Bread of Life.
Dear ones, tonight, come to Jesus with your broken hearts and your empty hands and your shattered dreams, may you know that Jesus has turned stones of sin into the Bread of Life. For you, the body of Christ. It's for you.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.