Maundy Thursday

Child: “Why is this night so different from all other nights?”


Father: “On this night we celebrate the going forth of the children of Israel from slavery into freedom.”


Child: “On all other nights we eat bread with leaven. On this night why do we eat only matzah?”


Father: “When Pharoah let our forefathers go from Egypt, they were forced to flee in great haste. As the children of Israel fled from Egypt, they did not have time for their dough to rise. The sun, which beat down on the dough as they carried it along, baked it into unleavened bread called matzah.”


Child: “On all other nights we all kinds of vegetables; on this night, why do we eat only bitter herbs?”


Father: “On Passover we eat only bitter herbs because our forefathers we slaves in Egypt and their lives were made very bitter.”


Child: “On all other nights we never think of dipping herbs in water or in anything else; why on this night do we dip the parsley in salt water?”


Father: “We dip the parsley in salt water because it reminds us of a renewed life that we longed for following a life of pain, suffering, and tears.”


Child: “On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining; on this night we do we eat only reclining?”


Father: “Reclining was a sign of a free man long ago, and since our forefathers were freed on this night, we recline at the table.”


These are answers that the father gives to the child’s questions about the meaning of the Passover meal. We may imagine that Jesus and his disciples conducted a similar dialogue at their own Passover seder.


Today is Maundy Thursday, when we remember the last evening that Jesus spends with his disciples, before his betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. Our Gospel lesson sets it in the context of the Passover feast.


And so we may rephrase the child’s first question: what is it about Passover, more than all the Jewish feasts, that makes it so different to Jesus and his disciples from all other nights?


“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). These are the words of Jesus to his disciples, according to the account found in Luke’s Gospel. On this holy night, Jesus and his disciples shared together this most solemn of all meals.


Jesus assumes the role of the head of the household. He plays the part of the father at the table. He interprets for the disciples the meaning of the elements of the meal. He explains to them how they symbolize the oppression and liberation of God’s people at the time of the Exodus.


But at a certain point in the ceremony, Jesus departs from the script enacted generation after generation. Imagine the disciples’ surprise when he took a piece a bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said: “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.”


And in the same way, he took the cup, after they had eaten, and said: “This cup, which is poured out for you, is the new covenant in my blood.”


He takes these elements of the Passover meal and invests them with new meaning.


The bread of affliction that their forbears carried along with them under the hot desert sun is the bread of Christ’s affliction, the bread of his suffering, because he is about to undertake a new Exodus, which will bring an ultimate freedom from bondage.


The cup of redemption that their forbears raised to remember God’s promise to deliver his people from slavery, to redeem his people with an outstretched arm, is the cup of redemption that Christ is about to accomplish on the cross. Through his outstretched arms on the cross, Christ provides redemption once for all for all God’s people, to whom God has now bound himself in a new covenant, sealed in Christ’s blood.  


But Jesus’ last meal with his disciples departed from the script in another way too. When Jesus blessed the food, he held up bread. All Passover meals have bread. And he blessed the wine. And all Passover meals have wine.


But it is curious that in none of the Gospels is the lamb mentioned. That after all is the main course. What kind of Passover would it be without a lamb? The lamb is central to the feast.


As pastor and author Timothy Keller astutely observes, “there was no lamb on the table, because the Lamb of God was at the table. Jesus is the main course.”


“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This is the announcement that John the Baptist made when Jesus came to the waters of baptism at the beginning of his ministry.


John’s language recalls the prophecies of the prophet Isaiah about the Messiah:


He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter…he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered among the transgressors (Isaiah 53:7, 12). “The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).


What this language means only becomes clear at the end of his ministry, anticipated here at Passover. Jesus uses the Passover to help his disciples understand his sacrificial death, which he was about to undergo on the cross.


“This is my body, given for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”


These words, dear friends, point to the crucifixion of Jesus; they point to what he accomplished on the cross for us.


Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the true meaning of the Passover lamb, which anticipates him, points to him, and finds its fulfillment in him. Passover is about freedom from slavery by the blood of the lamb. But it points to an even greater freedom. It points to freedom from slavery to sin by the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.


Dear friends, you and I, and all who have been baptized into Christ, have been set free by Christ. You and I are called to freedom. But, as the Apostle Paul urges us, we are not to use our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love we are to become slaves to one another (Gal. 5:13).


Is this not exactly what Jesus is teaching his disciples in our Gospel lesson? It occurs to me that Christians from the liberal mainline churches claim the Jesus who serves humanity, and calls us to imitate him. Christians from the evangelical churches claim the Jesus who makes atonement for our sins by his death on the cross, and calls us to believe in him.


But Christians of the Bible claim both. In Christ we have both the One who sets us free and the One who sets us an example of how to use this freedom. In fact, in Christ we have all things. We should never cease from asking and receiving from God all the good things that he has for us in Christ.


“Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” (John 13:5).


There is no parallel in the ancient world to a person of authority doing such servile, menial work (David F. Ford). It is the work of a slave. No doubt that is why Peter protests. It is beneath the dignity of his Lord.


But Jesus replies: “unless I wash you, you have no share in me.” He’s saying: unless you accept me in this role, you have no part in what I have come to bring (Mark A. Villano).


Throughout John’s Gospel, as you know, Jesus performs signs. They provoke questions about who he is and what he came to do. Foot washing, in a sort of way, also is a sign, a prophetic act that points to the whole mystery of Jesus’ life and death. It points to the meaning of his self-emptying, of his laying down his life. 


“No greater love does one have than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:3).


All that Christ did and suffered during the last week of his earthly life was motivated by his love for you and me.


And when we are loved, we love in return. The order is irreversible. “Just as I have loved you, so you ought also to love one another” (John 13:34). This is the basis for the new commandment that Jesus gives, after which Maundy Thursday is named. “Love one another.”


And what we are about to receive at the Lord’s table this evening, the self-giving of Jesus under the signs of bread and wine, ought to make a difference in how we live. Our lives should be characterized by loving acts of humble service to one another.


In our time, our washing one another’s feet may mean: really listening to the other person in conversation, sincerely complimenting our co-workers for a job well-done, showing generous hospitality to visitors, really being there for our spouses, tenderly caring for our children and grandchildren.


When we let Jesus loves us, as Peter had to learn, his love will flow from us, manifesting itself in these kinds of loving acts of humble service.


I close with a memory of a time long ago now when I attended a small Presbyterian church in Milwaukee. As do all pastors, the pastor there served his people in preaching and teaching and pastoral visits. But one day it was discovered that a toilet in one of the bathrooms in the church needed repair. And so, with his tool box, the pastor went up to the church on a Saturday and made the repair.


A little later, it was discovered that it was in fact the pastor who had made the repair. The people came to him and said: “pastor, this is not what we pay you to do. We were prepared to hire this out. You shouldn’t have to do this.” But the pastor replied: “I grew up on a farm and learned how to fix almost anything. I knew how to fix the toilet, and so I did it for us.”


We can say that the pastor gave his sermon for the week. Amen.

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