For The Life Of The World
Sermon Notes for Maundy Thursday, Year B
The lessons appointed for Year B, along with the Collect for the Day, compose a beautiful harmony of biblical imagery brought together in one event: the night before Jesus died. We see the Passover, the Eucharist, the washing of the disciples’ feet, and Jesus’ command to love one another all in the same scene. All discipleship and Christian ministry should be eucharistic and loving in nature.
The Collect immediately identifies this night as the night before Jesus’ death and the night on which he instituted the Eucharist. One cannot separate the Eucharist from the Crucifixion; to do so would be to rob one of interpretive meaning and the other of a sacrificial nature. We are to receive the meal in two ways: thankfully and in remembrance.
To receive thankfully is to understand the nature of the Eucharist. From eucharisteo it literally means, “the giving of thanks.” Every story in the New Testament with reference to the Last Supper (and John 6) always includes Jesus (or someone else) giving thanks for the elements. The call is not merely to give thanks for the bread and wine but to live lives that are thankful to Almighty God.
Remembrance is a word that muddies the water in Eucharistic theology. For some the idea of remembrance is merely the ability to bring an image or thought to mind. It is a memory. However, many others and I are of the opinion that it is a dangerous memory. It is the act of dragging into the present something from the past in order to make it real, to make it present. This type of remembering is what the Jews did (and still do) annually in keeping Passover. They remember the Exodus as if they were actually there. The word for this is anamnesis and Jesus says to “to do this in anamnesis of me.” It is an active, volatile, efficacious and dynamic memory.
These are the two appropriate responses to the Eucharist as outlined in the Collect. We should bear that in mind…
Speaking of Passover, the Old Testament reading recounts this great event. The last verse gives us a clue about the meaning of the Passover, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” This is to become the festival of festivals for Jews and then for Christians; it is to be the center of the calendar and liturgical life of the people as they remember annually the mighty acts of their saving God.
This isn’t just a meal. No, it is a meal tied to a historic event that is retold, reenacted and re-presented on an annual basis. The Exodus wasn’t simply a saving moment but rather the key event in the history of Israel when YHWH kept his covenant, made a people for himself, and gave his people a land, a hope and a future. All of this is tied up in a single meal. This is extremely important for our understanding of Paul in 1 Corinthians.
For now it will suffice for you to remember the story: Israel has been in slavery for 400 years because a Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. God’s people had become too numerous for the Egyptians and they were oppressed and enslaved. Moses heeds YHWH’s call from the burning bush and is sent to deliver Israel from the hands of Pharaoh. Why? That God’s people might worship him. Pharaoh’s heart is continually hardened throughout the plagues until finally the tenth and worse plague, that of the death of all firstborns, is sent upon all Egypt. God provides a way for his people to be safe: to mark their doorposts with the blood of a pure lamb that God might literally pass over their house. This is also bound up in the meal.
This is a Psalm of praise. As I am neither a scholar of the Psalms or a Hebrew linguist there are only two images that I want to highlight: “the cup of salvation” and the “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” The context for both these images is the might and redeeming works of God. God has done x, y and z and therefore I will respond thus. Our two images are therefore responses to what God has already accomplished. Neither is the cup raised or thanksgiving sacrificed as a means to an end but rather as a response. Remember why God redeemed his people? That they might worship him!! The call of all creation from the beginning of creation has been to worship God in the majesty of his splendor…that has not changed! Our response to God’s goodness, grace, love, and mercy should be WORSHIP.
We have now arrived at a central text for the Pauline understanding of the Eucharist and indeed for Maundy Thursday.
To jog your memories, Paul has been writing to the Corinthians for several chapters about different issues hindering or affecting the community. One such issue was the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Another issue was a misunderstanding of misappropriation of the agape feast during which the rich were marginalizing the poor. Neither of these were acceptable in the new community formed by Christ.
Paul then goes on to the tradition of the Eucharist and relates it to the Corinthians. You can read this alongside the Institution narratives in the Synoptic Gospels to see the similarities.
First, this is a tradition that Paul has received and passed along. The word here is paralambano and it is much like an Olympic runner who passes the baton to the next relay runner on his/her team. Indeed this is much the basis for the idea that Apostolic Succession is not to be understood in terms of the office of Apostle (or bishop) but in the passing on of teaching and tradition going back to Christ. (I am not going to wade into any conversation regarding Succession at this point.) Paul received this tradition, likely from Peter and the disciples during a trip to Jerusalem, and has found it significant enough to share with one of his churches.
Second, this event took place on the night before Jesus’ death. This is important because as I’ve already mentioned the Eucharist and the Crucifixion cannot be separated—the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is only understood within the context of the Crucifixion.
Third, the four actions are present: “took…given thanks…broke…gave.” These are the same actions we see in the Synoptic Gospels, in John 6, and at the end of Acts when Paul is shipwrecked. Paul also relates Jesus’ words—and they are words that we should take literally—“this is my body…this is my blood.”
Fourth, they (we) are to do it in remembrance anamnesis of Jesus. This is that active remembering that I wrote about above.
Fifth and finally, to celebrate this meal is to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. That is, it is to proclaim the Lord’s victory. Passover recounts God’s victory over Pharaoh just as the Crucifixion and Resurrection prove God’s victory over sin, evil and death as Jesus “trampled down death by death.” To celebrate this meal is to rejoice victoriously and to hope for the completion of that which has already been inaugurated in Jesus.
That is a lot of meaning for 4 short verses and as I’ll argue below, such robust meaning needs to be read into John 13 and Maundy Thursday…
The first thing to notice here is that the gospel lesson does not record the Lord’s Supper. Very interesting on a night when we celebrate the washing of feet and the Eucharist. Just look at the Collect: “Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.” You would certainly assume that the institution narrative would be read, but it isn’t. In fact, John’s Gospel is the only one of the four to exclude the traditional story of the Last Supper and instead John has opted to give an extensive look into the Great Commandment and the washing of the disciple’s feet.
Furthermore, most Johannine scholars point to the feeding of the crowd in John 6 as the eucharistic story of this gospel. Jesus performs the same actions of taking, thanking, breaking and giving. Jesus gives us the foundation of most eucharistic theologies in his words about being the bread of life, the bread of heaven, the manna that the Israelites ate. Paul Bradshaw has argued as to whether or not John 6 should be considered the earliest eucharistic text (chronologically). Either way, John 6 has to be read into John 13 given the words written by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: “on the night before he was betrayed our Lord took bread…”
John’s choice to relate the washing of feet and new commandment instead of the Eucharist is important. Jesus is about to move into four chapters of his High Priestly Prayer before his betrayal—these prayers demonstrate the nature of Jesus’ relationship with God, his relationship with his people, and the call to embrace the Holy Spirit. In short, Jesus’ prayers have as much to say about discipleship as any other words recorded in the Gospels. Jesus sets the stage of “love in action” by commanding his disciples to love one another.
He first demonstrates this love on a very realistic and common level by washing their feet. I would HIGHLY encourage you to have a full feet washing as part of your liturgy. I do not think it is sufficient for only the clergy to wash each others feet or to have some sort of symbolic or representative (read: vicarious) washing ceremony. Jesus did this for his followers that he might call them to love one another.
You can get creative and talk about how stinky, crusty, and nasty the disciples’ feet must have been or illustrate just how out of place it would have been for Jesus’ to do this. You can pick on Peter—don’t we all love to do that!—and comment on his words of pride and then zeal. You can certainly do all of this but I think that painting the picture of love in action and then moving into the Liturgy of the Feet Washing and the Liturgy of the Table is more than sufficient.
Jesus will then follow up this ritual of love by demonstrating the fullness of his love on the cross.
This is the Passover meal that Jesus is sharing with his disciples and so it already has an anamnesis factor to it. The Jews around Jerusalem were celebrating the mighty acts of God that night and Jesus changes the meal by giving his disciples a new command and a new meal.
Maundy Thursday—maundy coming from the Latin for mandate—is really about two commands we’ve been given as disciples: love one another and do this for the remembrance of me.
I am yet again reminded of the beautiful line from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom with reference to Jesus’ betrayal. It reads, ““On the night He was betrayed, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world.” This is what Fr. Alexander Schmemann explored in his book For the Life of the World. It was no mistake that Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, as if he forgot that he was to be betrayed. No, Jesus went to the Garden with the same face-set-as-flint with which he turned toward Jerusalem earlier in the gospels. Why? That he might offer himself as the cup of salvation, the perfect sacrifice, for the life of the whole world.
That is why we love, that is why we worship, and that is why we make Eucharist: for the life of the whole word. This is where discipleship gets serious. It’s all fun and games when we’re checking boxes off our “Piety Chart” for personal growth but it is an entirely different subject when we realize that in our love, worship and making of Eucharist we are bringing the world before Almighty God. We are bringing our neighbors, our family members, strangers, and all who do not yet know Christ (literally the whole of creation) before God that they might experience the riches of his goodness and mercy. Think about that as you’re having your feet washed and you’re partaking of the Elements.
So, what does it look like for you to live a life of thanksgiving? Of remembrance? Of love? Of discipleship? What does it mean for us to drink the Cup of Salvation—of Jesus’ oblation—for the life of the whole world? Remember, Israel was blessed to be blessed! Are you blessing or are you sitting on your blessed assurance?