On This Night

It’s a few days late, but here is my Maundy Thursday sermon.

Maundy Thursday, Year C, March 28th, 2013

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Over three thousand years ago, the Hebrew people gathered together.  They were slaves in Egypt, and God had heard their cries for freedom.  Despite the stubbornness of the Egyptian Pharaoh, God freed them.  On their last night in slavery, in between packing everything they owned to flee the land of their captivity, they ate one last meal.  A meal of lamb, and wine, and unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.  They called it Pesach—the Passover.  God commanded them to remember and celebrate that meal every year, to gather and eat the bread and wine and lamb and bitter herbs.  So every year to this day, faithful Jews celebrate the festival of Passover.  And Jesus and his disciples, being faithful Jews, celebrated the festival as well.  In fact, Jesus’ Last Supper, which we celebrate tonight, was during Passover.

Many things have changed over the three thousand years since the first Passover meal, but some things about the meal remain the same.  It isn’t a memorial, a remembrance of God’s actions.  When Jews celebrate the Passover, they are participating in God’s saving act.  They are participating in the same Passover meal shared by their ancestors.  To symbolize this, they ask a question: How is this night different from all other nights?  On this night, God led us out of slavery into freedom.  Not our ancestors; us.  On this night, all Jews, past, present, and future, gather around the table.  It’s not just a history lesson; for Jews, Passover is a present reality.

We are gathered here as Christians.  Our Lord was Jewish, but we are not.  So why do we remember Passover tonight?  Why was our first lesson the story of the first Passover meal?  Because tonight is not just a history lesson.  Tonight is not just a ritual meal.  Our Lord’s Supper is a present reality for us, just as Passover is a present reality for Jews.  How is this night different from all other nights?  On this night, our Lord Jesus took bread, broke it, and gave it for all.  On this night, our Lord Jesus took the cup, blessed it, and gave it for all to drink, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people.”  On this night, and every time we celebrate communion, all Christians past, present, and future gather around our Lord’s Table.

Think about that, for a second.  When we celebrate Communion, when we gather here at the altar rail, there are more people present than we can see.  The Disciples are here—Peter, James, John, and all the rest.  Our ancestors in the faith are here with us, too, from the very earliest church fathers and mothers to the ones who taught us to pray and read the Bible.  We gather here at the altar rail with all Christians throughout the world, who become our brothers and sisters in Christ, and members with us in Christ’s body.  And all those people out there who aren’t yet Christians but will become Christians, they’re here too, along with all those who have yet to be born.  Our great-great-grandparents and our great-great-grandchildren receive Jesus’ body and blood together with us.  We may not see them, but they are here with us tonight and every time we gather around the table to worship and receive the gift of Christ’s body and blood.

Even more than that, Jesus Christ is present every time we eat the bread and drink from the cup in his name.  This bread becomes Christ’s body, and this wine becomes Christ’s blood, just as Jesus said.  It might not physically change form in any way science can measure, but Jesus Christ is truly present in it, and Jesus Christ becomes truly present in us.  Jesus is here, now, Immanuel, God With Us, in every bite that we eat and drink tonight and every time we receive the Lord’s Supper.  We eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord.  Jesus is the meal we are gathered here to share.

Jesus is the meal, but Jesus is also our host for this meal, too.  The altar we gather around is not our table, but God’s table.  Jesus is the host who invites us to the heavenly banquet.  Jesus is the one who brings us in, welcomes us, and makes us his own.  Jesus is the one who includes us, even when we are not worthy.  In the time of Jesus, it was customary for a host to offer his guests the chance to wash the dust of the road off their feet.  It was a sign that you were welcome to stay, take off your shoes and put up your feet, be comfortable and at home.  In a poor household, the host would offer his guests a bowl of water for them to wash their own feet.  In a rich household, a servant would do it.  You see, washing someone else’s feet was considered a demeaning task, fit only for a servant or a slave.  It’s not hard to understand why—feet are dirty, smelly things, particularly when you’ve been walking in the hot, dusty sun.  Clean feet may be a relief, but washing someone else’s feet is gross.  So a host would offer hospitality, but not at the expense of his own dignity and pride.  Not at the expense of his own comfort and repuation.  Yet Jesus himself takes the bowl and the towel and washed his disciples’ feet.    He washes their feet to show them the greatest hospitality possible: that he put their comfort and well-being above his dignity and pride.  He does it to show that his love for them—his love for us—is more important than his status.

And then he commands us to do the same for others.  Jesus tells his disciples to welcome others in with extravagant hospitality, to care for their needs and show them God’s love in word and deed.  A teacher’s students should follow his or her lead.  So if the teacher serves others, so to should the students.  And we, too, are Jesus’ disciples; we are students and followers of Jesus.  If Jesus, who was God in human flesh, would stoop so low as to wash our feet, we, too, should be willing to show hospitality and love to others even when it pulls us out of our comfort zone, even when it isn’t nice, or pleasant, or easy.  Even when it means putting our own reputation on the line.

How is this night different from all other nights?  On this night, we begin to see just how great and transforming God’s love for us is.  On this night, the God who brought our ancestors from slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land begins to lead us from the slavery of sin to the freedom of forgiveness.  On this night, we begin to see how far Jesus is willing to go to save us, to make us clean and whole, to show us that he loves us.  On this night, Jesus invites us in, makes us welcome no matter how dirty we are, and feeds us with his own body and blood.  And on this night, after the meal, Jesus will go to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, where he will be arrested.  Tomorrow, he will be tried and executed, and on Sunday he will rise from the grave.  And all of that—Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection—will be for our sake.  Jesus does all of this because he loves us, because he would rather die than see us broken by sin and death.

On this night, Jesus gives us as an example for how we are to live our lives.  On this night, Jesus gives us one last command: to love as we have been loved.  Jesus shows us what love truly means, in his life, in his last actions, and in his death.  Love does not depend on being found worthy, for surely nothing we could ever do would make us worthy of what God has done for us.  Love is a gift we have been given by God, a gift freely given, with no strings.  And as we have been given that gift, so we should give to others what we have received.  Because we live in the light of God’s love, we should love others.  Because we have been fed with this heavenly food, we should feed those who are hungry in body or soul.  Because we have been welcomed and forgiven in Jesus’ name, we should love and forgive others.

As we gather around the table tonight, with all Christians past, present, and yet to come, may we experience the love that God gives us so abundantly, and may we be inspired to go and do the same.  Amen.


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