Maundy Thursday, March 24th, 2016
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, 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.
Meals are important. And I don’t just mean in the literal “if you don’t eat you’ll starve to death” sense. Meals are important on a psychological level, too, and on a social level. Meals bring us together. There’s a reason that pretty much every holiday is accompanied by a special, traditional meal. Christmas? It’s a religious holiday, but there are a lot of people (even a lot of Christians!) for whom Christmas dinner is more important than going to worship. Easter? Yup. Thanksgiving? That one is all about the meal. Fourth of July? It’s just not the same without a barbecue. Birthdays? Even if you don’t have a special birthday dinner, you gotta have cake and ice cream. And it’s not just about the food itself. While a wonderful holiday dinner with friends and family can be a joy and a heart-warming event you’ll remember for years to come, eating the same food by yourself can be just depressing. We eat when we come together, but it’s not just about the food: it’s about the community, the family, the relationships that are built around that meal.
Those relationships are built partly through the act of eating together, and partly through memories. The memories that get shared again and again—I’m sure there are some stories your family tells repeatedly at holiday dinners. The time your brother fell asleep at his own birthday party. The time your uncles got into a fight and everyone went home mad. The great aunt who always brings that dish everyone hates. The time your mom and dad got each other the same present. There are some holiday stories that happened before I was born, that I know because they got told so often. And those stories shape us! They tell us “this is who we are, as a family; this is how we get along (or don’t get along); this is where we came from; these are the things that make us a family and not just a collection of people who happen to share genetics.” The food brings us together, the food helps us remember our stories by giving us a tangible reminder of times past—smells, tastes, sights—all working together to help make the memories real and relevant to our current experiences.
Tonight we have heard two stories about meals in our readings. Meals that were remembered. Meals that were celebrated. Meals that brought people together and built up relationships. The first was the story of the first Passover meal, eaten on the last night the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. This is the night that changed things. This is the night where God finally convinced Pharaoh to let his people go. This is the night when they truly became his people, the night that was the foundation for all the rest of their experiences. This is the night when they passed from slavery to freedom, from death to life. This is the night when they learned that their God was a God who saves people, a God who frees people from bondage, a God who brings new life and new possibilities. This meal, this Passover, which God told them to share every year together, is to reinforce those memories. It’s a night to remember who they are and where they come from. A night to remember who God is, and what God has done. A night to imagine, a night to contemplate what that means for their lives. It’s not just about the past. It’s about what that means for the future.
In the three thousand years since that first Passover, the Jews have faithfully gathered for a Passover meal and to remember God’s saving actions every year. Two thousand years ago, a thousand years after the first Passover, Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate Passover and share a meal. They told the story. They remembered how God saved them from slavery and death. They remembered what kind of a God they worshipped. And then Jesus did something different—something that would, as time passed, become a new treasured memory for those Jews and Gentiles who followed him. A memory that they—we—would tell and retell, that we would re-enact and think about, that would tell us what it means to follow Jesus.
He put on a towel and went to wash his disciples’ feet. Now, that was a bold statement. It’s not something a lord would do, or an ordinary citizen—it’s something that a slave would do. Washing someone means serving them, and it’s an intimate form of service. If you’re not doing it because it’s your job, you do it out of love, like a parent giving their child a bath or a friend coming over to take care of you when you’re weak and sick from chemo. This is what it means to be a follower of God, Jesus says. This is what should guide your life: love. I love you, and I’ve put that love into action, so you, too, should love others, and put that love into action.
Then he returned to the meal. And as they shared the Passover wine and bread, he added a new layer of meaning: this bread, the bread of affliction and freedom, is Jesus’ body. Jesus’ body, that will be broken for us so that we might be freed from slavery and death. This wine, the wine of God’s promise, is Jesus’ blood. Jesus’ blood, which will be poured out for us and for all people to fulfill God’s promise of salvation.
The first Passover celebrated God’s saving work. It taught them that their God was a God of salvation, a God who brought people from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from pain into joy. It taught them what kind of a God they worshipped, and who they were as God’s people. And that was a lesson they learned every time they shared that meal and told those storied. When Jesus celebrated it with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, before he was handed over to sin and death, it was a potent reminder to them: the God who saved their ancestors, who brought them out of slavery and death, was still saving people. God was saving people from slavery to sin and death of body and soul. And it wasn’t something that happened to other people, a long time ago, far away. It was something that was happening right there and then. Because saving people is God’s nature. It’s what God does. When God sees people in bondage, whether physical or mental, God acts to free them. Sometimes it’s big showy acts, sometimes it’s little things, and often it’s through other people. God saves people.
And God does it out of love. That’s what Jesus washing their feet symbolized. God loves people—even smelly, dirty, weak, sinful humans. And that’s not just an abstract feeling; God acts that love out in many and various ways. God loves people, and so God helps them, and saves them. That’s who God is. That’s what God does. And that means that if we’re going to be God’s people, we can’t ever forget that. We need to remember who God is, and what God calls us to do. We need to look for the love and salvation and freedom that God gives us every day, and we need to let that love shape us and form us as God’s people.
That’s why we remember this night, every time we celebrate Communion and especially once a year on Maundy Thursday. We remember who God is and what God has done. And we know that God is present with us, here, now, giving us his love and salvation and strengthening us to be God’s people, to do God’s work in the world. Because when Jesus said the bread and wine was his body and blood, he wasn’t being metaphorical. Whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine, we proclaim his death until he comes again. We know that he died for us, but that death was not the end of the story. We know that he is here, with us, that in this bread and wine we can touch and taste and see and smell him, that in this bread and wine he is strengthening us and forming us as his people. We remember, but we know there is more to this meal than memory. It’s about who God is—the one who saves, the one who loves—and who we are as God’s people: the ones who are called to put that love into word and deed and action. Even when it’s difficult. Even when it’s smelly or unpleasant, like washing feet. Even in the midst of betrayal like Judas’ betrayal, and anger like the Elders’ anger, and even when it’s in the middle of pain and sorrow and suffering. Even when love seems like the hardest thing in the world. We worship a God of salvation and freedom and love. And so we love, as God first loved us.
May these memories, shared around this meal, form us as God’s people and help us to truly know God’s love and salvation, and follow his command to share that love with all the world.