Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31-35
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
[1 Corinthians 11:26 New Revised Standard Version]
Tonight we begin the three days that shape our entire Christian faith experience. We observe tonight the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples before he was handed over to the authorities to be tried, taunted, tortured, and put to death.
I have often reflected on this evening and asked in many Maundy Thursday sermons, “What would you do if you knew you had only one more day to live?”
The objective, of course, is to get us to see how this scene on Maundy Thursday, the last time Jesus would gather with his friends, is often played out in our own lives. We would normally have a going away party; we would get together with our closest friends; we would recall the good times we shared together.
But on this night we celebrate the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and our memories run deeper than just a good time with old friends. In my former parish we would normally celebrate First Communion on this night. Traditionally, it is good for those who are coming to the Lord’s Table for the first time to understand the origins of this practice we call Holy Communion and what better way to do so than in reliving the last time the Lord shared a meal with his twelve disciples.
On this night, Jesus was following the tradition of his Jewish heritage and celebrating the Passover Seder – the meal that all devout Jews took part in to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. I can’t mention this without reminding anyone who will listen that Jesus was a faithful Jew. He was not Catholic, or Lutheran, or even Christian! He was Jewish. This meal had deep religious and cultural significance for him and his friends.
The Passover was and still is a special time of remembering how God chose his people from the beginning of time and how he led his chosen people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. God wanted them to remember the way Moses challenged the great Pharaoh of Egypt to let God’s people go, and the series of plagues that were sent to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites.
God wanted his people to remember how he broke the stubborn resistance of Pharaoh with the warning that the first born in Egypt would be killed. There was only one way to escape this death. As we read in the twelfth chapter of Exodus, each household was to slaughter a lamb and put some of its blood on the doorposts of their houses. The flesh of the lamb was to be roasted and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. When the angel of death saw the blood on the doorposts he would “pass over” their homes and those inside would be safe.
The Israelites did as they were instructed and they were kept safe that awful night. The weeping of mothers who had lost a child was heard throughout the land of Egypt. But the children of Israel were saved by the blood of a lamb that night, and were able to leave Egypt and the bonds of slavery.
And so when Jesus and his disciples and all their fellow Israelites celebrated the Passover they looked back and celebrated the fact that without God’s constant, and unfailing love for his people they would have been left for dead in the Sinai desert somewhere.
But they also recalled with great delight how God in his love saw them in their anguish and came to their rescue. They remembered the daily supply of food that fell from the heavens, how the cloud led them during the day, and a pillar of fire at night – this whole fantastic story of how God rescued these complaining, grumbling, disobedient people is a sheer miracle.
Not only was the Passover a time of remembering, but it was also a time of thanksgiving and celebration. They praised God for his love.
Yet on this night, his final night of freedom before his trial and crucifixion, Jesus institutes a new tradition. He gives this meal a different meaning and a deeper, more universal importance. This is not just another Passover Seder.
Tonight we are remembering, celebrating and thanking God for his love. But we are celebrating a “new Passover“, our rescue from slavery to sin and death. Jesus gave us a special meal to help us remember, he gave us his body and blood to eat and drink with the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins, and to help us remember the great love that he has for us.
This “new Passover” gets its meaning from the cross. Jesus gave his body and blood on the cross for you and me. He did it because of our desperate need to be made right with God. He did it because we are caught in slavery to sin and we can’t do anything to free ourselves. Like the slaves in Egypt we are unable to free ourselves from this slavery. Our situation is desperate. If nothing is done to free us, we would all die as slaves to sin and death. God was prepared to go to any lengths to save us because of his love – even send his only Son to give his body and shed his blood on a cross.
Tonight we join with Christians the world over raising our voices in thanksgiving as we celebrate Holy Communion. In fact, one of the names used around the world for Holy Communion is “Eucharist”, which comes from the Greek word (ευχαριστώ) which means “thanksgiving”. Like the Israel of old we thank God for God’s love and mercy, but unlike the ancient Israelites we have seen God’s love at work in ways that has far surpassed the Exodus event. We have seen with our eyes of faith the love of God at work freeing us from sin and death through the agony and dying and rising of Jesus.
There is something about this sacred day that sets it apart – something deeply transforming. We’re not merely remembering the night before Jesus died, we are actually living it through liturgy. The experience of the taking of the bread and the cup leaves us with a depth of meaning that goes beyond words. The readings and liturgy work in harmony to bring us to that last night.
So, renewed by this profound night, and transformed by Jesus’ taking upon himself the passion of his love for us, there is nothing to do but leave behind the things that bind us: fear of the unknown, distrust of those unlike ourselves, wariness of others who will come to us, and our own feelings of inadequacy.
When we are called by the new commandment, we are given the liberation from those fears and the strength to respond. Whatever we do because of this day will transform someone’s life as well as our own. Whatever action we take to love one another takes us one step closer to the redemption of the world. Whatever we risk of our own comfort and tranquility will be used by God to restore others who are lost and broken.
Tonight we remember and celebrate the powerful love of God that has made our salvation possible. Tonight is a night to remember what it cost God to bring us forgiveness and eternal life. Tonight we remember…and we give thanks!