[This was prepared for presentation during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio on Maundy Thursday 2016, March 24. You can listen to this message here.]
Maundy Thursday commemorates events that happened on the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. The word Maundy is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get words like mandate and commandment. That’s because in his Gospel, John tells us that on the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus said this to His disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35).
Previously in the Old Testament, of course, God had commanded that we love Him and love our neighbor as we love ourselves, commands that Jesus underscored in what we call the Great Commandment.
But in His new commandment, Jesus tells His disciples that we must love our fellow disciples just as Christ has loved us. Jesus’ command is non-negotiable: No matter how much we Christians may drive each other crazy, no matter how much we may disagree with one another, we are to love one another with the same self-sacrificing passion Jesus has for us. This command is even more demanding and rigorous than the great commandment! Absent constant humble prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit, absent Jesus Christ living in us, we cannot hope to fulfill it.
But it’s hard for we human beings to rely on the God you can’t see. That’s why something else that transpired on the first Maundy Thursday, something not recorded in John’s Gospel, is so important. Unlike John, Luke records how Jesus and the twelve apostles celebrated the Passover together that night.
At the table, Jesus told the twelve how eager He had been to partake of Passover with them. He wanted to have it with them before He suffered, Jesus said. Undoubtedly, these words were jarring and made the twelve uneasy. But Jesus went on to explain that He would not be enjoying a feast of this kind again until He had ushered in the Kingdom of God.
Bringing the Kingdom of God--the reign of God, the freedom of eternal forgiveness and new life--to human beings otherwise lost and shackled to sin and death, was Jesus’ entire mission. It was the whole point of His entering our world. It was why He had come to Jerusalem, where He would die on Good Friday, lie dead in a tomb on Holy Saturday, and rise on Easter Sunday.
It’s why in Luke 9:51, we’re told that “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (Another translation says that Jesus "set His face" for Jerusalem.)
And it’s why in Luke 13:33, Jesus said, “I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”
Jesus would die and rise to bring His eternal kingdom to those who dare to repent and believe in Him.
Of course, Jesus’ disciples were always lost when He told them that He would be rejected by the priests and elders, be crucified by the Romans, and rise from the dead.
The expectations of pious Jews like Jesus' first disciples were that the Messiah would be a popular leader who brought greatness to Judea, kicked out foreign interlopers, and make sure everyone was prosperous. The disciples were horrified whenever Jesus spoke of unpopularity and being executed. “That’s not what happens with Messiah,” they thought. Peter even once told Jesus, “Never, Lord...This shall never happen to you!” [Matthew 16:22]
And when Jesus said that, after dying, He would be resurrected, it didn’t register with the disciples. Jews who believed in a resurrection thought that there would be a general resurrection of all believers at some point. They didn’t know what to do with the idea that one Man--in this case, Jesus--would rise first as, in a phrase Saint Paul would later use, “the first fruits" of the dead.
In any case, Jesus’ talk on that first Maundy Thursday must have frightened the disciples. The hopes that Jesus had raised through His preaching, teaching, healing, exorcisms, and raising of the dead were going to be dashed? Jesus was going to leave them alone? Had they come this far, the disciples must have wondered, only to be abandoned by Jesus?
It was to allay the fears of those first disciples--and of we present-day disciples who have our own fears--that Jesus did what He did next. Verse 17: “After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”
The celebration of Passover involved the drinking of four cups of wine. Jesus instituted Holy Communion between the third and fourth cups of His celebration with the disciples. In doing so, Jesus spoke words that were strange to the disciples and, if we allow ourselves to truly listen to them and not treat them like church words that wash over us, can seem strange to us too.
To disciples who worry that God is far away, distant, detached, Jesus says, “You are not alone. I will not leave those who trust in Me orphaned. This is My body. Here’s My blood, poured out for you.”
The God we can’t see comes to us “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine, the God of flesh and blood Who says that whenever His Word, the words of institution meet the bread and the wine among His believing people, He is there!
Now, there are some Christians who believe that when they take Holy Communion, they’re remembering what Jesus has done for them, or remembering Maundy Thursday, like friends reminiscing about days gone by or like historians rummaging through the archives of history for cogent lessons. Remembering is nice. It can even be helpful, even, when it comes to the study of history, essential. But none of this is what Holy Communion is about!
Jesus says, “This is My body...This is the new covenant in My blood.” Holy Communion isn’t about remembering a past event. It’s experiencing the present-tense presence of Jesus as we receive His body and blood with believing hearts.
When we receive the sacrament trustingly, Jesus is here, now, as close as the person sitting next to us, as close as the hearts beating in our chests.
Just this past Saturday, I was able to share Holy Communion with Phyllis at the hospital, just three days before she died. I can assure you that she wasn’t focused on the past when she received the sacrament. She was focused on the Lord Who was with her at that moment and the future heavenly banquet that this feast foreshadows for all who trustingly surrender to Jesus and His Lordship over their lives.
Yes, people say, but didn’t Jesus say that we are to do the sacrament “in remembrance of Him”? He did. But we must understand two things here.
First, Holy Communion isn’t something we do. Without Jesus and His powerful word, bread and wine are still just bread and wine. We don’t do the sacrament; Jesus gives it, He gives Himself, to us! Holy Communion is something that Jesus does; we are its recipients.
Second, the word Jesus uses which we translate as remembrance is, in the original Greek of the New Testament, a form of the word anamnesis. This word tells us that Holy Communion isn’t something for us to remember Jesus by, like a souvenir from Disney World or the lock from a deceased loved one’s hair. Instead, Holy Communion is the means by which Jesus re-members us to Him and re-members us to the Church on earth and in heaven, re-members us to the body of Christ made up of saints below and saints above.
I don’t know about you, but in my everyday life, I get so caught up in everyday life, that I sometimes start to fall apart at the seams. I fragment. I worry. I get upset. Sometimes I get angry. I sin.
When we humbly and unrepentantly come to Jesus as He offers His body and blood to us in Holy Communion, He pulls the fragments of our souls together. He makes us whole. He heals our souls. Feeding us on one holy food, Jesus makes us one with Him, one with our sisters and brothers in Christ, one with our true and best selves.
And in this way, Jesus holds us close and assures us that we are not alone. Holy Communion is the visible means on this earth by which He enacts the truth of God’s promise, given both in Deuteronomy of the Old Testament and Hebrews of the New Testament: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” No matter what happens to us, even on the brink of our deaths, Holy Communion proves that that promise is true, which is why Phyllis received the sacrament so gratefully this past Saturday.
On Sunday, eight Living Water young people will receive the sacrament for the first time. They will tell you that there are three big things that Jesus gives us in Holy Communion: forgiveness, new life, and communion with God’s family, the Church, on earth and in heaven. But all of that happens for one simple reason: In this sacrament, Jesus comes to us. In times of joy and times of sadness, and in all the times of our lives, through Holy Communion, Jesus’ gives us His body and blood to assure us that He is always with those who trust in Him. Always. Amen