By Derek Weber
As hinted at in the introduction, we can debate whether a sermon is necessary on this occasion. Like Ash Wednesday before it, the service speaks clearly and loudly, and the attempt to frame meaning through a sermon might be more distraction than help. But there is space for preaching on Maundy Thursday. The intent would be to help capture the mood and mode of the service without attempting to force interpretation too narrowly.
So, if we choose to bring a word of some sort, what shall we preach on Maundy Thursday? The lectionary gives us some wonderful possibilities. If we start with the Hebrew Scriptures, we have some instructions on the Passover meal: Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14. It looks like a secret code printed in invisible ink on the back of some ancient scroll. All those numbers. When you read them, you wonder what might this list of instructions for the people of God from ancient times have to do with my twenty-first-century church of Christ followers? Well, they are certainly not instructions to follow to the letter. A re-enactment of the Passover meal is considered by many to be cultural appropriation. If you do decide to depict this sacred ceremony, consult a rabbi from a nearby Jewish community to come and explain to you the practice and interpretations. View it as a learning exercise and an interfaith exchange. But respect your neighbors enough to not simply take over their sacred rituals.
So, do we just move to the New Testament and leave these instructions behind? Before you do, take another look. See what was given on that terrible night of salvation. This is God in full vengeance mode. It is hard for us to reconcile this God with the God of love that we prefer. But in the end, it is not God’s actions that should be our focus here, but rather God’s instructions. To borrow Howard Thurman’s description of the marginalized, what is asked of the people of God when their backs are against the wall?
Two things stand out: community and movement, with remembering as a constant third. The instructions say that this meal, this act, is to be done together. This meal is not undertaken by individuals acting alone, but as a family or even a collection of families. The grace and mercy of God is meant to be shared; so too is the judgement and vengeance of God. Verse eleven says, “eat it hurriedly.” This meal is fast food; it is an eat-and-run situation. But people aren’t to run their separate ways after inhaling the food, as happens all too often in our homes today. Instead, the family eats and runs together, impatient for the next thing, ready to go where sent, ready to follow God’s call. That is the underlying message here: go where you are sent. Always be ready to go. The people of God are not a settled people, but a pilgrim people, a missional people, ready to go and proclaim, ready to go and invite, ready to go and tell the story anywhere to everyone. The people of God are ready to go and tell what they remember. Remembering is what we do when we gather. This day is a day of remembering. From the Exodus text, the preacher could remember with the congregation Holy Weeks of the past. The preacher could recall those who had dined with us but are no longer here. He or she could remember experiences of grace at the table and moments of salvation. The pastor could recall how many times people have risen from the table with renewed hope and have gone out into the night trusting in the protection of the blood of the lamb.
If it is the meal that centers the evening’s experience, then you need to go to Paul. The Epistle text is the only explicit telling of the ritual of Communion in the lectionary. I Corinthians 11:23-26 is a brief retelling of the sacrament. Paul doesn’t unpack it or command it; he just tells it. He tells is as if it were to be a way of life. One wonders whether our turning the sacrament into an occasional ritual would bother Paul and whether what he really meant and thought what Jesus really meant was that whenever we ate, we ate aware of the presence of Christ among us; that the act of eating bread and drinking from the fruit of the vine was partaking of the body and blood of Christ every time. “Do this, as often as you drink it . . .” As often. Perhaps Paul was calling us to live aware of the body of Christ, to live aware of the redemption from the blood of Christ.
It's not wrong to practice the ritual, to formalize our remembering with the ancient words and ritual acts. Surely something holy happens in our gathering. But it would be wrong if it stayed there; if that were the only time we remembered; if that were the only time we were aware of what Christ has done. Perhaps the preacher could invite members of the congregation to share moments when they have become aware of what Christ has done as they ate with their family or friends or even strangers. Perhaps they could talk about how the body became something more than an idea or concept, but a reality around a table. Maybe reconciliation happened; maybe grace was extended or accepted. What stories might we tell around a table that help us remember Christ?
The Gospel text, John 13:1-17, 31b-35, could lead us to a similar conversation. Who has washed your feet? As mentioned in the introduction, washing of feet isn’t a normal cultural practice for us. So, translate it. What humble act of service has been performed for you in such a way that it embarrassed you and then made you grateful? Is there such a thing? Can we imagine such a thing?
This is the new commandment, mandatum, that titles the day: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Loving one another is hard enough, but we can imagine ourselves doing it most days. But Jesus added that proviso; we aren’t called to love as we want to love, to love from a distance, to love from safety, to love with the idea of the other. No, we are called to love as Jesus loved. And if we thought we could wiggle out under even that description, Jesus shows us exactly what he means by loving. It is with humble acts of service and hospitality. It is to include, not just say “come on in,” but to go out and gather them in. Whoever the “them” is that is hardest to gather for you, those are the ones you are called to love as Jesus loved.
And remember, as if we could forget, these are the parting words of Jesus. He might as well have said, if you forget everything else, remember this. Or, it all comes down to this. All the rules, all the rituals, all the understandings of his teaching and example, won’t amount to a hill of beans if we don’t love one another as he loved us. And then to cement the image of what this love is like, Jesus left that place and suffered and died a horrible death, for love’s sake. There is nothing, he proclaimed with his wounds and his blood, that I won’t do for love.
Perhaps you’re captured by the Lenten series Selah and want to carry it through Holy Week. The Psalm assigned for Maundy Thursday is Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19. “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (v.12) Does it seem odd to have a psalm of thanksgiving assigned to Maundy Thursday? Perhaps, but hear the determination in the psalm. “I will lift up the cup of salvation . . . I will pay my vows to the Lord.” I will. “I will” echoes through the psalm. Yes, it is a response to what has been done in the life of the psalmist. But it is also a clear commitment to carry through and hold on. That’s the spiritual that springs to mind on this evening. Hold on, keep your hand on the plow and hold on. The agony in the garden is yet to come; it follows this meal in the upper room. The gospel writers give us a clear indication of the cost of this sacrifice on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We hear the cry for release: let this cup pass from me. We see the sweat like great drops of blood. But we also know the determination, “nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” I will lift up the cup of salvation. I will keep my hand on the plow and hold on.
His determination becomes our commitment, our desire. We too will lift the cup and break the bread. We too will drink and eat; we too will offer ourselves to the will of our loving Creator. Yes, we will fail. Again and again, we will fall back; we will drop our arms; we will hold back our praise and our offerings. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe we will hold on at last, not by our strength, but by his. Thanks be to God.