Maundy Thursday worship, April 1, 2021
Posted by FirstPresbyterian Regina on Thursday, April 1, 2021
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17; 31b-35
“Serving at the Table & Beyond”
Thank you, Rodolfo and Gabe, for sharing that lovely Ministry of Music with a beautiful invitation from Jesus to us all to “come to the table.”
Even though we cannot literally sit around a table together tonight, the invitation from Jesus himself is nonetheless extended to us all to gather spiritually in the community of Jesus’ followers. You are welcome here, no matter what your history, what mistakes you’ve made, what questions or worries trouble you. Jesus welcomes you, and we will strive to do the same.
As the song said, “Come to the table. Come join the sinners who have been redeemed. Take your place beside the Saviour. Sit down and be set free.”
When I think about our Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, I don’t often think of it as something that sets us free. When we come to the table, I am thinking about thanksgiving – Eucharist – and showing gratitude to God for God’s goodness to us. I am thinking about being fed – receiving the assurance of Jesus’ presence with us at the table, and being spiritually nourished by the bread and wine that are shared. And I am thinking about the gifts of unity and community, as we draw close to Christ and draw close to one another, serving and sharing with one another in love across all our differences and diversities.
But the sacramental meal that Christians share in our churches has its roots in the Jewish Passover meal that Jesus shared with his community of friends and followers in Jerusalem just before he was arrested. And the Passover festival is also called the “Feast of Freedom” – a celebration of how God led the People of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and towards the Promised Land.
The New Testament includes five variations on the story of Jesus’ last supper with the disciples, each with their unique emphasis and theological message. But the stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, each tell us that the disciples were gathered to share the special meal for the first night of Passover. In other words, it wasn’t just any last meal together, it was the meal known as the “seder” which translates to the English word “order.”
You know how Presbyterians like to do things “decently and in order”? This was an ordered meal, a liturgical meal, or you might say a choreographed meal to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt and celebrate the wonder that God has set God’s people free.
We learned in our “Presbyterians Read” Book Study during Lent that the seder meal has developed and changed over time so that the meals celebrated by our Jewish neighbours today are not exactly like the ones that Jesus and his friends would have experienced. For example, in 1st century Jerusalem they would have eaten a lamb that had been sacrificed the previous day at the Temple, which obviously can’t be done today. But the retelling of the Exodus story and the symbolic use of unleavened bread and bitter herbs have remained.
Green veggies dipped into salt water remind our Jewish friends of the tears of their ancestors in slavery. Bitter herbs like horseradish point to the bitterness of their hard labour. And unleavened bread reminds them of the need to eat in haste, with no time for the bread to rise. Each cup of wine has its own meaning as well, as the meal continues, and the “Feast of Freedom” is celebrated with thanksgiving.
What Jesus did at that Passover meal so many years ago, was to add new actions and new meaning to the seder. Instead of following the usual liturgy, the Gospels tell us that “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”
While the Passover meal already celebrated the way that God had freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt, Jesus turned it into a celebration of how God was going to free all people from sin, sadness, despair, and death. As Jesus broke bread and shared the cup with his friends, he proclaimed God’s love for us once again – announcing that God would do absolutely everything that was necessary to draw us back into covenant relationship with God. Jesus was giving his whole life – body and blood – to show us God’s love and assure us of God’s ultimate power over hatred, violence, and death.
Just as the People of God had celebrated the Passover meal year after year, remembering and giving thanks for God’s saving power and love, Jesus invited his followers to repeat this new ritual meal and to remember him. As the Apostle Paul described it in his letter to the Church at Corinth, Jesus broke the bread and said: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus lifted the cup and told them: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
In addition to the many hardships and tragedies of the Covid-19 Pandemic, it breaks our hearts that we are unable to gather together around the Table of the Lord in these days, remembering Jesus, giving thanks for his love, and celebrating the gifts of forgiveness and freedom we have in covenant relationship with God. But as much as we are longing for the day when we can celebrate the Lord’s Supper together once again, we are free (even in these days) to let that holy meal guide and shape our lives every day.
You see, it wasn’t just a practice that was reserved for one day a year on Passover, or one day a month on Communion Sunday at church. The liturgical meal beautifully encapsulated the new way of life that Jesus was showing to his disciples and inviting them to embrace in their daily lives from that time forward. Even when we cannot share the Sacrament of Holy Communion, there is nothing stopping us from enacting it in every other aspect of our lives.
As the disciples sat around the table on that night after the meal, Luke’s Gospel tells us that a dispute arose among them about which one of them was the greatest. And Jesus taught them, “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
Jesus put into words what he had already shown them in the ritual meal – that he was humbling himself to serve them, to love them, to give his whole life for them. The Lord God of heaven and earth was serving his friends in love – not only at the table – but with his whole life every day. And they were called to do the same for each other, and for the outsiders and the little ones and the lost ones who needed to know God’s love for them.
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus did something else on the final evening that he spent with his disciples. During supper, he got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel. There he is, the Teacher and Lord, stooping down to wash the feet of his friends, to serve them in humility and love.
Interestingly, the church did not incorporate this ritual act into our worship in quite the same way that we did with the sharing of bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper. But Jesus’ ritual action of foot-washing teaches something similar, and he makes it very clear in his explanation. He says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
I don’t think that Jesus expected us to stop in the middle of all our meals together, and literally wash each other’s feet. Though doing so once in a while, or perhaps on Maundy Thursday when there isn’t a pandemic happening could be helpful to remind us of the significance of what he did for them that night.
But the main thing is that we figure out how to “wash one another’s feet” outside of our worship and beyond our ritual gatherings. We must learn how to, humbly and generously, offer our gifts, our time, and our care to serve others around us.
Jesus showed us what love looks like in powerful and symbolic ways at the Last Supper by breaking bread, sharing the cup, and washing the feet of his friends. Before that night, he had already shown us what love looks like in the way he lived, welcomed, taught, healed, helped, and gave each day of his life in the service of humanity. After that night, he would complete the gift as he literally gave his body and blood, his whole life, in love for the world.
On Maundy Thursday, we remember that Jesus welcomed disciples around his table and served them in love, inviting us to keep on serving one another in remembrance of him. We also remember that he, as the Teacher, stooped to wash the feet of his friends, inviting us also to help and care for one another in love so that others may know that we are his disciples.
Sometimes we have opportunities to repeat these actions in our church community, embodying them and pondering their significance through ritual meals and practices. Always, we are called to live them out in our daily lives – in our homes, with our families, in our workplaces, with our neighbours, among the poor, in every aspect of life in this world, during the pandemic and beyond.
Tonight, may you know the depths of God’s love and welcome and care in Jesus Christ for you. And may your daily life proclaim and enact that love for others in Jesus’ name.