Readings: Ex. 12:1-4, 11-14, 1 Cor. 11:23-26 & Jn. 13:1-17, 31b-35
What is the significance of Maundy Thursday to the Christian faith? The main thing, is that it marks the institution of the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion) which, as Paul tells us in the First Letter to the Corinthians, occurred
“on the night when he was betrayed”,
during what has come to be known as ‘The Last Supper’.
When we think of the recorded accounts of Jesus’ words or teaching, we usually tend to think of the four Gospels don’t we? But actually this passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians, is the EARLIEST recorded account of the words of Jesus that we have. Paul’s letter was written around ten years before Mark’s Gospel, which is of course the earliest of the four Gospels, so Paul’s letter is the first account we have of the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The sacrament won’t necessarily mean the same thing to every one us, but as I read from one particular commentary, we don’t need to understand it in order to benefit from it.1 As a quote from that same commentary said,
“We do not need to understand the chemistry of bread in order to digest it and be nourished by it”.2
However we would do well to at least try to understand a little of what Jesus meant when he spoke about the bread and wine in the way that he did.3
When Jesus spoke of the bread by saying,
“this is my body”,
he wasn’t saying that the bread was literally his flesh, nor was he saying that it was just a symbol of his body, even that in a sense is true.4 Yes the bread of the sacrament does represent the body of Christ, but it is also much more than that. For those of us who take the bread in their hands and on their lips in communion, it is not only a memory of Christ, but it is a living contact with Christ; a way in which we are brought into his presence.5
When Jesus speaks of the wine as being the
“new covenant in his blood”,
he is referring to the change in the relationship between human beings and God that his death has brought about. Previously there was a covenant (which we read about in the Old Testament) between God and the people of Israel that was based on the law, and which was virtually impossible for people to keep, because of the many hundreds of statutes and ordinances that made up the law. Under this old covenant, people were in fear of God because of the fact that they could never perfectly keep the law.6
The new covenant, rather than being a covenant based on fear of God; is a covenant based on the love of God. The love that God has for human beings that he was prepared to sacrifice His only Son for our sake; in order that we may be redeemed through the death of Jesus Christ.
The ‘words of institution’ that Jesus gave the apostles during the Last Supper –
“This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me,”
– remind us of the instruction that God gave to Moses and Aaron in Egypt regarding the Passover, when He said,
“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”
And of course in the gospel stories relating to the Last Supper–which we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke–we know it is actually a Passover meal. So with the words and gestures that he used, Jesus was transforming the Passover ritual into what we now have as the Christian Eucharist.
Of course there is one Gospel which does not contain Jesus’ ‘words of institution’, and that is the Gospel of John. John’s account of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, is very different to those of Matthew, Mark and Luke. For a start, as we heard in our reading from John this evening, it takes place on the day BEFORE Passover, not on the Passover itself. You might ask why would the author of the Gospel of John provide a different account, especially a different time, in their version of events. The answer is, that they have a different theological point, or emphasis, they are trying to make.
In the very first chapter of John’s Gospel, the reader hears John the Baptist, refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God, a term that is not used in any of the other three gospels in relation to Jesus. The clear inference to the reader, is that Jesus is destined to take the place of the Paschal Lamb at Passover. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death actually occurs ON the day of Passover, which is the time when the Paschal Lambs would normally be slaughtered. The author is making the theological point, that Jesus IS the sacrifice. He is to die, so that his followers may be freed from slavery to sin and death. Another notable difference between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels, which we also commemorate in our Maundy Thursday service, is Jesus’ act of washing his disciples feet, prior to them eating their final meal together. This event is only recorded in John’s Gospel.
Many ancient-Eastern streets were unpaved, badly crowded and very dirty, and it was common practice in the ancient-East, for a host to provide water for guests to wash their feet, or to provide servants to wash their feet, before the guests entered the home of their host.
Now washing a guest’s feet, was considered a very menial task, that was almost never performed by anyone other than a slave or servant of the host. In the case of tonight’s reading, Jesus is the host, and, in keeping with the local custom, he provides water for his disciples’ feet. However, as Jesus was prone to do in his ministry, he turns the local custom on its head, and he, as the host, actually washes the feet of his disciples, much to their shock. This was an incredibly counter-cultural thing to do.
The point that Jesus was trying to make to his disciples, which he also made at several other times in his ministry, was that they should always be humble, and be ready to serve each other. Apart from being an act of great humility, Jesus’ act of washing their feet, was also an act of love, and an example of how they should love one another.
The author of John’s Gospel, reminds their reader further of this point in verses thirty-four and thirty-five of chapter thirteen, when Jesus says to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And as followers of Christ, we too, are called to serve each other and to love one another.
So, as you leave here later on this evening, or if you take time to stay and pray, or just contemplate at the Altar of Repose at the back of the church before the reserved sacrament, perhaps you can reflect on the key points that I have shared with you tonight.
- Just as the Festival of Passover is a significant time for the Jewish people, when they remember the event that lead to the freedom of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, we too, as Christians, should acknowledge Maundy Thursday as a significant time for us, and remember the events of that night that would eventually lead to our freedom from slavery to sin and the power of death.
- Jesus IS the sacrifice that secured that freedom for us.
- Just as Jesus called his disciples to serve each other and love another, so too, he now calls us, to serve each other and to love one another.
The Lord be with you.
1 William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians
(Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2002), p. 121
2 Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 121
3 Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 121
4 Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 121
5 Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 122
6 Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 122