Saturday, April 07, 2007

Sermon: Maundy Thursday

5 April 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 13:1-15, 34-35; (Ex 12:1-14, 1 Cor 11:23-32)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today is known as “Maundy” Thursday based on one of the words in our Gospel reading. For it was on Thursday of Holy Week that our Lord celebrated the Last Supper, washed the disciples’ feet, and then gave his followers a new commandment (which in the Church’s Latin is the word mandatum).

Of course, we Lutherans celebrate our freedom in the Gospel, and confess with St. Paul that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works of the law. That being said, our Lord Jesus Christ still gives us a new mandatum – something that is “mandatory.” As Christians, this mandate is placed upon us: that we love one another even as Christ has loved us.

This mandate from our Lord isn’t optional. It is something that is a defining mark of being a Christian.

But the good news is that our Lord doesn’t require of us something that he hasn’t equipped us to do. For our King is not like Pharaoh who ridiculously demanded the Israelites make bricks without straw. The Christian life is all about gifts – and those gifts the Lord bestows on us, we are to freely and liberally “re-gift.” Jesus has just shown us what true love is, and then he tells us to go and do likewise.

The loveless Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened by the Lord in response to his impenitence and arrogance, is the opposite of our Lord Jesus. For Pharaoh seeks to hold God’s people in bondage, to benefit from the toil of others. And this is what led to the first Passover described in our Old Testament lesson, in which the lamb was slaughtered and eaten, in which the blood of that sacrifice was placed upon the children of God, marking them as those who are being spared the ravages of the angel of death.

By contrast is our blessed Lord, who opposed Pharaoh by freeing the Israelites, who becomes the sacrificial Lamb of the final Passover, described in our Epistle lesson. In this Last Passover, the Lamb Himself is slaughtered and eaten. The blood of this Last Passover is placed upon the tongues of the children of God, marking us as those spared the ravages of the angel of death.

It is this sacrificial act that embodies pure, perfect love – the kind of love we Christians are mandated to carry out. The Church is commanded not only to have orthodox doctrine, but also to love. Indeed, we are to correct the erring, but we are to “speak the truth in love.”

And contrary to everything our culture screams at us, love is not a feeling or emotion. It isn’t libido, an obsession, or a self-centered passion. Love doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is love necessarily manifested by flowery words. For love is quite simply acted out in deeds.

And those deeds are not always moonlight and roses. Dying on a cross after being humiliated and flogged, isn’t exactly the stuff of Hallmark cards. Handing out small pieces of bread and passing around a chalice of wine doesn’t look all that romantic in the eyes of the world. Putting on a towel and washing people’s dirty feet isn’t something you’ll likely ever see on a commercial for a cruise-line. But these are the kinds of deeds that embody love – deeds of humble service.

For love, true Christian love – is often pretty dull, if not outright unappealing. Husbands and wives who take care of one another in their old age is such an example. Children who have to help their parents deal with their brothers’ and sisters’ vomit and dirty diapers is that kind of love. Police officers who risk their lives for very little pay in return exhibit the kind of self-sacrificial love our Lord orders us to do. Being a faithful student, or teacher, or clerk, or grandparent is the epitome of this mandate. For we are all called to serve someone.

The lover thinks of his beloved instead of himself. The lover will go to any length, suffer any personal loss, will endure any inconvenience or even pain to himself in order to ease the suffering or serve the needs of his beloved. A true lover will even die for his beloved.

And doesn’t that describe our Lord Jesus to a tee?

For after establishing the Lord’s Supper, in which the Almighty God of the universe is willing to condescend to be contained in bread and wine for our sakes, after teaching by humble example how baptism washes away sin while demonstrating how the apostles and their successors are to busy themselves with cleansing the members of their congregations through menial service of the Gospel, and just before Himself being subjected to betrayal, arrest, torture, mockery, and murder by the very people Jesus repays with love and forgiveness – He tells us, He command us, to carry out the same mission of divine love ourselves.

Of course, like all the other mandates of our Lord, we’re not so good at keeping this one. We are weak and weary – like the disciples who fell asleep as Jesus suffered anguish in Gethsemane. We are unreliable and self-serving just like the disciples who scattered when their Shepherd was struck. We are like Peter, whose boasts melted away when they made the transition from nice-sounding theory to action in the real world.

And this is why Maundy Thursday is so important.

For if you strive to obediently keep the Lord’s love mandate, you have no choice but to fill yourself with the Lord’s love. If you want to love others, you must first be filled with love yourself. And that kind of love only comes from the Lord – directly and physically. He offers Himself to you in His body and blood. He doesn’t merely set an example to follow (though what an example he does set!), nor does he simply recite a TV commercial jingle and say “Just do it!” – (as though we have any power at all to “just do it”), nor does He simply give you a Bible as a guidebook for the Christian life (though it contains such information). Rather Jesus Himself works these acts of love through His own body, the Church. Which is to say, He works through you, dear people.

For “when you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” And in that proclamation, that confession, you are loving the other members of your family. You are loving your fellow Christians. And you are loving your Lord. For in being forgiven, you are demonstrating to others their need to be forgiven. And when you partake in the Lord’s gifts, he is as pleased as a father watching his children play happily with gifts he provides them.

This mystical meal gives us everything we need to carry out the mandate. For when we are weak, He is strong. When our feelings tell us we are not good enough, the very real blood of our Lord that you see and taste from this cup pleads with the Father on our behalf. When our own personal Pharaohs lovelessly oppress and crush us – we have no need to retaliate, to debase ourselves with bitterness or revenge – for we have the luxury of responding in love – having been given everything and then some by our gracious Lord.

Love is a mystery. The more you give it away, the more it comes back to you. The Holy Supper is likewise a mystery. We can’t any more rationally explain the Lord’s Real Presence in the Sacrament than we can explain love. And yet, we know both exist. In fact, they exist as one. For when you partake of this Supper, dear brothers and sisters, the unbounded love of Almighty God becomes part of your very body and soul.

For “He has given food to those who fear Him; he will be ever mindful of His covenant.” This Holy Supper is love that can be eaten and drunk – it is literally a “love-feast” – a banquet in which God and man sup together in friendship and love. And the irony is this: the more our Lord binds us with the mandate to love one another, the more we are freed up to love one another. The more we give, the more we receive. The more our bodies are filled with this Supper, the more we can fill others with the milk and honey of divine love.

So come to this table, dear brothers and sisters! It is a foretaste of the love-feast that will have no end! For here you are free to carry out the mandate of the Lord. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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