Thursday, April 01, 2010

Sermon: Maundy Thursday

1 April 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 13:1-15, 34-35

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

In her creeds, the Church confesses herself to be “holy.” Scripture teaches us this. Jesus teaches us this. “Holy” means “set apart.” Holiness is the technical term for what the writers on Sesame Street referred to when “one of these things is not like the others.” The Church is holy because she is separated from the world, set apart, and different.

Jesus tells us today that we are to be different.

Christians are different as a matter of faith. We believe, as we confess in our creeds, in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe that Jesus of Nazareth is both God and Man, that “for us men and for our salvation” that He “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.” He “was crucified, died, and was buried” and walked out of His own tomb – physically and literally. We believe that He, by the sacrifice of the cross, by grace, through faith, forgives all our sins, justifies us freely, and saves us from hell, giving us everlasting life.

No other group of people, no other religion, confesses this. We are a particular and a peculiar people.

But holding the right doctrine alone is not the complete mark of the Christian.

In fact, in the Athanasian Creed, this one true faith, this catholic faith held by Christians universally, is this: “that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.” According to our confession, it is not enough to intellectually hold doctrines in one’s head, for the faith is lived out in community, in the subject and verb “we worship.” Christians are a “we” people, a community, a body comprised of many parts, the head of which is Christ. And that community manifests itself in “worship.”

On Maundy Thursday, our Lord Jesus establishes worship making use of the Lord’s Supper, a communion that is impossible to celebrate alone. It is a communal meal in which the churchly body of Christ feeds on the physical body of Christ, in which the Church drinks the blood of the Lord, exchanging His perfect life for our sinful one by the sacrificial blood He shed for us. We Christians are a Eucharistic people, those who give thanks before sharing the Bread of Life and the Cup of Thanksgiving. And this is no mere option for Christians. One cannot willfully refuse this holy meal, for our Lord Himself says: “Do this.” It is mandatory. And this “mandate” is part of the “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday.

It is as impossible to willfully sever oneself from the life of the Church and remain a Christian as it is for branches of a vine to live having been cut off from the rest of the plant.

And yet, holding the right doctrine and faithfully attending services of Word and Sacrament are not the marks of the Christian that our Lord leaves us with right before He goes to the cross.

For as He so often does, our Blessed Lord does something surprising, shocking, and profound – and yet something common and unpretentious: He washes His disciples’ dirty feet in the manner of a common slave. What greater image of God is there than this: a servile God on His hands and knees scrubbing dirt while sinful men are served and made clean. This is not the image of the powerful Prophet with resounding words and wonders, nor is this the image of the mighty King issuing commands and exhibiting power. Rather this is the humble Priest – the manifestation of Christ that Dr. Luther considered the most comforting of all.

For our Priest is there to offer a sacrifice on our behalf – which He does on Good Friday. He is there to offer a watery sacrament to us to place His holy Triune Name upon us, cleansing us and sealing us as one of God’s own – which He establishes on the day of His ascension when He commanded the apostles to “go and make disciples, baptizing …” He is also there to offer this continual cleansing by words of Holy Absolution and preaching, along with the lavish gift of baptismal water, for “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean” He says to His Church.

We are clean because Jesus has cleansed us. And this cleansing by water and the Spirit is also a mark of the Christian: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”

And yet, once more, a person who has intellectual doctrinal knowledge, faithfully attends divine services, is baptized and cleansed by the Gospel, may still not be readily identifiable as a Christian. This, our Lord tells us, is done by a different mark of the Christian – perhaps the most important of all: “that you love one another.”

Our Blessed Lord used the washing of the feet as an example of love and service, of brotherly affection, of our willingness to wrap a towel around ourselves, roll up our sleeves, get on our hands and knees, and serve our brothers and sisters.

Our Lord says: “By this” – not by your doctrine, not by your faithfulness in church attendance, nor even by your baptismal certificate – but “by this,” your love for one another, “by this all people will know that you are my disciples.” And if this is still unclear, the Lord repeats it: “…if you have love for one another.”

This is not to say that doctrine is unimportant. Far from it! Satan lures people from the true faith with lies about God, about Christ, and about how God saves us. It is imperative that the Church clearly articulate the reason for the hope within us, the one true faith, the non-negotiable truth taught in Holy Scripture and by the church catholic from the time of the apostles.

And this is not to say church attendance is unimportant. Far from it! Satan lures people from the one true faith by tempting them to cut themselves off from Word and Sacrament, from the Gospel, from being in a flock with others of the Lord’s fold, exposing themselves and their children to being devoured by the devil, who prowls around like a ravenous lion. Do not take this “blest communion” for granted, dear friends. Grace is free, but it is not cheap. We are weak, and only the Lord can fortify us and keep us in the faith.

And this is not to say baptism is unimportant. Far from it! Satan lures people from the baptismal life, the life of being washed in the waters of regeneration, of being born again, instead putting their faith in their works or in their faith itself instead of trusting the Word by way of the gift poured upon you in the name of the Trinity. Do not despise your baptism, but meditate on it often, with every sip of water, every rain storm, every sign of the cross, lay hold of this most gracious new birth by water and the Spirit.

But as St. Paul taught the Corinthians, even if we have every spiritual gift – even with “prophetic powers” and even if we “understand all mysteries and all knowledge” – yet if we lack love, we are just noisy gongs and cymbals, useless noisemakers. For love founds, marks, and completes the life of the Christian, the holy life of the Church, the doctrinal life of the Christian’s study, the piety of the Christian’s worship, the reception of the Lord’s grace in Word and Sacrament by the Christian, in everything the disciple of Jesus does and is. For we were saved by love, we were given the gift of love, and now, the Lord gives us a command, a mandate, to share this love.

The Lord bids us to love, dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, not so that we can earn our salvation, not so that we can point to our own piety – but rather for the sake of the Kingdom. For when you let your light shine before men, they glorify the Father. More have been won to the Kingdom by acts of love and mercy than were convinced by doctrine alone, by church attendance alone, or by baptism alone. For true living faith is never alone, but is always bound together in love. Love is proof that our faith is genuine, that it extends beyond the head to the heart and the soul, that it reflects the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Love is the difference. Love is what the parched world thirsts for. Love is the thing that makes the Christian holy and “not like the others.” Love is holiness in action. Love binds the persons of the Trinity. Love sent the Son to take human flesh. Love gives us the body and blood of Christ. Love baptizes us, gives us absolution, preaches to us, serves us, and covers a multitude of sins. And as the Holy Spirit revealed to St. Paul: “Love never fails.”

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all…

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

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