Posted by: Johnold Strey | April 7, 2009

Maundy Thursday Sermon (2009)

The indented/quotation section at the beginning of this post, prior to the sermon itself, includes the description of Gloria Dei’s Maundy Thursday order of worship as printed on page one of our Maundy Thursday service folder.  The main source book for our congregation’s Maundy Thursday service is Christian Worship: Occasional Services,” available through Northwestern Publishing House (Milwaukee, WI).

As with Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday marks a unique place in the church calendar.  Just as Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, so Maundy Thursday marks the end of Lenten preparation and the beginning of the three holy days of Christendom, called the Triduum (Latin for “three days,” referring to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday).  Tonight’s service is the first in a series of three services celebrating these three special days.

To underscore the end of the Lenten time of preparation, and to recall Jesus’ discourse with his disciples at the beginning of the first Maundy Thursday, the sermon is placed at the beginning of the service.  The placement of the sermon provides a powerful preamble to the “Instruction for the End of Lent” and the confession of sins which follows.

Holy Communion is celebrated in the Maundy Thursday service.  Receiving Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins is always appropriate in worship, and especially on this night, the night on which Jesus instituted the Sacrament.

The post-communion portion of the service takes us from the upper room in Jerusalem where the disciples celebrated the Passover to the Garden of Gethsemane in preparation for Good Friday.  The altar, which is one of the most prominent symbols of Christ in the church, is solemnly stripped of its vestments in memory of the abandonment of Jesus in Gethsemane.  Psalm 88 is sung as the altar furnishings are removed.

The service ends in silence.  The congregation hears no closing blessing — yet.  Rather, the three services of the Triduum flow into one another as the congregation disperses in silence to reassemble for worship on Good Friday.

 

Sermon Series for the Midweek Lent Services: “Father, Forgive Them”

FORGIVE US THROUGH OUR SAVIOR’S SUPPER

Text: Matthew 26:26-29

Introduction

The Lord’s Supper is a gem in a junk heap.  On the very first Maundy Thursday, the Supper itself was the gem; the circumstances surrounding its institution were a junk heap.  The disciples argue among themselves as to which of them is the greatest, while the One who is truly greatest humbly washes the feet of the sinfully self-centered disciples.  Judas leaves the table to catch up with Jesus’ enemies and close the deal on Jesus’ betrayal.  Jesus’ lengthy Maundy Thursday discourse with his disciples is repeatedly interrupted by questions that reveal just how clueless and confused the disciples really were.  Later that night, his disciples fall asleep in his hour of anguished prayer, and they fall away at the moment of his arrest.  But in the middle of that junk heap — in the middle of betrayal, big boasting, and badly botched promises — Jesus institutes the Sacrament of his body and blood.  Jesus sets a beautiful gem in the midst of the disciples’ sinful and shameful junk that characterized the first Maundy Thursday.

Throughout the Wednesday evening services we offered during the past six weeks of Lent, you heard a series of sermons under the theme, “Father, forgive them,” a theme that echoes the first words Jesus spoke from the cross.  As we walked through Jesus’ Passion history, we identified with the characters in the Passion history who desperately needed the forgiveness Christ came to bring.  Tonight and tomorrow, as our sermon series concludes, we will see two more incidents from the Passion history where Jesus’ forgiveness is badly needed and graciously extended.  Tonight, as we commemorate the institution of the Lord’s Supper, this gem in a junk heap, we will see Jesus’ forgiveness delivered through the Sacrament he first instituted on this night.  And so we pray, “Father, forgive us!  Forgive us through our Savior’s Supper!”  Listen to the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Matthew chapter 26:

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’  Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.'” 

I.

(While holding up the sugar bowl from the parsonage kitchen):  A sugar bowl.  That’s all this appears to be.  That’s all this appears to be to you.  But this sugar bowl has much more meaning in the Strey house.  My wife’s grandmother passed away last week Saturday.  Grandma had been dealing with congestive heart failure for quite some time.  For about a year, she lived in a very nice hospice house near her home.  After she moved into hospice care, she pretty much told her family to pillage her house.  We were given that same invitation last summer when we visited.  And we came home with three items: a placemat with a German mealtime prayer printed on it, a little bell, and a sugar bowl.  These three items look insignificant and unimportant to anyone else, but in our family, they are our connection to Grandma.

Table wine.  Unleavened bread.  That’s all the Lord’s Supper appeared to be.  But a closer examination of Jesus’ words reveals it to be so much more.  In fact, the analogy of Grandma’s sugar bowl pales in comparison, because the sugar bowl only reminds us about Grandma, but these simple elements on the altar actually present us with the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood.  You cannot get clearer than the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.”  St. Paul makes that point clear in the Second Lesson for tonight’s service: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation (or “communion”) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation (or “communion”) in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).  If I were delivering a theological essay, perhaps some time defending the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood and refuting some of the commonly held alternative opinions would be appropriate.  But tonight we simply want to look at the gift Jesus gives in the midst of all the junk of Maundy Thursday evening.  Tonight we simply want to take Jesus’ words at face value.  We marvel at the gift that he gives us.  We stand in awe that the meal that recalls his sacrifice also presents us with the very body and blood that won our forgiveness on the cross!

II.

A special day occurs in your life — Valentine’s Day, wedding anniversary, Christmas, or some other day where gift-giving is socially expected.  For the sake of discussion, let’s say that it’s a couple’s anniversary, and the husband comes home with a bouquet of flowers.  Will his wife say, “Now, honey, that was kind of you, but you already told me that you love me when you left for work this morning.  You don’t need to show me too.  Your words were enough.”  I doubt that!  Pure pragmatism kills romance!  No, we fully understand that a couple will show their love to one another in multiple ways — with words, with a kiss or hug or some other gesture, with flowers or chocolates or some other visible, tangible gift.

Maybe the gift of Jesus’ own body and blood given us in the Lord’s Supper seems redundant.  Why bother?  God has already given us 66 books in the Scriptures that sufficiently tell us how he has forgiven us through our Savior’s sacrifice on the cross.  He surely doesn’t need to tell us again.  Surely hearing his forgiveness is enough!

new-testament-illustrations-050Perhaps we should not let our pure pragmatism stifle the generous grace of God!  Listen as he not only gives us his Son’s body and blood but also gives us forgiveness in a new and special way.  “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’  Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

God knows.  He knows how the memory of our past sins and pride haunts us.  He knows how we can lay awake at night because our conscience torments us with our own blunders and foolishness.  He knows how our sinful nature is prone to forget his Word when it is convenient and then doubt his forgiveness when we most need it.  God knows our inborn tendency to run away from him, and he knows our nagging fear that this time he cannot possibly forgive us!

And those doubts and fears are not entirely unreasonable.  Given our sin and pride, our blunders and foolishness, our doubts and fears, and our sinful tendency to run the other way, God would have every right to not only withhold his Sacrament from us now, but to withhold his love and grace from us for all eternity!

But he doesn’t!  He does not withhold his love or grace but sends his Son into this world at this moment to embody his love and grace all the way to the cross.  There at the cross Jesus won forgiveness for the sinful nature you were born with and every last sin you would commit until the day of your death.  There at the cross the forgiveness of God is embodied in grace that literally loved you to death — and that death was the death of God’s one and only Son!  And here at the altar is not only the body and blood of our Lord, but with it a real and tangible expression of God’s forgiveness to you, dear Christian friend.  “Take and eat; this is my body. … Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  This is not just a general announcement of forgiveness to the assembly (though there is value in that, too), but it is given to you personally.  This is not only forgiveness that you hear, but forgiveness you can literally taste.  This is not merely a vague concept, but a personal gift delivered to you through our Savior’s Supper.

III.

There is a fairly common cultural phenomenon surrounding the sharing of a meal.  When my parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary last summer, we invited our family and their friends to a party, which featured a meal for all who came.  On Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the greatest and grandest event of our faith, we gather together before the service for Easter breakfast.  When you want to get to know someone better and build a good relationship with them, you invite them over for lunch and converse around the dinner table.  And this kind of thinking was certainly common in the culture of Jesus’ day.  Sharing a meal was a strong symbol of your friendship and camaraderie.  In fact, it was considered all but a crime in the Jewish culture if you shared a meal with someone and then later betrayed their friendship.

Given that background, it comes as no surprise that Jesus describes heaven, the final gathering of all of God’s people for all eternity, in terms of a meal.  In more than one of his parables, Jesus compared heaven to a banquet.  And here, as Jesus institutes the new covenant meal of God’s forgiveness, he tells us that it is a preview of the great banquet awaiting us in heaven.  “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Maybe we can appreciate Jesus’ point and picture of heaven a little better with some questions that will connect the dots.  Who is in heaven?  Only people who are holy in God’s eyes.  How can sinful people be holy in God’s eyes?  Not by anything they do, but through faith alone in Christ’s work.  What does faith in Christ give us?  It gives us the forgiveness of sins (something bad is taken away) and the righteousness of Jesus (something good is given us).  And what do these gifts give us?  These gifts mean that we are one again with God.  We are holy in his eyes.  We receive heaven, the culmination of the forgiveness of sins.  So what better way to express our closeness to God than for Jesus to give us this sacred meal that delivers his forgiveness to our lips!  And what better way to picture the permanent and eternal closeness we will enjoy with God than for Jesus to say that this Supper is a little preview of the great feast that awaits us after this life and after this world passes away.  “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Conclusion

There is so much that happened on the first Maundy Thursday.  There is so much we could discuss in worship.  In fact, the progression of our service tonight is “shuffled” a bit to reflect the sequence of events on Maundy Thursday.  The sermon at the outset recalls Jesus’ long discourse with his disciples at the beginning of the evening.  The Sacrament follows our usual worship outline, and then we close worship with the solemn stripping of the altar, a rite that recalls Jesus’ abandonment in Gethsemane by the disciples.

As I think about the sequence of the first Maundy Thursday, I can’t help but think about how big the junk heap really was — the disciples’ pride in the Upper Room, Judas’ betrayal, and the disciples’ cowardly abandonment in Gethsemane.  Maundy Thursday really is a metaphorical junk heap.  But in the midst of it is this jewel, this unexpected and undeserved gem, this sacred meal where Jesus not only forgives us but gives us the body and blood that won our forgiveness in the first place!

As you think about your own life, you see a junk heap that’s just as big as the junk heap the disciples produced on Maundy Thursday.  You see your sin and shame and shortcomings.  You know better than anyone else the actions that ought to separate you from God for today and for eternity.  But in the midst of our own junk heap of sin, Jesus comes with the gem of his Supper.  He comes with forgiveness and healing to souls that are condemned and dying without him.  What a tremendous gift!  What tremendous forgiveness!  What tremendous assurance!

My fellow Christians, in light of this gem in our Savior’s Supper, make the prayer we have prayed throughout this Lenten celebration your prayer tonight and always.  Dear Father in heaven, forgive us!  Forgive us through our Savior’s Supper!  What a gem this Supper is!  What a blessing that this gem is meant for you!  Amen.

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