Maundy Thursday

Readings: Exodus 12:1–14 | 1 Corinthians 11:23–32 | John 13:1–15

Text: John 13:1-17, 34-35

This Maundy Thursday, I want to address two things: The connection between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover, and why this night we read about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and commanding them to love one another.

In delivering His people from slavery in Egypt, the Lord could have done it any number of ways.  He had chosen nine plagues to display His judgment on Egypt and the false gods.  But on this tenth, He did something unique.  He didn’t just kill off the firstborn sons of Egypt and preserve the Israelite sons.  He gave them something to do: Take a lamb, slaughter it and paint your doorposts with its blood.  Then roast it whole with fire and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  This is the Lord’s Passover for Israel as they came out of Egypt.

But if we were to ask what the main thing in the Passover was—not that the parts of it are meant to be set against each other—it would be the blood of the lamb.  “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you.”  The blood of the lamb in God’s Passover, marked His people.

And this is the foundation upon which the upper room with the disciples is built.  Even though we don’t read the account from the holy evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, or St. Paul, the Lord’s first Passover sets the stage for what the Lord-in-the-Flesh institutes that night.  God has provided a lamb, as He promised Abraham (Gen. 22:1-14), one lamb for all the people.  A lamb without blemish, conceived and born by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary—free from sin so that He might free His people from their sin.  He shall be killed before the oncoming darkness—“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” (Matt. 27:45)  And it shall be His blood that shall be a mark over the heads of His people to save them from plague and destruction.

As for you, you shall eat the flesh of God’s Lamb who has been roasted as a sin offering.  At some later point, not recorded in Scripture, it became the custom to drink wine commemorating God’s four promises in Exodus 6: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:6-7)  The cup of wine was often a sign of judgment (Ps. 11:6, Isa. 51:17, Ezek. 23:31-33), but it was also one of salvation, as the faithful sing, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:13)

But the Lord on earth embraced this practice and endowed it with significance when He took the 3rd cup, the “I will redeem you” cup, and said, “Drink of it, all of you, this cup is the New Testament in My blood.”  Lamb’s flesh, roasted and eaten, Lamb’s blood, painted on doorposts, now given to you—“Take, eat; Take, drink.”  This is the meal which our God-in-the-flesh instituted for us to remember His mighty act of deliverance at Calvary.

“Do this in remembrance of me.” These words adorn many an altar-table dedicated to this holy Meal.   The Lord commanded Israel to do the Passover feast in memory of that first Passover and Exodus.  However, this is not the memory of our fleeting and fickle minds.  It’s akin to when it says in the hymnal at the Invocation, “The sign of the cross T may be made by all in remembrance of their Baptism.” (LSB 151).  I have no cognitive memory of my baptism when I was three weeks old, nor would anyone else who was baptized as an infant.  The biblical way of remembrance is for faith to lay hold of what God as done, and for that mighty act to be applied to the present.

The Israelites were told, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place.” (Ex. 13:3)   Well, by the third generation, none of them would be able to recount that day.  Yet, the Lord said, “This day shall be for you a remembrance day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations” (Ex. 12:14). 

Remembrance began with God.  God remembered Noah in the ark; He remembered the sons of Israel in Egypt.  And when He remembered, it meant that He saw His people through the unilateral covenant He made with them—I will bring you out, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, I will take you to be my people.  And when He calls on His people to remember, He is bidding them to see Him through His covenant promise.  This remembrance is even It even applies to “Remember the Day of Sabbath, in order that it may be holy.”[1]  That’s also how, even Israel or individuals had sinned, when they repented, they would beseech God to remember His steadfast love—His faithfulness to His covenant [Ps. 25:6-7].

In the same way, all who are in Christ, beneficiaries of the New Covenant, eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ often, in remembrance of what that covenant is: His Body sacrificed on the cross, His blood poured out for the sins of the world (including all of ours, too!).  This is the meal of our perfect and true Passover Lamb, which take His eternal covenant—“I will be their God, and they shall be my people…I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:33-34)

On that night in which He was betrayed, He taught His disciples many things to bring them from the covenant under Moses to the New covenant in His blood.  One of those lessons came as an expression of His divine remembrance: “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper…Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper.”  He got down on His holy hands and knees and did the menial labor of a servant.  Then, He said about it, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

This is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ultimately remembered His covenant to bless all the families of the earth: He put Himself in the lowest place, the Lord who serves His rebellious enemies, the righteous saving the unrighteous.

At this point, the objection is raised that Jesus commanded foot-washing, so if we take the Lord’s Supper seriously and give it literal interpretation, why do we not literally wash one another’s feet?  Good question, but foot-washing and the Eucharist are two different topics.  Foot-washing has no Old Testament anti-type, or precedent, and no covenant promise attached to it.  If Christians choose to reenact this, well and good because He said, “I have given you an example.”  But, the bigger message isn’t the literal scrubbing of toes, but what is said in verses 34-35:

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Rather than get hung up on whether we are doing our most exact obedience, the Lord is here commanding something that none of us can do apart from Him.  None of us can love as He has loved, unless we are those who know how the Lord has remembered His gracious promises toward sinners.  None but the Lord’s people, redeemed and marked by the sign of the blood of the Lamb of God, and having a living faith in those things, can remember God and see Him through His covenant.  And remembering our God through His gracious covenant—that God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself, who tasted death to save man from it [2 Cor. 5:19; Heb. 2:14]—we also look at the rest of the human family without disdain or distaste.  If God, according to His own promise, came to serve even the lowest (even us!), how fitting it is that we should love even the lowest and meanest.  That’s not just a dirty, mentally unstable homeless person—that is a human being created and redeemed by God.  That’s not just a bristly, proud atheist professor—that is a person whom the Lord had in mind as He gave up His final breath.

This do in remembrance of Me—the eating and drinking for your grace and strength, the loving of all mankind.  In the Name + of Jesus.  Amen.


[1][1] My own translation from the Hebrew, reflecting the construction of what is normally translated “Sabbath day,” as if Sabbath inextricably happened only on the 7th day.  Also, the preposition-verb for “to make holy” is in the passive voice, indicating that the Remembering is to be done for the purpose of letting the Day of Sabbath be holy for them.

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