Maundy Thursday

Text: Luke 22:7-20
Date: Maundy Thursday
+ 4/5/07

     It’s been a long night here in the Upper Room. During our Lenten midweek services we have heard the words of our Lord that he spoke to us that night in which he was betrayed from the Gospel of John, much of it standing just before heading out the door into this night. This night, however, is set aside to commemorate two things: first, the mandatum novum, the new commandment “that you love one another” from which this day receives its name “Maundy” Thursday, and demonstrated in our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet. Secondly, this night is the anniversary of the greatest mystery: the institution of the sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood, the sacrament of the altar, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist. It is a mystery because while we can and are to know, acknowledge and believe that Jesus meant what he said when he said, “this is my body, this is my blood,” still we cannot explain it. Those bent on explaining this mystery most often end up not believing it aright! But those who simply hear and boldly believe the words of Christ truly receive what he says, his holy Body and his sacred Blood, and the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation that has been purchased for us by his holy sacrifice on the cross.

     It is because of the seeming contradiction between what our Lord says he gives into our mouths in this sacrament and what our eyes behold that we need to learn the language of faith. That language is best taught in the little catechism. Human speculation begins talking about bread and wine. The faith of the Small Catechism, however, begins with the most important thing, namely the words “body” and “blood.” “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of secondary and nearly incidental importance is the fact that the elements are also mentioned. “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under bread and wine.” It is important to speak “body and blood” language, for this is the language of faith. “Bread and wine” language emphasizes only the earthly side and therefore dangerously ignores what is most important. Furthermore, as it is important how we speak about the sacrament, so also is it important how we act and how we handle the Body and Blood of Christ, namely, with great reverence and special care.

     True or False? “The Body and Blood of Christ on the altar at Holy Communion is the same, true and substantial Body and Blood than once hung on the cross.” I remember, after thoroughly catechizing an 8th grade class at Trinity Lutheran School in Jackson, MI, when I asked this question one bold student in the front row answered, “Well, it’s not THAT real!” What a wonderful moment demonstrating the mystery and reality for faith.

     When we “do this” in remembrance of Jesus, we are careful to do what he did and say what he said that we don’t change either the meaning or the validity of this sacrament, because it is his Word that is most important. It is his Body and Blood not because we have done it right but simply and solely because he says so. Therefore the communicant needs to hear him say so. And we must use bread and wine because that’s what he did at that final Passover Seder.

     It is interesting how our Lutheran Confessions, and therefore Lutherans, will not be pinned down to “a moment” when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ but rather speaks more vaguely of the whole “use” of the sacrament—from the setting aside of the elements, to prayer and the Words of Institution, and the distribution of the elements to be consumed by the Faithful. The entire “use” can take only minutes, or maybe an hour or more, or, as is our practice in these three holy days, nearly a whole day as the consecrated elements are reserved tonight to be received during our Tre Ore or Three Hour commemoration of Our Lord’s sacrifice and death tomorrow on Good Friday. It reflects how Martin Luther was not interested in wasting time trying to explain how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. He defended the Real Presence against the fanatics who wanted to explain away the Body and Blood of Christ simply by pointing to the word of Christ. On the other hand his criticism of the Pope’s invention of the so-called doctrine of Transubstantiation to explain the Real Presence was mainly because the Pope said you had to believe the topsy-turvy philosophical maneuverings used to explain it. As a matter of faith and the Word, it is beyond explanation other than the power of God’s Word and faith that believes what the Lord says.

     Jesus commands us to do this because the benefit of the sacrament is the giving of forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. If anyone asks you how bodily eating and drinking can do such great things, they are, of course, asking the wrong question. Because it’s certainly not just the eating and drinking that do these things, but the Word attached to the eating and drinking that conveys what they say, “the forgiveness of sins.” Therefore, that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, for the words “for you” require all hearts to believe.

     An important aspect especially for our day is also the practice of closed or fellowship communion. It is because it is a matter of faith in the words of Christ, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” that only Christians who have been instructed are to participate in this sacrament. For, as St. Paul clearly teaches, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” [1 Cor. 11:27-29 (ESV)]. Any exclusivity on our part, of course, is seen by the world as loveless bigotry. But it is precisely out of love that we are to guard against anyone receiving the sacrament to their judgment.

     So let us continually examine ourselves in light of our reception of this sacrament. Such examination confesses, first, that we are sinners who have not kept the Ten Commandments. As such we confess that we deserve nothing but God’s wrath and punishment because of our sins. Wherefore our only hope for salvation is in Jesus Christ, who died for us, shedding his blood for us on the Cross. It is here, in this sacrament, that we may learn to believe that no creature could make satisfaction for our sins but Christ alone; that we learn to be horrified by our sins and regard them as great as the price Christ had to offer; that we learn to believe that Christ died for my own sin out of great love, and also learn from him to love God and my neighbor.

          Finally, since this sacrament is such a fellowship of the faithful, it is of greatest comfort especially for those who have lost loved ones who died in the Lord. For of them we say, they are with the Lord. Therefore, since the Lord is with us in this sacrament, it is precisely here that we are also most closely with also those who have gone before us with the sign of faith. Let us this night therefore adore the Savior “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” the Lord who is pleased to be ever with us in this sacrament and devoutly hail him veiled here that we may gaze upon his unveiled glory and see his face in glory everlasting.