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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Maundy Thursday 04/17/2014

The scripture readings for Maundy Thursday are the same every year. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you remember them from year to year like you do the Christmas story, for example, but when you do hear these readings there’s probably at least a degree of familiarity and for sure you recognize the words of the second lesson because they are pretty much word for word part of what is said every time communion is celebrated. “This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” These “words of institution” as they are called are familiar to us and they must have already been familiar to the first century Corinthians Paul wrote to as well.

What might be less familiar though, is the context in which or to which Paul included these familiar words. In his letters, Paul was always addressing something that was going on in the community he wrote to, and in this case he was addressing divisions and factions in the church. It’s hard to imagine isn’t it, that there could be divisions and factions in the church. From Paul’s perspective though, one of the things that was happening was that these divisions were affecting how Holy Communion was being celebrated, Holy Communion then as it is now, central in what Christians did when they gathered for worship.

As is true in most cultures, the Greco-Roman world of the first century had a pecking order; there was a hierarchy of status with people of wealth and power at the top followed by…the rest. In that culture though, this kind of social stratification was to the point where if you had guests for dinner, those of high status would be served better food and drink than everyone else. It’s kind of like what happens in air travel these days; if you fly you’re familiar with this.

Apparently though, in the church at Corinth, this kind of thing was even carrying over into the celebration of Holy Communion with some people over indulging, eating and drinking more than everyone else, and Paul was upset about it. For him the Lord’s Supper was about the unity of the church and everyone being equally dependent on God’s grace. It wasn’t a place to be making social distinctions.

Paul didn’t have the power to eliminate this kind of social division in society as a whole, but he did have influence in the Corinthian church. What he could do was to remind them of the one in whose name they gathered and remind them of what he represented. It sometimes is noted that Paul has very little to say about Jesus’ teachings in his letters, but the thinking is that he just assumed people knew those teachings already so he didn’t have to say much about them and his response in situations like this are evidence that that is true. For Paul, communion wasn’t the place for social distinctions because Jesus consistently challenged barriers that divided people. Celebration of his supper then should be representative of the unity he proclaimed and lived. To celebrate it otherwise was to make a mockery of it.

For the people of Corinth, and for us, Paul’s reprimand is a reminder that all rituals, including this one, do carry deep meaning if done in a worthy manner; if done carelessly though, unworthily, the meaning is cheapened or an entirely different meaning can be conveyed. Rituals do have power.

Maundy Thursday is perhaps the most ritually loaded worship service of the year starting with individual absolution and forgiveness, followed by foot washing, then Holy Communion before we end with the stripping of the altar. None of these require a whole lot of explanation because, similar to Paul’s assumption about the Corinthians, the explanation is already ingrained in us. We already have the story of Jesus, the words of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus in our minds. Because of that, these are all rituals that mostly need to be experienced.

The name that we give this day, this night might tell us all we need to know about what underlies the rituals. It’s called Maundy Thursday from the Latin “mandatum” meaning commandment. The underlying focus of this night then is the command Jesus gave to love one another as he has loved us. It’s the love of Jesus that grants us forgiveness; it’s the love of Jesus that assures us of his presence and his forgiveness as we celebrate Holy Communion. The depth of his love is demonstrated as he assumes the role of the most menial of servants and washes the feet of his disciples and the depth of his love is revealed again as he empties himself of divine power and authority and submits to his arrest and passion, an emptying that we watch and experience as the altar and sanctuary are stripped. Jesus’ love for us is at the center of all of these things.

It’s this kind of love that Jesus calls us to emulate in our own relationships. That’s what we’re called to but what we know is that we are much more like the crowd of last Sunday that shouts “Hosanna!” one day and “Crucify him!” a few days later. Some days we do pretty well loving others as Jesus has loved us, other days, not so well. Actually, for most of us this loving and failure to love is probably more moment to moment than it is day to day.

With all of what we do starting tonight and then during the next three days, we observe, but we also participate and as we do so, Jesus is revealed to us, especially in the depth of his love. As knowledge of that love is made known to us, it also makes us aware that we are participants in this drama in ways that we might wish were otherwise. Honest observation causes us to see that we are part of the crowd; we’re part of the crowd that turns on Jesus. We can’t just point fingers at Judas or at Caiaphas and the other Jewish leaders or at Pilate and the Roman government. We’re part of the crowd that lurks behind all these events, but, because of the love of Jesus that also lurks behind and under all these events, we’re also part of another crowd, the crowd for whom Jesus experienced these things.

It is as part of both crowds that we gather around his table on this night in which he instituted the sacred meal that brings his presence to us. We gather together, without distinction, as members of the crowd, both individually and collectively in need of grace and forgiveness. It’s grace and forgiveness that we know is available to us because of the love of Jesus.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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