Maundy Thursday Sermon (2024)

Maundy Thursday
Texts: John 13:1-17, 31b-35;
Ex 14; 1 Cor 11:23-26

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 14:20):


I’d like to begin with a rather bold claim. What we do here tonight — something that followers of Jesus have done for two thousand years now since that night before he died — what we do here tonight is very much related to our American experiment with democracy. I believe that some of the fruit produced by the Christian practice of Holy Communion has finally yielded the Democratic ideal posed by our nation at its beginning when we proclaim that all people are created equal. Equality. Every person being given an equal chance to succeed and flourish in a community of friends and citizens. That’s what our nation strives to be, and that’s what this night is about.

First, if I’m to persuade you of my bold claim, we need to look more closely at the texts before us tonight, beginning with St. Paul’s version of the words which institute this holy meal.1 They are words close to what we will say in a few minutes before we participate in the meal ourselves. My body broken for you. My blood poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me. The context for Paul reminding the Corinthians of these words from Jesus is his need to scold them for wrongful practice of the meal. It has gotten back to him that there’s been a split between the rich and the poor at the Corinthian church. The rich come to the meal with plenty of food and drink of their own and then overindulge themselves, while also failing to share what they have with the poor. Paul wants to know how they can call what they’re doing the “Lord’s Supper.”

Here’s the verse that leads into our reading tonight along with the beginning of reading: “What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread . . . .” (1 Cor 11:22-23). We know the rest so well. Jesus gave up his body and shed his blood for us. If we are to eat a meal together, and call it the “Lord’s Supper,” then we must do so in the same spirit of loving, mutual service — willing to give up our lives for one another if necessary. The wealthy can no longer hoard their own stuff in this community of friends which Jesus has established through this Holy Sacrament.

The point is the same in John’s account of the Last Supper.2 Strangely, he even skips the part about sharing bread and wine and instead focuses on Jesus’s act of washing his disciples’ feet. It’s a symbol for what the meal is all about. And the heart of the footwashing scene, certainly the most dramatic part, is the confrontation between Jesus and Peter. Peter won’t have anything to do with his master and teacher washing his feet. Jesus the Messiah carrying out the menial act of a lowly servant? In other words, Peter understands what’s at stake with what Jesus is doing: he is turning the way of the world upside-down. In the real world, wealthy, powerful people are in charge and the people on the margins of power serve them. The way of the world is inequality. The point of hoping for the Messiah for Peter wasn’t to change that fact but simply to have our guy in charge. In a world where inequality clearly rules for centuries and centuries, the best one can hope for is to have our guy in charge. But with this symbolic action of washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus seemed to be signaling a very different kind of world. His way of being in charge seemed to be pushing toward a radical, fundamental change in the world. He seemed to be signaling that what he’s about as Messiah is to change the given reality of inequality itself.

Let’s step back for just a moment and think about the nature of serving. Washing someone’s feet is an obvious act of serving. Through the centuries, we have read this passage and quickly come to the conclusion, “Hey, Jesus means for us to live lives of loving service.” That’s true enough. But Peter understands the deeper implications immediately. In a world where inequality is the norm, lives of service generally happen along the lines of unequal power and wealth. The less powerful are expected to serve the powerful. And when the powerful occasionally undertake an act of service, a kind benevolence, it is usually an act intended to make them look good. The inequality itself doesn’t change a bit. Peter knows this. He doesn’t want any part of trying to challenge it. But Jesus quickly makes him understand that, if Peter wants to participate in his Messiahship, then Peter must accept the radical change toward equality. Inequality might be the way of human kingdoms, but it is not the way of God’s kingdom. When his heavenly Father is in charge, that means we are all God’s children, and God doesn’t play favorites. (Peter realizes this anew a couple years later in our Easter reading on Sunday.) We are all equal in God’s sight. And so living lives of loving service means to genuinely do so as equals.

Jesus tells all the disciples that they will come to understand more fully. He follows up the footwashing with one and only one commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. If we were to read further in this address to the disciples on the night before his death, we’d read things like this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:13-15).

Do you see? The ultimate act of service is to lay down one’s life for friends. Why friends? Because friends are equal. The serving can be mutual instead of part of the world of inequality and wealth. Jesus, their Lord, begins to call them friends because the kingdom he has come to establish from God is based on friendship. It’s based on equality. It’s based on all people being created equal. All of God’s children having an equal opportunity to flourish. How? Because we are a community friends committed to helping one another in the way of our Lord. We are equals committed to serving one another. The fundamental principle behind the Lord’s Supper is that everyone is welcome to join in, because we are all created equal.

Which brings us to the great American experiment. If we trust that God’s kingdom has been growing in this world ever since Jesus established it, like a tiny mustard seed growing into a mighty bush, then might we understand the American experiment with democracy to be fruit from this tree? When the Declaration of Independence declares that “All men are created equal,” is this finally a glimpse, at least, of the Holy Communion we celebrate tonight? We must qualify it right away, of course, since the word “men” was not inclusive. Our founding fathers thought women to be inferior, not equals. They also endorsed slavery of African peoples and thought Native Americans to be “savages.” It was a rocky start to living into that principle, to say the least.

Less than a hundred years later we had to fight a brutal civil war to potentially take a step forward, with the abolition of slavery. At the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln put forward the hope for “a new birth of freedom.” Lincoln very much spoke in the language of equality.3 But Lincoln would be assassinated, and it would be one step forward and several steps backward. The next major steps forward wouldn’t come until after we fought a terrible war in Europe and the Pacific against fascism, the very opposite of democracy. In the aftermath of that war, we finally got down to the business of granting more significant rights to women, and to people of color, and to those who are differently abled. More recently, we’ve struggled to move forward with rights to people of varying gender and sexual orientations. We are finally on the brink of living more truthfully into the principle that all people are created equal.

I believe this is a pivotal year for our nation. The rich and powerful would largely prefer that we step backward into inequality again. They like the status quo of being in charge. We have another election this Tuesday. I believe that our grand and wonderful experiment with democracy will be on the ballot for all the elections this year, climaxing in November. In the ballot box, we are all exactly equal. Each person has one vote. Will we choose to move decidedly forward, or fall precipitously backwards?

Let me end by saying that I bet you didn’t expect a sermon on the importance of democracy on Holy Thursday. But I fervently believe that the reign of God which was launched through the events we remember during these three days is all about calling others to live into the creed that all people are created equal. It’s what Jesus gave his life for us to understand and to embrace — that we are called to lives of loving service among friends, among equals. No one is called to positions of power to lord over others and to dominate others as if they are superior and deserve to have others serve them. Jesus told his disciples that they are to wash one another’s feet in mutual service to one another. He lays down his life for his friends the next day, leaving behind one commandment, one law above all others: love one another as he has loved us. If we can call our family and friends and fellow citizens to join us in that calling, just maybe the American experiment can finally find the success envisioned by those words, All people are created equal. All are God’s children deserving an equal chance to live and to have life abundantly. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, March 28, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 14:20):


1. Some of insights into these Eucharistic texts derive from my own study of the subject, first published as “Holy Communion as the Means of Grace to Serve,” Currents in Theology and Mission, Vol. 21, No. 5 (October 1994), 356-364; and then a second version as “Holy Communion: Altar Sacrament for Making a Sacrificial Sin Offering, or Table Sacrament for Nourishing a Life of Sacrifice?”, Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Vol. 2 (Spring 1996), 201-221.

2. I owe the basic insights into this text of John 13, especially the reflections on the relationship of serving to equality — as well as the inspiration for this sermon — to Sandra Schneiders’ essay “A Community of Friends (John 13:1-20),” chapter 11 in Written That you May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Herder & Herder, 1999, 2003), 184-201.

3. Lincoln’s language of equality was recently impressed upon me anew in reading Heather Cox Richardson’s brilliant histories of America’s struggle to achieve the equality of it democratic ideal, in both How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (Oxford UP, 2020), and Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America (Viking, 2023).

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