Maundy Thursday Sermon (2001)

Maundy Thursday
Text: John 13


It is an extra special night for eight of our young people, the night of their first communion. We spent some time learning more about the precious gifts received through this holy sacrament in our first communion class. You are a great group of students, and I was happy to be your teacher.

Did you know that on that night almost two thousand years ago that Jesus held a first communion class of sorts with his disciples? It was their first communion, too — it had to be since it was the first communion ever offered! But I bet you didn’t know that it was a class, too. Sure. In a few minutes we’ll read St. John’s version of the story, in which Jesus does something rather strange: he grabs a towel and a basin of water, and he washes his disciples feet. That was quite shocking, because who do you think normally had the job of washing the guests feet? It wasn’t the host. It was usually the host’s servant or slave. So why was Jesus down on his hands and knees washing his disciples feet? Here’s how it ends:

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord– and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. — John 13:12-17

Do you see what I mean about it being a class? Jesus is trying to teach his disciples something, isn’t he? He says that he is setting an example for them. He’s showing them that they need to live a life of serving other people.

In our class time last week, I began with the same three bottles I did several weeks ago in the Children’s Sermon. There were differently liquids in the bottles: apple juice, a healthy drink; soda pop, a junk-food drink; and glass cleaner, a poison. What I try to teach with these three things that you could drink is that you have learned what is good and bad for your bodies….

And it’s similar with your spirits. As a human being you have a spiritual side, too, and there is also such a thing as heathy food, junk food, and poison when it comes to feeding our spirits. You did a very good job in talking about these various kinds of ways of feeding our spirits. Do you remember some of them? [Recount some class discussion.]

When it comes to our spirits, though, people have turned to religion through the ages to learn about what’s healthy for our spirits. But there’s been one problem. I’ll call it the problem of “sacrifice” for short. What Jesus was teaching his disciples about in that first first communion class almost two thousand years ago had very much to do with this problem of sacrifice. His example of washing their feet was meant to turn the whole thing about sacrifice around. Here’s what I mean.

Jesus has turned the whole meaning of sacrifice upside-down! What do we mean by it now? We mean that we give up something ourselves. Often, we give something up on behalf of others. When a mother or father is said to make a sacrifice for their children, for example, we mean that he or she gave up something for them. They put their children first.

But that’s not how sacrifice worked in the past! Not even close! No, can you believe that mothers and fathers used to sacrifice their children by killing them on an altar to God? In the Bible, we see that almost happen once. Abraham almost killed his son Isaac on an altar to God, but God told him, “Stop! Don’t do that!” And from that day on, the people of Israel no longer did such things. But many other peoples across the earth have. So you can see that sacrifice has become something completely different. It used to be that you put yourself first and spilled someone else’s blood on an altar to God. Jesus turned that completely around and taught us to put other people first and, if anyone’s blood gets spilled, let it be your own. That’s the kind of sacrifice he taught us. He taught us self-sacrifice. He taught us to put others first and to serve one another. That’s part of what he was doing in that first first communion class with his disciples.

The other part of his teaching came with the meal itself, of course. It’s so familiar to us. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Do you realize that he was setting an example of the right kind of sacrifice again? If the washing of their feet like a servant wasn’t enough, then what was coming next would surely help them to understand. Saying that the bread is his body is telling them, and us, exactly what he was about to do. He was about to take the blessing of life that his heavenly father had given him, and he was about to let his body be broken on the cross for us. He was about to give his life for us. Rather than spilling someone else’s blood to save us, he let his own blood be poured out for us. That’s when the old time sacrifice got completely turned around into self-sacrifice. Jesus was teaching us about how to live our lives, how to have healthy spirits. Every time we share this meal of Christ’s body and blood we are nourished for lives of loving service, for lives of putting others first.

Is this still important today? After all, people don’t kill other people on altars anymore. We don’t do that old form of sacrifice anymore. Or do we? We might not kill people on altars, but are there ways in which we can live our lives putting ourselves first, no matter what might be happening to our neighbors? Sure! That’s still a real temptation, isn’t it? To live lives of putting ourselves first? Of trying to be first? Of grasping onto what we’ve got and trying to keep it for ourselves? Jesus was talking about that old form of sacrifice, too, when he said things like, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Or, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What are those temptations today? I would sum it up in one word: “consumerism.” Here we are talking about eating again! About what we consume. What are we asked to consume these days for our spirits? All kinds of toys and amusements. All kinds of material things to spend our money on: big houses, nice cars, new clothes. We are asked to feed our spirits with material things, lots of them. We are to spend on ourselves. That’s consumerism. It’s the old form of sacrifice in which you put yourself first and hope that some other poor sucker is the one who loses out.

So Jesus comes to us again tonight, to feed our spirits with a different way of life. He blesses the bread, breaks it, and gives it away to us. Just as he did with his body on that Good Friday so many years ago. He took the blessing of his life from God, let himself be broken, and gave himself away for us. And do you know what? He’s able to do it again for us tonight because he is also our risen Lord. God gave him his life back over and over again so that he can keep feeding us with the power of life that never quits, so that we can learn to also take the blessings of our lives, risk being broken in this world, and giving ourselves to one another in love.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 12, 2001

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