Maundy Thursday

Last revised: April 19, 2024
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RCL: Exodus 12: 1-4, (5-10) 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
RoCa: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-15

Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation

In 2024, with forty years of preaching behind me, I wasn’t expecting to find something new to say on Maundy Thursday. Then I read Sandra Schneiders‘ essay “A Community of Friends (John 13:1-20)” — ch. 11 in Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Herder & Herder, 2003). What a revelation! She focuses on the encounter between Jesus and Peter, coupled with a phenomenology of serving, to mine the deeper meaning of what Jesus is doing in washing the feet of his disciples. In a world where inequality reigns, service is generally a function of the unequal relations of power. For a life of truly mutual service, it must take place among equals, among friends. Sure enough, what does Jesus do later in the Last Supper? He names them the disciples as “friends.” In washing his disciples feet, Jesus isn’t just modeling a life of serving but a life of mutual serving in a Community of Friends.

In the first part of 2024 I had read Heather Cox Richardson’s brilliant histories of America’s struggle to achieve the equality of its 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). Under the threat of losing our democracy, which was part of the reality of 2024, the insights of these two scholars became the fertile soul for a brand new Maundy Thursday sermon: “Holy Communion and the Democratic Ideal.”

* * * * *

Is the Institution of the Lord’s Supper the instituting of a new religion? Or of a new religious practice offered for the redemption of sacrificial religions? I think the answer to these questions challenge Christianity qua religion to see itself as having lapsed backed into a sacrificial religion in need of redeeming from its primary sacraments and its understanding of the events of this most Holy Week. Here are my thoughts on this crucial matter in a 2016 Theology & Peace blog: “Holy Thursday Reflections: Instituting a New Religious Practice, Not a New Religion.”

The Gospel of New Creation for this day reprises Lent 5B from a different angle: Jesus came to establish a new Way of being human, not a new religion.

Exodus 12: 1-4, (5-10) 11-14


1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, ch. 3, “Moses and the Exodus,” gives an insightful reading from the perspective of Mimetic Theory.

2. Renè Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Girard places the Passover in the broader context of a movement away from sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures:

Many of the scenes from Genesis and Exodus are apparently concerned, on the historical level, with a state of transition from a world in which human sacrifice was practised on a regular basis, particularly the sacrifice of the first-born, to a world in which the only legitimate blood rites are circumcision and the burning of animal victims (Jacob’s blessing, the sacrifice of Abraham, the circumcision of Moses’s son, and so on).

There is no lack of texts to back up this hypothesis. From our standpoint its advantage is that it allows us to view the Bible permeated by a single, dynamic movement away from sacrifice. We can distinguish a number of very different stages — differing in their content and the results they produced — which are nonetheless identical in general bearing and form. This form always involves the preliminary disintegration of a pre-existing system, a catastrophic crisis that ends happily when the victimage mechanism provides a mediation, and the subsequent establishment of a sacrificial system that became more and more humane. The first stage is the transition from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice in the so-called patriarchal period; the second, in Exodus, is the institution of Passover, which accentuates the common meal rather than the burnt sacrifice and can hardly claim to be a sacrifice at all in the proper sense of the term. The third stage is represented by the prophets’ wish to renounce all forms of sacrifice, and this is only carried out in the Gospels. (pp. 239-40)

3. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories: specifically on the Exodus in Story 1, “From Oppression to Justice,” Lesson 2, “Exodus,” pp. 56-61 (link to an excerpt); interpreting the Exodus/Passover in light of the Last Supper in Story 4, “Wrath to Compassion,” Lesson 3, “Cup of Wrath,” pp. 138-45.

In the first treatment, Bartlett highlights how the Exodus is a breakthrough into thinking about a God who is on the side of the oppressed; and yet the narrative remains trapped in sacred violence, interpreting plagues as an act of God. He offers a nonviolent reading of the Exodus.

The second place where the Exodus is prominent is right on point for this night. Bartlett examines the “cup of wrath” through the Hebrew scriptures and then shows how Jesus transforms it, especially in the Eucharist. He explains the tradition of the Passover cup — four cups, really — and how Jesus changes the cup of wrath to its opposite, a cup of nonviolence and forgiveness. Jesus indicates that he is fasting from the Passover meal “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” I highly recommend reading this Lesson before preaching on Maundy Thursday.

4. Brian Zahnd, Postcards from Babylon, pp. 55-56, and p. 86, where Pharaoh’s army is an example of military horses vs. Jesus riding on a donkey on Palm Sunday, in chap. 6, “There’s Always Some Dude on a Horse.” In the first citation, pp. 55-56, Zahnd writes about the birth of the Israelite nation in a way that intersects with our own (with even a glancing reference to the Black Lives Matter Movement):

In the vast narrative of Hebrew Scripture, one of the grand themes is that the people of Israel were to be Yahweh’s alternative to pagan empire. When God chose a people who would embody fidelity and justice in a world of idolatry and injustice, God chose the seed of Abraham — an oppressed immigrant minority providing cheap labor for the Egyptian empire. Economic superpowers always need a source of cheap labor to support their affluent lifestyle — whether to bake their bricks or pick their cotton — and they generally prefer to exploit an ethnic minority that can be readily identified as an outcast “other.” Oppressors have an easier time psychologically justifying their cruelty if their victims are a vilified other. For the Egyptian elite, the Hebrews were the ethnic minority other. But God sees it all. The book of Exodus tells how Yahweh heard the groans and saw the suffering of the Semitic slaves toiling in the brickyards and raised up a deliverer for them. Judgment Day now loomed on the Egyptian horizon. Pharaoh and the princes of Egypt were about to find out the hard way that Hebrew Lives Matter. Directed by the divine I AM encountered in the burning bush, Moses returned from the wilderness to issue Pharaoh the divine imperative, “Let my people go!” After a bit of persuasion from God (ten plagues!), Moses brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and led them on their long trek to the promised land. This was the birth of a nation — a nation of former slaves who had surprisingly been adopted as God’s own people. This kind of story should make the thoughtful Bible reader wonder where we find Jesus in the formative years of America — was Jesus guiding Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson in the White House, or was he picking cotton in Mississippi and walking the Trail of Tears? (55-56)

5. Andrew Marr, Moving And Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 192, 195-96. Marr is also very much on point with this day by bringing in the Exodus and Passover to his reflections on the Eucharist. An interesting point is that the through-line from Eucharist to Passover to Exodus through the waters of the Red Sea is that the Eucharist also brings in baptism, our passing through the waters. His main point in this section:

When Jesus told his disciples to do this in memory of him, he was using the word “memory” in the Jewish sense of making his death and Resurrection present on the altar and present to the people who gather around it to eat and drink the bread and wine. For those who enjoy science fiction and fantasy literature, we could note that this sacrament constitutes time travel of a sort. This is not time travel with the intent to change the past, but time travel to change the present and the future. The fundamental change is to bring ourselves and our communities out of sacrificial, persecuting societies into forgiving societies grounded in the Forgiving Victim. (196)

6. Google the Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b. The verse there is Yahweh’s response to the angels beginning to sing Miriam’s Song along with the Israelites:

The Ministering Angels sought to say the Song. Said the Holy Blessed One: The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you are saying the Song?!

See, for example, this blog/essay in the Jewish Chronicle, “Why Did We Sing When the Egyptians Drowned?

7. There is also one of my favorite videos to use for teaching a nonviolent reading of the Bible. It is a fictional dramatization of what Elie Wiesel indicated happened at Auschwitz, God on Trial, airing on PBS November 9, 2008. As they are about to announce the verdict, Rabbi Akiba finally speaks up. He begins with the Exodus and all the Egyptians who are supposedly slaughtered by God. He expands to other acts of mass murder at God’s command by Joshua and by Kings Saul and David. He concludes:

Did the Amalekites think that Adonai was just? Did the mothers of Egypt think that Adonai was just? Idek answers, “But Adonai is our God.” Akiba: Did God not make the Egyptians. Did he not make their rivers and their crops grow? If not Adonai, then who? Some other god? And what did he make them for? To punish them? To starve, to frighten, and to slaughter them? The people of Amalek, the people of Egypt, what was it like when Adonai turned against them? It was like this. . . . Today there was a selection (choosing who will live and who will die). When David defeated the Moabites, what did he do? 2 Samuel 8:2: “He also defeated the Moabites and, making them lie down on the ground, measured them off with a cord; he measured two lengths of cord for those who were to be put to death, and one length for those who were to be spared.” We have become the Moabites. We are learning how it was for the Amalekites. They faced extinction at the hand of Adonai. They died for his purpose. They fell as we are falling. They were afraid as we are afraid. And what did they learn? They learned that Adonai, the Lord our God, our God, is not good. He is not good. He was not ever good. He was only on our side.

This is an extraordinary and powerful reflection on why Jesus’s experience of God is so vital in order to push past the tribal gods who are on our side to the God of all creation who breaks down the sides, the walls of hostility, the Us vs. Them that structures all ordinary human culture and religion. See a YouTube video clip of Rabbi Akiba’s dramatic speech.

Reflections and Questions

1. Girard’s perspective on the Passover above — namely, that it is a stage in the Jewish move away from sacrifice — has a mixed corroboration in history. At the time of Jesus, for example, the practice of Passover still seems quite tied to animal sacrifice. But the destruction of the Temple in 70 shows that the animal sacrifice was not necessarily the central feature. For observance of the Passover centered on a common meal took over in the absence of ritual animal sacrifice.

2. How do we teach about the Passover in the parish, given that it paints a picture of a violent God, one who even slays children instead of the offending adults? I took this on in 2010, first in a sermon (“Visioning Salvation from Our Violence“) and then in a newsletter column. We question Pat Robertson when he says the earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment. Shouldn’t we also question the interpretation of the Passover that sees the plagues as God’s punishment on Pharaoh and Egypt?

1 Corinthians 11:23-26


1. For Holy Thursday here are some thoughts, via Michael Hardin, from René Girard on the Eucharist (from an interview with Steve Berry Reading the Bible with René Girard):

René Girard: The Eucharist is really related to sacrifice but instead of representing the violence against the victim, of being the victim that you eat, you eat the total refusal of violence, which is Christ. It’s a reversal, but it’s still the same symbolism. The anthropologists are right to point that out. It doesn’t mean it means the same thing, but what they see is that it is the same thing, so since they think that the killing is only symbolical anyway, they feel the Eucharist and sacrifice are pretty much the same thing. But it is not because the shedding of blood, the violence in sacrifice, is essential.

Steve Berry: Clergy don’t teach that very frequently. In other words, when they get up and they recite the words of institution “this is my body, this is my blood”, “do this in remembrance of me” it is not explained to the people who are taking the bread and the cup that this means the end of violence.

René Girard: It means the end of violence yet at the same time it shows the continuity with a whole history of religion, so when the anthropologists tell you “Hey, it’s cannibalism” you should answer “Yes, of course, cannibalism is part of human history and the Eucharist summarizes it all in non-violence.” Therefore, why not cannibalism there as well? Cannibalism is the essence of sacrifice. Cannibalism means that you eat the sacrificial victim in order to be your victim, because you want to be that victim. The reason you killed him is you want to be him/her. Therefore, if you absorb his/her flesh, you become them, just as if you absorb the flesh of Christ, you should become a little bit nonviolent, more than you were before. If you understand this text, you also perceive that people who want to fool us cannot have put it there. We can discover in these sayings tremendous aspects that no one has yet discovered that fit the Christian meaning. Like the stone that the builders rejected. So therefore faith is highly linked to the text; that must be something a little bit Protestant in me. It is Christ himself who takes assumes the responsibility of quoting that psalm (118:22), saying “explain it to me, explain the relationship with me.” We haven’t deciphered it yet. It should be enough for everybody to understand that Christianity is not a text like others where part of its truth is still hidden but decipherable. This is the sort of thing that can restore the damaged faith of our time.

2. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pp. 57-60, an excerpt on Girard and myth. Heim cites Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer on mythology as an illustration of how anthropologists lump the Eucharist in with cannibalism without seeing the difference.

3. Paul Nuechterlein, Contagion, Vol. 3, Spring 1996, pp. 204-206, an essay on Holy Communion; the portion excerpted is “Mimetic Servanthood as the Remedy for Mimetic Rivalry.” I propose that loving service is the central meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.

Reflections and Questions

1. 1 Corinthians 11 is among the most misquoted passages in scripture. Paul is citing the Words of Institution as a means of scolding the Corinthians for being exclusive in their practice of the Eucharist, leaving some of the poor out of their meal. Yet verses are constantly lifted out of this passage to support our own practices of exclusion from the table. The constantly ill-quoted verse is 1 Cor. 11:29: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” Discerning the body is to discern the whole body of Christ, which is the subject of the very next chapter (1 Cor. 12). We aren’t to leave anyone out, especially the weakest members (1 Cor. 12:22-26). We drink judgment on ourselves, then, when we practice this sacrament in divisive and exclusionary ways. We once again become a divided household instead of the one new humanity which Jesus the Messiah has come to create (Eph. 2).

John 13:1-17, 31b-35


1. The Johannine Farewell Discourse is a favorite in Girardian literature. The following is a list (not exhaustive) of places where the Discourse is featured: Renè Girard, The Scapegoat, ch. 15, “History and the Paraclete”; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, ch. 7.D., “The Gospel of John” (p. 204-210); Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio series, tape #10 (link to my notes / transcription of tape #10); James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 3, “The Discovery of Jesus’ Imagination” and The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 187-197.

2. James Alison, a video homily for Maundy Thursday; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Elements of the footwashing episode. (1) Servants were those who welcomed others into a home with footwashing; Jesus is taking the place of the servant but welcoming them to the feast he himself is hosting. (2) Footwashing was sometimes an act a husband would undertake with his wife in order to signal moments of equality and intimacy. (3) It puts one literally under the feet of another, a place of vulnerability. (4) Washing was a basic part of the routine of priests; Jesus’s exchange with Peter shows how Jesus understands himself as sharing his priesthood with them.

Also pertinent to the middle portion of this lesson is James Alison‘s discussion of the Greek for “glory”, doxa. He says that another rendering of doxa is “reputation.” See Raising Abel, “Reputation and Shame,” pp. 180-185.

3. Paul Nuechterlein, Contagion, Vol. 3, Spring 1996, pp. 204-206, an essay on Holy Communion; the portion excerpted is “Mimetic Servanthood as the Remedy for Mimetic Rivalry.” I propose that loving service is the central meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.

4. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the day in 2013, “The First Supper“; in 2015, “Eating the Being of Jesus“; and in 2016, “Gethsemane“; in 2018, “A New Passover — A New Life“; and in 2019, “And It Was Night.”

5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 46, “Spirit of Service.”

6. An extraordinary resource on this text is “Proclaiming a Crucified Eschaton,” by Frederick Niedner (Institute for Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University, copyright 1998), pp. 10-14. It is aimed at verses 31-35 in the context of the Easter 5C readings, but his overall concept still applies to the Maundy Thursday reading. Niedner focuses on the first phrase of the gospel (vs. 31) in light of the new commandment. Here are some excerpts:

***********Niedner excerpts***********

This Sunday’s gospel tells of the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” But what is the old commandment? And why do we need the new one now, here at the last supper which foreshadows the banquet we’ll share in the End Time?The answer lies in the first words of this lesson, “When he had gone out…” The antecedent to the pronoun is Judas. Now that Judas has left the table everything is different. […]

Have you ever wondered whether, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment about the way the disciples should now love one another, any one of them went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?

We know not how to answer those questions. My guess is no one found him, even if someone tried. To this day it seems that no one has found Judas. He is still out there, it seems, wandering somewhere in the night, forsaken by every generation of disciples since that ancient Thursday, the night of the new commandment. Every time we gather for our sacred meal we commemorate Judas and his unforgivable behavior when we speak of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed,” taking bread. We speak of his sin, but we do not name him. We have not searched for him, and we have not found him. His place at the Lord’s table remains empty. […]

We are no strangers to such brokenness, either, or to its accompanying pain. In our generation we have known the pain of broken churches. We all bear the name of Christ, but there are some with whom we would not eat his meal. We all claim to be the heirs of Abraham, our father in the faith, but some among us cannot abide even the presence of a real, live Jew. Our families, too, know the pain and shame of places at the table where no one sits any more. We ache and we sob over friendships that were put to death with hasty, angry, bitter words. For each of us, at least one Judas wanders about in the night unforgiven. From another perspective, each of us is Judas, slipping about in the shadows, unforgiven, unloved, utterly alone. […]

How then shall we love one another in the family, as the new commandment requires? The very love we need if we’re to love in that new way is given to us as a gift by the one who commands its practice. Our gospel lesson records Jesus’ identification of the moment of Judas’ departure into the night as the moment in which Jesus’ glorification began. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ glorification is the ironic code word for his crucifixion. Jesus will be glorified and his Father will be glorified in him when he loses his life, when he gives it up. Then, and only then, comes the glorification.

Jesus loved truly by giving himself away, by losing himself. Genuine love always means losing oneself — in another’s arms, in another’s laughter, in another’s tears. But more, to love is to lose oneself and thereby to find oneself, to find one’s true humanity. Such was and is the love of Jesus. He lost himself when he gave himself up for us. And now, risen, he lives. He lives in us who are his body, the baptized who are animated by his Spirit. In us he has found his place for loving. The love that he commands he also gives. It lives — he lives! — restlessly within us, looking for Judas, searching for all the traitors out there in the night. We who are baptized and have lost ourselves in that Lord of ours now search out whomever it is that has become Judas for us that we might lose ourselves in the pain that he or she has inflicted upon us, or we have inflicted upon him or her. And in that losing ourselves, the Risen Christ promises us, we shall find ourselves. We shall live, and we shall find our real selves, loved, forgiven, and seated again as friend at the table with one who has betrayed me, or whom I have betrayed, one with whom I had lost the capacity to share humanity.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have loved one another,” Jesus said. Jesus gifts the world with his love by losing himself in this community which still has its agents out looking for Judas, a community restless forever with the love of the one who gave the new commandment the moment Judas left the room on a mission from which he still has not returned. If you would find God in this lonely world, then look for the community that has its messengers out searching the ditches and hedgerows for you, and for me. There you will find the love of God. There you will find God. There you will find yourself.

Will we ever find Judas? Will he ever sit again at his place? Only God knows. But we have reason to hope. Despite what all the other passages in the New Testament say, we can hope if for no other reason because of the promise in today’s second lesson in Revelation 21. Some day, one day, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a bride approaching her breathless husband, God will set out a great marriage feast. God will throw the party to end all parties at which God will wipe away every tear. Then will end all mourning — no more tears, no more pain.

Will Judas be present? Dare we hope that? I suspect we can. He will sit amongst all the rest of us who bear the scars of our own treachery beneath our white robes. For so long as Judas remains out there in the night, wandering alone or swinging lifeless in the breeze, there will be tears and aching in the community where his place is still set at the table, but where he does not sit. When he has been found, then I know that I, too, shall have been found, and forgiven, and loved.

The banquet is set before us. We remember once more that night of the new commandment, but also we look ahead to the day of its fulfillment. Let us celebrate the joy we have in sitting together as family, reconciled to each other, having lost ourselves but having also found ourselves in each other, and living in hope while waiting for the day when every place at our table will be filled. And let the people say, Amen.

************End of Niedner excerpts************

Link to a sermon making use of Niedner’s work entitled “Searching for Judas.”

7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & PeaceTom Truby, offered a commentary on this text in 2012; and a sermon in 2016, “Washing Feet or Threatening Violence“; Rob Grayson, a blog in 2016, “Maundy Thursday: living in the face of death.”

Reflections and Questions

1. In 2013 I ended up taking my cue from newly installed Pope Francis I, who scandalized many by celebrating Maundy Thursday Mass in a Juvenile Detention center, a prison. My sermon, “Cultures of Healing Love,” makes the same connection. Our interpretation of the cross and, hence, the Eucharist, has lapsed back into the logic of sacrifice, a logic of punishment. Instead of God entering human cultures of punishment on the cross to begin to transform them into cultures of healing love, we have let our cultures of punishment mute our Eucharistic culture of love. Witness to this fact is the War on Drugs of the past thirty and the ways in which it has moved us into a culture of mass incarceration — all very much done in tandem with the culture of our long history of American racism. I cannot overstate my recommendation of the importance of reading Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (I reluctantly left out the aspect of race in the sermon because it is too difficult for white congregations to ingest without a more fully developed analysis of systemic and historic racism — and there is a plan to more fully develop it.)

2. John replaces the Synoptic account of the Last Supper with a story that is a perfect illustration of positive mimesis. Jesus gives an example of the love commandment for disciples to imitate.

3. Maundy Thursday is often an occasion for First Communion in Lutheran congregations. In both 2001 and 2002 I preached sermons titled “The First First Communion Class” on such occasions.

4. Niedner’s connection of Judas to the Love Commandment recalls the episode of Jesus and Peter around the charcoal fire (John 21). Jesus has a love for Peter that forgives his denial by giving him the opportunity to confirm his love three times in place of his previous threefold denial. Yet there is also the aspect of agape vs. philia love. Jesus urges Peter the first two times to love with agape love, to which Peter is seemingly only ready to respond with philia love. Jesus also forgives Peter by meeting him where he is at with philia love on the third time around.

The John 21 story also opens by indirectly noting Judas’ absence: “Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.” Niedner’s linking of Judas with the Love Commandment is an invitation to such an agape love that will not rest until every place at the table, or around the charcoal fire, is filled.


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