Maundy Thursday Preaching

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On this Maundy Thursday, in particular, let the “for you” of Christ’s gifts dominate.

The Lord Jesus hands over the supper of the new testament, His body and blood on the night of His being handed over to sinners to suffer all that was given to Him as the Savior. From this night forward when Christians are gathered around the altar, it is the Lord’s death which is proclaimed in the eating and drinking of His body and blood (1 Corinthians 11:26). Preaching this new testament is not about rehearsing or reenacting the story of the upper room, but of proclaiming that the Christ of Golgotha is now here for you in His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. This is not the Church’s meal, but the Lord’s Supper, the Supper of the Lamb of God as the singing of the Agnus Dei reminds us.

Maundy Thursday does not transport worshipers back to the upper room, nor does it project Golgotha into present, as it is sometimes argued by certain twentieth century theologians of liturgy following the trend set by Odo Casel.[1] In this view, Jesus transforms the ancient Passover rite making it a vehicle for the events of salvation history to be made present in the Church’s liturgy.

However, this approach fails to acknowledge the newness of the New Testament in what Christ bestows, His body and blood for disciples to eat and to drink. Professor Norman Nagel would often point out that when we line up the Passover as described in Exodus with the narratives of the Lord’s Supper’s institution in the Synoptics and 1 Corinthians, the first and crucial question is not how are they similar but how are they different? This is also Luther’s approach in the Large Catechism. To paraphrase Sasse, the Lord’s Supper renders the old Passover obsolete.[2] Likewise, Mark Throntveit writes “Jesus ‘fulfills’ the Old Testament Passover, but not by instituting the Lord’s Supper in ritual continuity with the Old Testament Seder. By dying on the cross, Jesus ‘fulfills’ the Old Testament Passover in the sense of bringing it to an end, thereby becoming the last paschal lamb, ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’”[3]

Here also, see Luther in the Large Catechism where he argues the Sacrament of the Altar is not like the old Passover, bound to a special time, but frequently where there is “opportunity and need” and not like “the pope (who) perverted it and turned it back into a Jewish feast” (LC V:47-48, K/W, 471-472). For Luther, the focus in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was squarely on the proclamation of the promise. This is nicely summarized by James Samuel Preus: “In Luther’s reinterpretation, a different understanding of time is involved. We are no longer brought into ‘ritual time,’ in which the cross itself is mysteriously being ‘actualized.’ Rather, it is a matter of distribution, now, of a finished deed. The force, power, meaning of the deed of Christ is present not through ‘representation,’ but through the proclamation of words. Luther leaves Christ’s death irretrievable pastness, while the word of forgiveness-the distribution of the testament-is repeatable as often as the Church gathers in obedience to, and in the presence of, the risen Testator.”[4]

For Luther, the focus in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was squarely on the proclamation of the promise.

For Luther, redemption was accomplished at Calvary, but it is delivered in the Lord’s Supper. In his 1525 treatise, “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” Luther asserted: “If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the Sacrament or Gospel the Word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross” (AE 40: 213–214). This theme lies behind the Small Catechism’s question on the benefit of eating and drinking in the Sacrament. It is also echoed in the Large Catechism where Luther confesses the historical reality of Christ’s death on the cross for sin and the distribution of this treasure by way of Christ’s promise:

“Although the work took place on the cross and the forgiveness of sins has been acquired, yet it cannot come to us in any other way than through the Word. How should we know this took place or was given to us if it were not proclaimed by preaching, by the oral Word? From what source do they know of forgiveness, and how can they receive it, except by steadfastly believing the Scriptures and the Gospel?” (LC V:31, K-W, 469-470).

Luther sees in the Lord’s Supper the most concentrated form of the Gospel[5] because in it the death of Christ is proclaimed, and the benefits of His saving death are bestowed in His body and blood given for us to eat and drink.

This is evident in Luther’s sermon on the Wednesday of Holy Week from 1529, where he says:

“These words of Christ spoken at the last supper, which are now spoken at the altar, are as much the Gospel as if I were to say in the pulpit: I proclaim to you that Christ has died for you. The words at the altar are the same: ‘Take, eat, drink, etc.’ Is this not Gospel?... The redemption and forgiveness of sins happened on the cross. But it must be proclaimed so that I may hear it. I will never experience it by simply looking at the cross. At the same time, many stood at the cross, but they did not know that there the forgiveness of sins would be gained until the voice came and directed them to the cross. If you take away the word ‘for you’ from the cross, you see Christ as a thief on the gallows. But the words must teach you that he is the Savior.”[6]

The “for you” is of the essence of the Gospel and, therefore, of the Lord’s Supper. It needs to be accented loud and clear, especially on Maundy Thursday, so the testament and promise of Christ’s body and blood remain the Lord’s gift, not an enactment of our ritual piety. On this Maundy Thursday, in particular, let the “for you” of Christ’s gifts dominate. Preach to create a hunger and thirst for this gift so your hearers may never take it for granted on the one hand or regard it as a matter of entitlement on the other hand. Listen again to Luther in 1529 sermon:

“When the Devil attacks, come for strength to the dear Word so you may know Christ and long for the Sacrament! A soldier has his rations and must have food and drink to be strong. In the same way here: Those who want to be Christians should not throw the Sacrament to the winds as if they did not need it.”[7]