Preparing for Holy Week: Reflections on Preaching on Maundy Thursday This Year

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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 that saving death are bestowed in His body and blood given us to eat and drink.

As I write these lines, it appears that many pulpits will be vacant and most altars bare this Maundy Thursday. Yet faithful pastors will find ways to continue to preach and, in some cases, small groups may be allowed to assemble in church to receive the Lord’s body and blood even in the midst of this pandemic, proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes (I Corinthians 11:26). Others will need to wait for another opportunity to partake of the Lord’s Supper. But in their waiting and yearning, preaching will remind them that, “this holy Sacrament has been instituted for the special comfort of those who are troubled because of their sin and who humbly confess their sins, fear God’s wrath, and hunger for righteousness” (Exhortation in “Corporate Confession and Absolution” LSB, p. 290). As the CTCR document of The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, “Communion and Covid-19,” reminds us, we have certainty only as we stick to what the Lord has instituted (set in place and authorized) so we avoid clever ways of administering the Sacrament that would lead to doubt. Sometimes, as much as we hunger and thirst for the Sacrament, we must wait while still trusting in the Lord’s promises.

I think of my first teaching trip to the former Soviet Union in 1998 where I encountered Lutherans whose circumstances forced them to endure for decades without the Sacrament, living from the Scriptures and the few sermon books which survived. Tears would fill their eyes when they told how after the collapse of Communism, a pastor finally arrived to administer the Lord’s Supper. Their patience over many years of deprivation puts our impatience to shame when we are forced to go without the Lord’s Supper for a few weeks. These circumstances invite the preacher to think more carefully about how we celebrate Maundy Thursday and especially how we preach on the Sacrament of the Altar.

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. Norman Nagel would often point out how when we line up the Passover as described in Exodus with the narratives of the Lord’s Supper’s institution in the Synoptics and I 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 Meal. 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 that 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 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 that 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 that saving death are bestowed in His body and blood given us to eat and drink.

This is evident in Luther’s sermon on Wednesday in 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.

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 that 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 that 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]

[1] For a critique of these trends, see Oliver K. Olson, Reclaiming the Lutheran Liturgical Heritage (Minneapolis: Reclaim Resources, 2007), 13-85 and John T. Pless, “Liturgical Preaching: The Pitfalls and the Promise” in Feasting in a Famine of the Word: Lutheran Preaching in the Twenty-first Century” ed. Mark Birkholz, Jacob Corzine, and Jonathan Mumme (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 166-178.

[2] Here see, Hermann Sasse, “The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament” in We Confess the Sacraments, translated by Norman E. Nagel (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985), 49—97. Sasse observes that “all the detail of the traditional Passover ritual, which Jesus doubtless observed, was irrelevant for the Lord’s Supper itself” (64). And again since Jesus Himself is the Passover Lamb who gives His body and blood to be eaten and drunk, Sasse argues: “There is no analogy to this fellowship, just as there are no parallels to this celebration. The Lord’s Supper received this character as something unique, something remarkable from the Words of Institution” (66). Also see Otto Procksch, “Passa und Abenmahl” in Vom Sakrament des Altars, (Leipzig: Dörffling and Franke, 1941), 11-25.

[3] Mark Throntveit, “The Lord’s Super as New Testament, Not New Passover” Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn 1997), 284.

[4] James Samuel Preus, “Neglected Problems in Eucharistic Dialogue,” Currents in Theology and Mission 3 (1976), 182.

[5] Also note Albrecht Peters: “For him [Luther], the Lord’s Supper is not an offering and a good work performed by a human being in Christ before God; it is a testament and sacrament of God through Christ for us. As such it is the summa et compendium Euangelii”- Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012), 21.

[6] Martin Luther, “Sermon on Wednesday of Holy Week” in The 1529 Holy Week and Easter Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther, translated by Irving L. Sandberg (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 68.

[7] Ibid., 78.