Maundy Thursday Sermon

Jesus Instituting His Supper (610x351)Today, we rarely use the word “mercy” in our everyday speech.  But in the Church, it’s as common as the air we breathe.  We pray in the liturgy: “Lord, have mercy on us.”  When we do that, we echo the blind men who sought physical sight from Jesus in Matthew 9 and Luke 18.  For we also seek healing.

But our blindness isn’t physical; it’s spiritual, because sin still darkens and clouds our inner being.  When we call out, “Lord, have mercy on us,” we confess that we are waiting for someone who can meet our deepest need.  And in His mercy, the tender loving-kindness of God becomes real among us, meeting our deepest need by giving us His eternal healing and life.

And yet we call the One from whom we seek mercy, “Lord.”  For He is our Lord.  After all, we belong to Him.  He bought and paid for us with His blood.  He ransomed and redeemed us from the rule of darkness to live under Him in His reign of light.  Jesus has restored and renewed us to love God through loving those whom He brings into our lives.  That includes the least of all His brothers–those who, like us, stand in dire need of His love.

Tonight, we have come to the right place to welcome Jesus, as He comes to us in Word and Sacrament.  We have come to the right place to receive His mercy, since He has plenty to give.  And He gives it to His beloved Church in an exceptional way this night.  For tonight, we commemorate the night that Christ began the Supper through which He feeds us with His body broken and gives us His blood outpoured.

This, then, is the night of our deliverance and the beginning of a journey with Jesus.  We go with Jesus as He is arrested in the garden, we follow Him to Pilate’s judgment hall, then to the Place of the Skull, through His cross and death, and finally to His glorious resurrection.  That’s Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.  And this journey all started with a meal.

And so, in a few minutes, we will again approach the altar, bend the knee, and receive in our mouths the true Bread of heaven in the meal that started it all.  In the earthly bread that we will break and in the cup that we will we bless, we will eat and drink the flesh and blood of Jesus.  And when we do, we will follow His last will and testament: “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).  In this Sacrament, the Lamb of God has left us a memorial of His mercy.

Yet, this memorial is far different from any other, for this isn’t a memorial for someone who is dead.  The Lord Jesus is the Lamb who once was slain but now is alive forever.  And the memorial He instituted is no physical monument, but a meal.  The eating and drinking is the memorial when we recall and recite His saving mercy.

And yet our cynical, sinful selves might ask: “What good is that?  Give me something I can use, Jesus.  I could use some pointers on how to get along in this world.  I could use some advice on how to be happy and successful.  I could use some instructions on how to find my way through the confusion and turmoil, since my life has become a mess.  But mercy?  What good is that?”

And that’s our problem.  God sends us His gifts and we keep trying to mark them “return to sender”–or take them back ourselves and exchange them for something we like better.  But there is nothing better than mercy, even if the wants and wishes of your sinful self tells you otherwise.  For God knows us better than we know ourselves.

In His mercy, God opens His heart to the world, sending out the pure and holy Lamb of God to be slaughtered in our place.  That’s mercy in action!  And that saving gift of Jesus and His death are at the heart of His New-Covenant Meal, the Sacrament of the Altar, the remembrance of God’s mercy to end all other remembrances.

Yes, God had other memorial meals before this one.  The night when Jesus was betrayed, He had gathered in that Upper Room with His disciples to commemorate the exodus of God’s people from their slavery in Egypt.  It was the Lord’s Passover.  God gave detailed instructions to His people on how they were to prepare for the feast.  The entrée was lamb, but not just any lamb–it had to be a lamb without blemish or defect.

Every time the Israelites ate that meal, they did so remembering the Lord and His mercy.  It was a meal of hope and promise, but hope and promise under the threat of death.  That night in Egypt when God set His people free, it was in the thick of imminent danger, for the angel of death was passing over.  In every house in Egypt, the firstborn of man and beast would die–except where the blood of a sacrificial lamb marked the door!  At those houses, the deadly plague passed over, sparing all within.

On the night of their deliverance, God’s people ate that first Passover with mixed emotions.  Of course, they ate it with gratitude and joy.  But amid that joy, holy dread was there, as well, for the angel of death was passing overhead.

That was Israel’s Passover, the Old-Covenant sacramental meal of deliverance.  In that meal, God’s people dined on the body of an animal that gave them life by dying in their place.  It was a communion, a communion in the body that died to save them.

In the Meal that we will eat this night, we have a communion, as well.  But it’s a communion in a living body, the body of the Lamb of God who has mercy on us.  Jesus also intervened to rescue us from slavery.  But this wasn’t the slavery of Pharaoh, but the slavery of sin and death.  To save us from the curse of our slavery, Jesus became a curse for us and died on the cross, giving His body and shedding His blood.

Jesus was also a Lamb without blemish or defect.  He had no sins of His own.  Instead, He took into Himself our sins, all so He could die to bring down the ancient curse of eternal death that Adam’s sin had brought to all mankind.  Jesus’ body was the sin offering.  His blood was the sign and seal of our redemption.  And when we eat the bread and drink the cup of His Supper, it is a communion in the body and blood of Christ, the Lamb.

Israel once dined on the flesh that revealed God’s mercy and gave them life for death.  However, we in the Church dine on the flesh and blood that rescued us, once and for all.  The Apostle Paul drives that point home when He calls Jesus our “Passover Lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7b).  Those lambs that gave their lives as the antidote to death in Egypt were only a dress rehearsal for the real meal centuries later.  At the cross, the true Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, gave His body and shed His blood as the ransom price for the world.

And so this night, at the Lord’s Table, we again have a front-row seat in that vast drama that won our salvation.  An old song asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  That’s a moving, emotional hymn.  But the plain fact is that you and I weren’t there, and can’t go there, except in our mind’s eye.  But tonight, something better happens for us–the cross comes to us!  Since we can’t go to Jesus on the cross, He comes to us.

Luther wrote: “If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there….  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 40:214).

Jesus first came to us at our baptism.  Now, He repeatedly comes to us in His holy Supper.  The Lamb who shed His blood to bring us life says: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”   In this sacred memorial Meal, Jesus does more than ask you to remember Him.  He actively recalls and gives you the fruits of His love and the benefits of His saving death as He says: “Take, eat; this is My body, which was given for you.”

Those two little words “for you” bring you comfort and solace as you make your way through this valley of death.  For God’s love isn’t just a shadowy abstraction or some warm, fuzzy feeling.  His love is a concrete reality.  Since Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, He has, for you, defeated sin, death, and hell.

But here’s where it gets even better.  Jesus’ love is big enough to include the entire grieving and hurting world.  But it’s also exact enough to address each one of us, personally and individually.  God’s love is not a general “to whom it may concern” letter.  In His Supper, Jesus’ love has your own name on it.

In His Supper, the Lord of heaven and earth hands you His love on a platter.  He’s not satisfied to give you a mere symbol or emblem of His love.  Instead, He gives you the true substance of His love, His flesh once offered on the cross so you might live.  His is a love you can sink your teeth into.  He also gives you His blood, which cleanses you from all sin.  He gives you to drink from His cup of salvation.

Mercy: that’s what we need, and that’s what the Lamb of God brings you now in His Banquet that He spreads before you and that we eat in His remembrance.  “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

It’s true: death looms large on every side and destruction is all around us.  But we need not lose heart.  For everything that troubles you, everything that robs you of your joy is eclipsed tonight in this banquet feast of love.  Now eternal sin, death, and hell are sent far from us.  Heaven intersects with earth at this altar, and in this eating and drinking you have a foretaste of the feast to come, the wedding banquet of the Lamb and His beloved bride.  Amen.