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Maundy Thursday, Cycle B

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

For most of us who have been accustomed since our childhood to observe this day as Maundy Thursday and to associate this night with Jesus’ words of the institution of the Eucharist on the night when Jesus would within a few hours be seized in the Garden of Gethsemane, it seems somewhat strange that we read Jesus’ words of the institution of the Eucharist in the 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 text from the Apostle Paul rather than from one of the Synoptic Gospels. Of course, in the Revised Common Lectionary the Words of Institution (Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; and Luke 22:14-20) are read each year, but only in the context of the lengthy Liturgies of the Passion, one of them each year. Unless we are rigidly bound to follow the Revised Common Lectionary with no deviation, we can, of course, supplement the reading from John 13:1-17, 31b-35 of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on Holy Thursday each year with a reading of the Words of Institution from one of the Synoptic Gospel texts each year. We would then, however, have a nearly duplicated reading of the Words of Institution from Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 within the same service.

The Johannine reading that has the Johannine Jesus washing the feet of each of his disciples, even of the feet of Judas Iscariot, may appear at first and has often been considered to be an illustration of Jesus’ humility. A more detailed study of this text in John 13, however, indicates that what the Johannine Jesus is represented as doing here is not an act of humility, but of control. Simon Peter was not given the option of refusing the washing. Neither was Judas Iscariot or any of the other disciples. Jesus also, not Peter, had the choice of how much of Peter’s body Jesus would wash. In addition in this text, the Johannine Jesus does not merely urge his disciples to love each other; the Johannine Jesus commands them to do this. As leaders in worship in the Church we are not, of course, the Johannine Jesus. We should, however, use appropriate care when we talk about humility and when we attempt to be humble, so that our actions will be genuine and not be expressions of a false humility.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

It is essential that we look closely at the context in which Paul presents the Words of Institution of the Eucharist here. We can easily overlook the fact that Paul’s primary concern in 1 Corinthians 11:17–14:40 is not the Words of Institution. Instead, Paul’s primary concern is to command the followers of Jesus in Corinth to change the ways in which they were eating food when they were gathered together. The ones who were affluent had not been sharing their food with the ones who were poor. Apparently, even when they used the Eucharistic words, they were not participating together, but separately. Some of them were very disrespectful of others in the community of believers. Because they were not resolving these difficulties and problems, Paul sternly chided them for their behavior. He was not scolding them for their lack of intellectual understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist. He was chiding them for their segregated behavior, for not eating and drinking in the Eucharist together, for not having love for and respect for one another.

It is tragic and disrespectful to Jesus and to Paul that even into the 21st century the “sharing of pulpit and altar fellowship” is still so limited within the Church, even within the same denomination, as it is in my own Lutheran Christian denomination. If Paul, not to mention Jesus, were physically present and evaluating us today, Paul, as Paul indicated in 1 Corinthians 11:17–14:40, would chide us sternly, not because we have not achieved a single identical understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist, but because of our segregated behavior, because so many of us refuse to receive the Eucharist together with others or to permit others to receive the Eucharist with us. Many of us who are Lutheran Christians refuse to permit even other Lutheran Christians to join with us at our altars and in our pulpits, because we have decided they these other Lutheran Christians are not “Lutheran” enough, that they do not segregate themselves sufficiently from other Christians who are not Lutheran Christians. What would the Apostle Paul, whom especially we who are Lutheran Christians claim to honor so highly, say about us and our failure to honor the Church as the “Body of Christ,” comprised as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 12 of many diverse parts (ears, eyes, feet, etc.)?

We need much more serious study of Scripture in the Church, especially of Scripture in the context of other Scripture. We need to study and to use the Words of the Institution of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:17–14:40, not isolated from their context as we do in the Holy Thursday selections in the Revised Common Lectionary. It would be preferable on Holy Thursday to be using the Words of Institution in the context of their place in Mark 14, Matthew 26, and Luke 22 in successive years, not every year as they are in a secondary position in 1 Corinthians.

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

This text in the Priestly tradition in which the Israelite Passover observance is commanded and which is read when the Seder meal is celebrated in Jewish homes today provides a segment, but only a small segment, of the background for the Christian Eucharist. The sacrificial slaughter of an entire yearling sheep or goat to be eaten during the course of one night by a family or two neighboring families has evolved for Jewish families today into the use of only a single bone of a lamb as a symbol of the entire lamb in a Jewish Seder. There is a lamb bone on the table, but meat from a lamb is not necessarily a part of the menu for the Seder meal today.

There is very little direct connection between the Israelite Passover observance as commanded in Exodus 12 and the bread and wine by means of which we as Christians receive the “Body” and the “Blood” of Christ in the Eucharist. There is symbolism, however, in the belief that we have as Christians that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ in which we as Christians participate in the Eucharistic action, God “passes over” our sins and we, like the ancient pre-Israelite slaves in Egypt, are spared. It is important that we make this connection on Holy Thursday.

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19

There are a few connections between these portions of Psalm 116 and the other texts selected for this day in our lectionary. Somewhat like the Israelite slaves in Egypt, the psalmist testifies that the Lord has set the psalmist free from that which had enslaved the psalmist, in this case a very serious illness. We as Christians can link the reference by the psalmist to “the cup of salvation” that the psalmist will raise up and will call upon the name of the Lord to the cup within the Eucharist, especially on this Holy Thursday.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen