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Maundy Thursday / Holy Thursday, Cycle A

In the presence of Christ! The focus of the texts is on the sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper), Repentance, and Sanctification.

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
This is a thanksgiving for healing and/or deliverance. God is praised for healing us, a witness made amidst the whole congregation in the temple (vv. 1-2, 18-19). Reference is made to lifting the cup of salvation (v. 13). This is probably a libation offered in fulfillment of the vow made by the psalmist when suffering (Exodus 29:40). But for Christians, the reference reminds us of the saving cup from which we drink in the Lord’s Supper. The psalmist identifies himself as a servant of the Lord, the child of a servant girl, yet he has been set free [pathach moser, loosed bonds] (v. 16). If read in relation to the New Testament this could also be applied to Jesus (especially the v. 15 reference to how precious the death of the faithful is to the Lord as well as the comment about the sacrifice in v. 17). Or it could be that the psalmist speaks for the faithful and is celebrating how precious Jesus’ death is.

Application: Several options for sermons present themselves. Because we do not know the historical context for the Psalm (it appears not to have been important to the biblical editors), it seems reasonable to interpret this song as a voice of praise in the present, as a song all the faithful can sing. The work of Christ has indeed healed and delivered us, set free mere servants like us, and so prayers of thanks and praise are appropriate (Sanctification). Also the Psalm might be interpreted as prophecy of what Christ would accomplish, prefiguring the institution of the Lord’s Supper and his atoning death which saves. Sermons either on how the atoning sacrifice saves (vv. 15, 16b-17) or on how the Lord’s Supper saves (v. 13) are appropriate.

Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
We have previously noted that like all of the first five books of the Old Testament, Exodus is the product of several distinct literary strands, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. The book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “these are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. This lesson, describing the establishment of the Passover, is probably the work of the P (Priestly) strand of the Pentateuch, an oral tradition dating from the sixth century BC transmitted by temple priests or those inclined to regard the Jewish faith primarily in terms of temple sacrifice. Some Old Testament scholars contend that P reinterpreted an earlier nomadic spring festival, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, as a memorial of the Lord’s deliverance of the people from Egypt. Also see verses 14-20; Deuteronomy 16:1-8; Numbers 9:1-14; Ezekiel 45:21-28.

The account in this chapter follows the description of the final plague the Lord worked against Pharaoh, which does not succeed in liberating the people (chapter 11). The month of Nissan (March-April) is to be designated the beginning of the year (v. 2). On the tenth of that month, each family is to take a lamb or share a lamb with its closest neighbor and divide the lamb (vv. 3-4). The lamb is to be one year old and without blemish (v. 5). Instructions are then given to put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel in the houses of the people (there were the holy places of a house). The lamb was to be eaten the night it was killed, and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv. 7-9).

The blood that is on the doorposts represents a kind of sacrifice to Yahweh, most appropriate since it functions for the Hebrews as a symbol of life (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11), and as such must be returned to God (Leviticus 17:3-6; Deuteronomy 12:16). The lamb is to be entirely consumed, except for the remains to be burned the next morning (v. 10). Instructions are given on the attire one is to wear when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v. 11). Presumably this is because the people must be ready for the march in commemoration of Israel’s hasty Exodus after the angel of death passed over [abar] the people of Israel.

Passover explains how the Lord will strike down the firstborn of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the doorposts will be a sign for him to pass over that house so the plague will not destroy them (vv. 12-13). Henceforth the day is to be one of remembrance, a celebration of perpetual observance (v. 14).

Application: The text provides an occasion to remind Christians of the origins of the Lord’s Supper in the Passover meal. In so doing Passover’s celebration of freedom from slavery and how its celebrants are prepared for pilgrimages into the wilderness entails that the sacrament is also a meal for nurturing freedom for those who have been enslaved and feeding us in our wilderness treks, driving us into the affairs of the world (Sanctification and Social Ethics). Another possibility is to focus on the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, how its blood protects the faithful. We are thereby reminded of the sacrifice of the Christ the Lamb (John 1:29; Revelation 5:6-8) which protects us from death (Atonement).

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
In a letter to a troubled church in Corinth, which Paul had established (Acts 18:1-11), he critiques certain reportedly aberrant practices pertaining to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, addressing those practices that were exacerbating factions in the church (vv. 17-22). He begins to do this by claiming to report what he received from the Lord (v. 23). This may be a reference to the fact that Jesus himself did not directly teach Paul, but what he has learned is from the traditions of Christ, the church’s liturgical heritage. The Words of Institution for the sacrament are cited. We are to remember Christ [anamesis] (vv. 24-25). Of course, the Hebrew equivalent zakar entails that when we remember someone they are really present, as remembrance at Shechem summoned God to engage Israel in covenant (Joshua 24). Paul proceeds to testify that as often as the bread and cup are eaten and drunk we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes (v. 26). There is a testimony here to Christ’s Atoning Work.

Application: Paul’s concern to put an end to practices in Corinth that exacerbate factions in the church provides an excellent opportunity to preach on how the sacrament can enhance unity in the church insofar as an occasion is provided for all recipients to share Christ equally (Sanctification). Another option would be to emphasize verse 26 and relate the sacrament to Eschatology, pointing out that the sharing we do in the meal with Christ and with each other is a sign of what life will be like in heaven or when Christ comes again.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
We consider the most recent of the accounts of events surrounding the first Lord’s Supper. In fact, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, this account offers no report of the actual words of Institution for the Sacrament, but instead recounts preparation for the supper with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and then predicting his betrayal. This retelling of the story in terms of speeches by Jesus is typical of this gospel, written late in the first century, probably not by John the son of Zebedee but perhaps by a disciple of his who, according to the writer of the earliest history of the church Eusebius of Caesarea, perceived the external facts made plain in the gospel and inspired by friends and by the Spirit composed a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261).

The account begins with the claim that before the Passover festival Jesus knew it was time for him to depart and go to the Father. Loving those who were his, Jesus is said to have loved them to the end (v. 1). This failure to relate the Last Supper to the Passover meal is unique to John’s gospel. It is noted that the devil had already put the idea of betraying Jesus in Judas Iscariot’s heart (v. 2). Jesus is said to come from God, receiving all things from the Father, and knowing he is to return (v. 3). He proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet (vv. 4-5). Hosts did not undertake such tasks among the Jews in the first century. In so doing, Jesus makes clear that he recognizes himself to be assuming the role of a servant (R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, p. 118).

Peter protests against his Lord washing his feet. Jesus responds that unless one is washed they will have no share of him (vv. 6-9). The Atoning Work of Christ on the Cross is here prophesied.

Jesus says the disciples are clean, but not all of them, indicating his knowledge of his betrayal (vv. 10-11). Some New Testament scholars (notably Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship) contend that the reference to being cleaned by water connotes Christian baptism as preparation for receiving the Eucharist. For a discussion of this controversy, see James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, pp. 168-169. Pertinent texts for adjudicating the viability of this identification with baptism include John 2:1-11; 4:7-15; 5:2-9; 7:37-39; 9:7; 13:1-16; 19:34.

Jesus explains the significance of his washing the disciples’ feet, though he himself is their teacher and lord. It is an example to the disciples (vv. 12-15). Servants are not greater than their master, nor messengers [apostolos] greater than the one who sent them. If these things are known there are blessings if they are done (vv. 16-17). These comments by Jesus are also unique to John’s gospel, and where parallels exist in the other gospels, they are not uttered like they are here at the Last Supper.

After further discourse and the identification of Judas as his betrayer (vv. 18-20), Jesus leaves the room of the supper. He notes that now the Son of Man has been glorified and God glorified in him (vv. 31b-32). In a previous analysis we noted the gospel of John’s unique understanding of this title. The author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way — that is, as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 37; Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 49). This understanding of the title certainly fits the themes of this lesson, especially the teaching of Christ’s Saving Work (his exaltation) and Eschatology.

Jesus then adds that he will only be with the disciples a little longer. They cannot go with him (v. 33). He gives them a new commandment — to love one another as he has loved them (v. 34). By this everyone will know who his disciples are (v. 35).

Application: The text affords an opportunity to proclaim the virtues of humility and how it adequately prepares us to receive the Lord’s Supper. Of course such humility or repentance (Sanctification) is not an act of holiness on the part of the believer but is nothing more than renouncing his or her privilege and authority, fully depending on God (Justification by Grace). Other issues that might be addressed include Christology (see the discussion of the Son of Man above), an outline for Christian living (to love as Christ loves us), and the nature of the ministry as nothing more than being a messenger of God.

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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