Revised Common Lectionary: Year A Maundy Thursday
April 4, 2023
Summary of the Text
Note: the primary commentaries informing this summary are from Lesslie Newbigin (The Light has Come) and Dale Bruner.
We have a number of ways to go for Maundy Thursday, with the most traditional obviously being the Last Supper. By our modern measure, “Thursday” would also include Gethsemane and other events of that night (the random naked guy, Peter’s denials, etc.), but with the Jewish day traditionally beginning at sundown, however, those could also be considered part of Good Friday. Delving into John—who does not identify this as the Passover meal—leads to more than just the basic narrative and meal.
With John in particular, the Last Supper covers five chapters (13-17). We might wonder how John was able to remember so much, but if you believe Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, John was sitting to Jesus’s right. Presbyterians might say he was the Clerk of Supper, and he was checking notes with Peter and clearly not too distracted by the precipitating event of the painting, Jesus’s suggestion that someone would betray him.
Joking aside, John begins this year’s passage in a frank manner. John does not shy away from including the narrator’s voice from time to time (can we get a Ron Howard reading of John?), but there is a note of transition in 13:1 that creates a new scene and sets a tone that is both heartfelt and ominous. He then introduces the antagonist(s) in verse two, but reminds us who is in control in verse three (a la the grandfather in The Princess Bride). Starting in verse four, John begins the remarkable condescension-ascension imagery that precedes the meal.
Jesus changes into servants’ clothing, descends to perform the customary act of the lowest household servant (much to the chagrin of the disciples, especially Peter), and then ascends to the head of the table. True to form, John relies on the imagery as much as the narrative. It is notable that Jesus is the only one who descended to wash, but he then brought everyone with him in his rise to the table.
In Peter’s exchange with Jesus, we see a hint of our desire for agency in our own righteousness, as Peter wishes for Jesus to wash his head and hands as well. Lesslie Newbigin argues that Peter must accept Jesus’s self-humiliation because “to accept this is to be converted. And nothing can be added to this. If you imagine that you can add something to what is given in the cross, you delude yourself.” He continues, “To try to add to it would be comparable to supposing that one could increase the efficacy of a U-turn by turning 360 degrees instead of 180 degrees. One would not have enhanced but negated the usefulness of the action.” We must accept Jesus’s humiliation in order to properly sit with him at the table he heads.
Going further, Jesus calls us to imitate him in serving one another. It follows naturally that we should take the same communion as well, again with him as the head of our fellowship. While the Lord’s Supper is a sacramental act of this communion, Dale Bruner identifies these chapters as Jesus’s “Discipleship Sermons” that answer the question, “How can we connect with an unseen Lord?” Jesus gives us the sacrament, but he also gives us many other instructions in both his teachings and his prayers of this night.
So it is with Jesus’s command for us to love one another, which the lectionary includes after skipping Judas’s betrayal and before cutting off Jesus’s statement about Peter’s (continued) denial(s). Nevertheless, in what the lectionary does provide, we have Jesus’s response to Judas’s departure: “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him” (v.31). As depicted by the descent to the disciples’ feet and the ascent to the table, the real depth of Jesus’s descent is now clinched, leading to the glory of his rise and further ascent.
Connections to the day’s other passages:
The Exodus passage is the Passover passage, but in light of Jesus’s charges to his disciples, Exodus 12:4 stands out: “If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.” Even in this harrowing scene—the slaughtering of Hebrews’ lambs and Egyptians’ children—there are instructions for community and provision, freedom to trust one another in determining needs. It is an instruction from God that draws the people away from simple ritual and blunt instruction and necessarily draws them into conversation and consideration: communing over the literal blood of the lamb, each according to need.
Psalm 116:18 stands out as a follow-through promise to Jesus’s charges: “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people…”. We are accustomed to vows in the sacrament of baptism, but in the Lord’s Supper we also assent to Jesus’s embrace of his disciples and exhortations to them.
The Corinthians passage is of course the standard recitation when celebrating the sacrament of holy communion, but Paul’s introduction to the words is notable in light of John: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” That follows precisely from what Jesus had said about foot washing and loving one another. An important consideration for us is the consistency of the sacramental elements over two millenia. This receiving from Jesus and the passing on by a long chain of disciples over the centuries could easily resemble the childhood game of whispering in ears on down a line, resulting in practices that only resemble the original message vaguely, if at all. One could argue that this has been the case with the instruction to “love one another.” Nevertheless, the elements remain consistent and are the very same by which we now commune with Jesus and all the saints through the ages.
Allen Thompson is senior pastor at Fairview Presbyterian Church in North Augusta, South Carolina. Allen attended Pittsburgh Seminary (M.Div.) and Fuller Seminary (D.Min.) His wife, Kelsey, is a Marriage and Family Therapist, and they have two children.
Allen enjoys golf, hiking, camping, cooking pigs, ice climbing, and live music. He loves to imagine being in the story and culture of the Bible, wondering how we might have responded to God then and how we can follow Jesus now. As an “ideas” person, Allen is passionate about working with others to find out how God is calling us to use the many gifts and resources the Holy Spirit provides.
Allen holds a Doctor of Ministry (Fuller Theological Seminary) and a Master of Divinity (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).
In addition to the Newbigin quote in the summary, a number of quotes for The Lord’s Supper can be found on The Pastor’s Workshop site.
Calvin’s “wondrous exchange” passage in his Institutes (IV.xvii.2) captures the descent/ascent motif and can even serve as an affirmation of faith (1960 McNeill translation):
Union with Christ as the special fruit of the Lord’s Supper.
Godly souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament; in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such that whatever is his may be called ours. As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own.
This is the wonderful exchange 8 which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.
Again, in addition to Newbigin’s 360/180 degrees illustration in the summary, there are quite a few illustrations on the site.
Additional Sermon Resources
Call to Worship
Some combination of verses from the day’s psalm is appropriate here. This is but one option:
LEADER: What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?
ALL: I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.
LEADER: I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
ALL: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.
Prayer of Confession
Heavenly Father, we come to you acknowledging our own unrighteousness. We know that we fall short of your glory and your desires for us. Still, we know that you love us with the love, humility, and service you have shown in Jesus. Thank you for allowing Jesus’s faithfulness and sacrifice to atone for our sins. Lead us by your Spirit to serve in humility and to acknowledge Jesus in his vindicated glory. We pray these things in his name, and we ask that you hear our prayers as we continue our confession in silence…
Assurance of Pardon
Adapted from Psalm 103
LEADER: The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Jesus knows our every weakness and loves us still. Awaken to the promise of Christ’s amazing grace.
Friends, believe the good news of the gospel.
ALL: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven!
A fitting benediction here is from the main passage:
John 13:31b-32, 34-35:
“Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”