Summary: On Holy Thursday Jesus institutes his sacred meal and commands us to love one another
April 9, 2020 – Maundy Thursday
Rev. Mary Erickson
Hope Lutheran Church
His Real Presence
Friends, may grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and Christ Jesus our Lord.
Tonight is Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. Normally, we emphasize the meal our Lord Jesus Christ instituted on this night. But this year is different. We’re sequestered from one another. We can’t gather to celebrate this meal of our savior’s love.
I invite you to take a moment and look back at significant meals of celebration where a familiar face was not present. Perhaps it was a holiday gathering. A family member wasn’t there because they were serving our country in a location far, far away. Or it was your family’s first occasion to gather for a holiday following the death of a significant loved one. As you gathered around the table, there was the palpable absence of the one who wasn’t there. But you remember. And you feel their presence, nonetheless.
I have a group of girlfriends who have our own traditional celebration. It’s a meal of service we gladly partake in every December. Many years ago, our friend Marti Nelson rounded us all together. She cajoled and circled round us, much like a good herding dog, actually. And she prodded us into serving the Christmas holiday meal for the residences at the Bolton Refuge House downtown. We put together a simple menu which has since become the “traditional holiday meal.”
Marti led us in the serving of that first meal. We stood behind the serving tables and portioned up food for each of the guests as they came by. Towards the end of the evening, Santa arrived in a rumpled red suit to share his bag of goodies with the children.
After just a couple of years, our friend Marti died from Multiple Myeloma. She was only in her 40’s. Since then, it’s become our annual tradition to serve this Bolton Christmas Meal in her memory. And Marti’s sparkling and indomitable spirit is with us on that night.
Our Lord Jesus instituted a holy meal on that evening long ago. During the celebration of the Passover Seder meal, he took the piece of unleavened bread and the cup of wine. And he promised that he will come to us in a very real way when we gather in his name. Even in his earthly absence, he comes to us still. He comes among us, in his very body and blood, as we share this meal.
Perhaps you have memories of Holy Communion celebrations from the past. For me, I remember especially doing supply preaching in small, rural congregations. They have the very traditional horseshoe-shaped communion rail encircling the altar. Table by table the congregation comes forward and kneels along the rail. The space is very close – no such thing as social distancing! The communion assistant and I are elbow to elbow within the circle. As we make our way around the rail, the congregants face one another across the railing. As they receive the body and blood of our Lord, they see also the greater Body of Christ, the church, made visible in Christian community.
On this night we typically gather to remember how Christ comes to us in the holy meal he instituted on the night of his betrayal. But our memory of that night also includes other forms of Jesus’ real presence among us. He comes to us in acts of service and his command to love.
We hear tonight the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. He takes up the servant’s apron and ties it around his middle. And then, like the house slave, on his knees he takes a basin of water. And one by one, he washes the feet of his disciples. When he’s done, he encourages his disciples to follow his example. Be servants of one another.
Sometimes on Maundy Thursday, congregations will enact a foot washing ceremony during their worship service. And I’ll be honest. I’ve always found that practice to be somewhat artificial. Two or three selected persons from the congregation come forward. They’re a bit red-faced as they remove their shoes. And then the pastor or the council president very awkwardly gets on their knees and washes their feet. The observance seems artificial and uneasy.
But I had an opportunity to witness an act that came the closest I’ll ever see of the holiness of that moment long ago in the Upper Room. It took place in the African nation of Malawi. I was with a delegation from a former congregation. We were visiting our companion parish there, the Blantyre Parish in southern Malawi. It was evening, and we were at the parsonage of the pastor in Blantyre, Pastor Justin Mofolo. His wife, Agnes was busily putting all the food she had prepared on the low table in the middle of the living room. In the very traditional Malawian manner, all of the serving dishes were covered with their lids.