As Holy Week moves to its climax on Resurrection Sunday, we move through two critical days: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Maundy Thursday relates the events of the last Passover meal Jesus celebrated with His disciples. In one sense, everything was normal; this is what Jews did on Passover. Gather for the meal, read or recite Scripture, pray, laugh, discuss, etc. The evening began with the words “Why is this night different from all other nights?” For the Jews they became part of the deliverance of the people Israel from Egypt (Exodus 7-15), “when we were delivered.”
Yet two things separate this night when Jesus meets with His disciples from all other nights and all other Passover nights. The first is Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Only the lowest of servants would do such a task. Yet Jesus does for His disciples. Servanthood becomes the hallmark of being a disciple of Jesus.
But the second is far greater, for it separates this night from all others—in history. So our question becomes “Why is this night different from all other nights—in history?”As Jesus shares the bread from the meal, He does something more. “This is my Body which is given for you.” He anticipates the “giving” of His body into death the next day. Then He picked up the third cup of the Passover meal, and said, “This cup is the new testament [covenant] in my blood.”
After Jesus dies, this new “last will and testament” comes into effect. That is, when He has accomplished all and declares “It is finished!” then the “last will and testament” overshadows anything before it. Thus Jesus adds, “which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). His death and resurrection change history. His death defeats sin and all its effects. His resurrection defeats death. So that “Those who believe in me will live even if they die” (John 11:25).
And this new meal, not a Passover for Jews only, but a deliverance meal for all who believe in Jesus Christ becomes the lifeblood of the Church. The Church has treasured this gift; in the early church there was a group of persecuted Christians who proclaimed “Give us the Supper or we perish!” Yes, sometimes portions of the Church have neglected or denigrated its importance. But Scripture itself affirms the value—forgiving sins, strengthening the weak, encouraging the disheartened.
When we hear the words of institution at the Supper, this is not just a rote recital of an ancient ritual. No, Jesus Himself speaks the words and His body and blood are present, we don’t know how nor explain it, we believe it. With Martin Luther we confess what Scripture says:
P: What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?
C: These words, Given and shed for you for the remission of sins, show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
P: How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?
C: Certainly not just eating and drinking does these things, but the words written here: Given and shed for you for the remission of sins. The words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: remission of sins.
And so, Jesus welcomes the repentant sinner to receive what he or she cannot earn, forgiveness of sins. Sometimes, we hear about people who think they have sinned too much or are fearful that they are not “good enough” to receive. Luther says it so well:
P: Who receives this Sacrament worthily?
C: Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: Given and shed for you for the remission of sins. But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words for you require all hearts to believe.
So, come, this night is different from all other nights. This is a night to receive freely what is most important.
Maundy Thursday hymn: “Let All Mortal Flesh.”