Maundy Thursday. If we had to come up with a caption, or a summary, for the events we are commemorating here tonight, it might be “a freedom meal for servants.” That may sound like an oxymoron so let me unpack what I mean.
Most scholars believe that the Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples was a Passover Seder. They were observant Jews and would have taken special care to celebrate the Passover together every year. Tonight’s reading from Exodus tells us of the origins of that sacred meal: Moses and his people are preparing to pack up and escape the bonds of their slavery in Egypt after a long struggle with Pharaoh and the ruling authorities there.
Just before they go, Moses experiences God telling him to transform an ancient sheep-herder’s spring festival into a new “freedom meal.” The meal was called “pesah” which we usually translate “Passover” because of the story of the angel of death “passing over” the homes of the Jewish people that night. But it more likely means “have compassion on” or “protect.”
Just as God had “compassion on” and “protected” the early, nomadic Hebrew shepherds, now he was to have compassion on and protect the whole people of Israel from the Egyptians’ fury. So, just as in those earlier meals, they slaughter the spring lambs and share the meal among families. But this time, there are some changes to “the liturgy.” They spread the lambs’ blood over their doors to identify the children of Israel, and they eat the meal in haste – with their “loins girded, sandals on their feet, and staffs in their hands” – because their mad dash to freedom was about to begin!
The Jewish people have celebrated that Meal annually from that day until this in accordance with the Lord’s commandment: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” (Exodus 12:14)
And it was this that the Psalmist was singing about in tonight’s Psalm: “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people…O Lord, I am your servant and the child of your handmaid; you have freed me from my bonds. I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving…” (Psalm 116 passim)
It was that meal too that Jesus was presiding over when he “changed the liturgy” once again! When he “lifted up the cup of salvation” he said, “This cup is the NEW covenant in MY blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” When he lifted up the unleavened bread and broke it in order to share it with his friends, he said, “This is MY body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (I Corinthians 11:23-26 passim)
No longer was it the lamb’s blood spread over the doors that spoke of God’s “compassion.” Now, it was Jesus’ blood – the sacrifice of his life – that showed how much he loved them. No longer was it the unblemished lamb that provided spiritual food. Now, it was Jesus’ own Body, which he was prepared to offer for their protection…and for their liberation.
So, the Passover Seder is the freedom meal for the Jews. The Holy Eucharist is the freedom meal for Christians.
But just what kind of Christians are we called to be – we who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb? Well, “during supper Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet…” (John 13:3-4)
I’ve always thought it so interesting that Christians follow Jesus’ command to “Do this in remembrance of me” every Sunday in countless churches around the world. We follow his example to wash one another’s feet only once a year – if that – on Maundy Thursday. I’m proud of Trinity Cathedral for being willing to share also in this ritual – a tradition of the Church for 2,000 years!
A freedom meal for servants!
St. Paul once wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1). God created us to be free, but we abused that freedom. God led the children of Israel out of slavery into freedom time and time again, but they often abused that freedom as well.
Jesus Christ came with a message of freedom and was prepared to lay down his life rather than compromise that message. But we have often compromised it. What we never seem to “get” is this: Freedom is not doing anything we want to do. That’s “license” not freedom. Real freedom is about “service” – serving God and serving one another.
There is a prayer which I say almost every day in the service of Morning Prayer, and it begins like this; “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom…” If you really want to be free…start serving God.
This is the message of Maundy Thursday. The message Jesus was preparing himself to die for when he broke the Bread, shared the Cup, and washed his disciples’ feet. He knew that knowing God IS eternal life and that serving God is perfect freedom.
For freedom Christ has set us free, dear friends!
Welcome to this “freedom meal…for servants.”