Maundy Thursday, 13 April 2017

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
I Corinthians 11:23-26
Saint John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Background: Passover

Like a great number of religious rites and festivals, Passover has a history that discloses several more ancient usages and meanings. It is thought that the festival is the descendant of an ancient nomadic feast, the Shepherd’s Rite, and a Canaanite agricultural feast. In Exodus 5:1, and 10:9 we have some evidence of a rite that precedes the Passover celebration that we know from later in Exodus. Combined with these two roots is also the Feast of Unleavened Bread (see Deuteronomy 16:16), probably the oldest of the festivals in the liturgical calendar. Some commentators see the original locus of the Passover rites as being in the home itself. Later, under the reforms of Josiah, and the Deuteronomic school, the celebrations may have been combined into a feast that was celebrated by both home and nation. As a national celebration these rites are attached to a celebration of the liberation from Egypt. The texts in Exodus (see the First Reading below) that outline the various aspects of the celebration were probably brought into their final form either during the exile, or in the period immediately following. For an engaging and exhaustive discussion on the Passover, see J. C. Rylaarsdam’s article in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, page 663ff.[1]

First Reading: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. [Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.] This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

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.

These materials have a somewhat regulative nature, and were probably formed either during the Josiah reforms, or later as Judaism began to reassert itself following the Exile. In verse 2 we have an indication that this feast also signaled a new year, although there are at least four other occasions that are lifted up as new year’s dates. Later the new year was aligned with the agricultural calendar, rather than attaching it to a historical event. It might make an interesting preaching point that the directions allow for a lamb or a kid.

The urgency of the situation is indicated by the use of a flatbread – easily prepared when needed, and the provision for fire-roasting the lamb (or kid). The concern about the consumption of blood would be averted by this method, as would preparing a stew as in boiling the meat. However, there would need to have been a pot for the latter method. Here we have but the bare essentials.

Much like Moses’ appearances before Pharaoh and his wise men, this night is cast as a contest between the God of Israel and the Egyptian pantheon, “from all the gods of Egypt I will exact retributions.” The scene, or at least the comments on the seen seem analogous to Elijah’s contest with the priests of Ba’al. It is here that we see a major thread in this narrative – the theme of blood. It is Moses who sheds the blood of an Egyptian supervisor. In his return to Egypt and subsequent circumcision blood is shed again. The blood of the first-born is shed, and the Nile is turned into a river of blood. It is blood, smeared on the lintels of a home that deters the visitation of the “Destroyer” or as in our text the “plague”. Two words in the Hebrew preserve a pun. “Pesach”, the name of the festival is punned by the verb pasa which means to “skip” or “hop”. In English the verb has been morphed into a name for the celebration, “Passover”.

Breaking open Exodus:
1.          What is the urgency that surrounds this meal?
2.          How has God delivered you from death?
3.         What does Passover mean to you?

Psalm 116:1, 10-17 Dilexi, quoniam

     I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.
10    How shall I repay the Lord *
for all the good things he has done for me?
11    I will lift up the cup of salvation *
and call upon the Name of the Lord.
12    I will fulfill my vows to the Lord *
in the presence of all his people.
13    Precious in the sight of the Lord *
is the death of his servants.
14    Lord, I am your servant; *
I am your servant and the child of your handmaid;
you have freed me from my bonds.
15    I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and call upon the Name of the Lord.
16    I will fulfill my vows to the Lord *
in the presence of all his people,
17    In the courts of the Lord’s house, *
in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.

Verse introduces us to the psalm of thanksgiving. You may want to read the elided verses (2-9) to capture the complete flavor of the need and the subsequent thanksgiving. Themes of death, and stress are relieved by God, and thus the psalmist gives thanks. When we pick up with the psalm again, at verse 10, we seem to be at the temple, offering a ritual thanksgiving to God. The cup of salvation is more than likely a cup from which a libation was poured upon the altar. For a similar libation see II Samuel 23:16, where David pour out a cup of water gained at great price by his men. To underscore the theme of deliverance from death and distress, Robert Altar translates the cup as “The cup of rescue.”[2] The vows in verse 12 and verse 16 are the vows to offer the thanksgiving sacrifice, perhaps a reference to the libation poured out in verse 11. The final verses are a widening scene from the individual to the temple and finally to the entire city of Jerusalem. God’s mercy is for more than the one.

Breaking open the Psalm 118:
1.         What does it mean to you to be righteous?
2.         Is there a “righteous one” that you know?
3.        Where is righteousness in your city?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 11:23-26

I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

In this section (11:2 -14:40) Paul outlines rules and behaviors for the Christian assembly. These are the considerations that Christians have for one another when they have gathered together. Following a section on “head coverings”, we come to the Eucharistic assembly and what is required there. In the verses immediately preceding this pericope, Paul tackles the problems of social discrimination at the assembly, and then centers them, in our reading, in what it was that Jesus intended in the meal. He recalls the evening of the supper and what happened there. The remembrance is necessary, not only from the “Do this in remembrance of me,” but also in remembering what it was that the same Lord did for all on the cross. We have a section that seems both social and sacramental at the same time – and that is proper. The example given moves the meal from the benefit for only the individual to the benefit for all, and for the other. What meaning does the Lord’s death have for the community? Paul sees the answer in the actions of offering, partaking of, and sharing the bread and the cup.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. Describe Jesus’ humiliation.
  2. Describe Jesus’ exultation.
  3. Which gives you the greatest strength?

The Gospel: St. John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And 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 and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

It is here that John differs from the synoptic gospels. Whereas Mark, Matthew, and Luke place the last supper at the Passover celebration, John places it before the Passover. What is tied to the Passover in John is the judgment of Jesus and his crucifixion. John shares some things with all the synoptics, namely: 1) the warning of the betrayal, 2) a prediction of Peter’s denial, 3) the fruit of the vine, and 4) reference to the Covenant. John shares a prediction of the scattering of the disciples with Mark and Matthew, and with Luke he shares a lesson of humility, and a reference to the disciples and the kingdom.

The main focus of this reading, and indeed this evening’s liturgy as well is the Foot washing. Its history in the churches is mixed, from use as a mandatory rite, or as an observance specific to Maundy Thursday, or as a monastic rite of welcome and hospitality. The text suggests what we are to know from the practice, both humility and servant hood. Here we have an action on the part of Jesus, which is then subsequently explained and expounded upon. Both preachers and readers may want to focus on the dialogue between Peter and Jesus, for in their exchange we see a key to the meanings of the event. From Peter we have questioning, objection, and finally acquiescence. From Jesus we have the promise of understanding, the question about inclusion, and finally acceptance of Peter, and a predictive reference to betrayal. Most important, however, is the example that Jesus leaves for the community that will gather in the future around this supper. It is an example of servant hood and humility – and it indicates a life of action and involvement.

The second pericope in our reading verses 21-30, A Prediction of the Betrayal, is elided from our liturgical reading and is completed by parts of another pericope, the introduction to the Last Discourse, verses 31-35. It is important that we are not left dangling with the foot washing alone, but are led into the events of the week that follows. The vision here almost looks back through John’s experience of the risen Christ, as Jesus speaks to his disciples about glory both of God, and the Son of Man. The presence of God-with-us will soon be at an end, at least in human terms, and thus Jesus prepares his closest with a behavior that ought to unite them. The behavior is love.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What do you think a Christian’s behavior should look like?
2.     Is humility a positive or a negative term for you? Why?
3.    How are you a servant?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]   Buttrick, G. (ed.) (1962) The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible – An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Abingdon Press, Nashville.
[2]   Alter, R. (2009) The Book of Psalms: a Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle location 9091.


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