Maundy Thursday Sermon

March 20, 2008

The Greatest Service


And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”  Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.  For this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.  Matthew 26, 26-28


The word “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin word for command or mandate.  One would think that the mandate of Maundy Thursday would be the command of Jesus to eat and drink his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  But that’s not the case.  The historic Gospel Lesson for Maundy Thursday is the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  The mandate of Maundy Thursday is that we imitate Jesus.  Just as he washed his disciples’ feet, we should also wash one another’s feet.


But we don’t gather together to wash one another’s feet on Maundy Thursday or on any other day for that matter.  On the other hand, it has been the custom for hundreds and hundreds of years for the Church to gather together on Maundy Thursday to eat and to drink the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for the remission of sins.


Jesus didn’t institute foot washing as an ordinance for his church.  Some Christians have practiced it.  The custom of servants washing the feet of their guests disappeared when people stopped wearing sandals on dusty roads.  But the mandate of Maundy Thursday remains until the end of time.  We are to serve one another.  The Lord Jesus showed his lordship by means of serving.  So we serve one another in love.


Every once in a while I get an email from someone who has visited my website and has a question or a comment.  A few months ago I received an email from a man who disagreed quite vehemently with something I had written.  I had written that Jesus serves us.  He disagreed.  He said that we serve Jesus.  I responded by telling him that he was right.  We serve Jesus.  But we cannot serve Jesus until Jesus serves us. 


This is what Jesus was saying to Peter when Peter refused to let Jesus wash his feet.  You must accept the humble service of your Lord Jesus or you can have no part of him.  If you choose to serve God on your own terms God will not accept your service.  It must be on his terms.  And God’s terms are that before you can serve him he must serve you.


The custom of foot washing had symbolic value, but the symbolism was lost when the custom disappeared.  Jesus instituted no sacrament of foot washing.  He instituted no sacrament of us serving us.  He instituted a sacrament of him serving us.  This is important.  Before we can serve one another, we must be served by Jesus.


The greatest service any man ever offered up to God was the service that Jesus rendered upon the cross.  He offered up to God his holy body and precious blood.  He offered his body and blood up to God as the sacrifice to atone for the sin of the world.  This is the greatest service man could offer to God not only because of its intrinsic worth, but because of the great benefit it brings to us.


Jesus’ obedience all the way to the death of the cross has a value beyond measure.  Think of all of the good things that everyone in the history of the world has ever done.  Think of every time a women risked her life for her child; every time a soldier gave his life for his country; every time an act of kindness was shown to those in need; every time a neighbor defended his neighbor’s reputation.  Think of all these acts of goodness, decency, self-sacrifice and kindness and add them all together and present them all before God.  Then compare this accumulated goodness to the single act of obedience of Jesus Christ offering himself up to the Father on the cross of Calvary, suffering the guilt for the entire human race, loving with a perfect love while bearing all of the hatred and evil of the world.  Christ’s service to God is worth more than the service of the whole world.  For it was without flaw.  It was pure.  It was untainted by any base motive.  It was unmarred by any sinful desire.  It was perfect.  It was the unmatched service of man to God because of its intrinsic value.


And it was the greatest service any man offered up to God because of the benefit it brings to us.  The reason Jesus teaches us to wash one another’s feet, that is, to serve one another in humility, is because a good deed is done for the benefit of others.  What we do for the purpose of gaining something for ourselves may be commendable, great, noteworthy, or even historic.  But what we do for the purpose of gaining something for others is truly a good deed.  This is why the sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood upon the cross is the greatest deed ever done.  It is on account of its great benefit for us.


“Take eat,” Jesus says.  “This is my body.”  Specifically, which body is that?  “Which is given for you.”  “For you.”  It was given as a sacrifice to God.  It was service to God.  But is it for you.  It is for your benefit.  He gave up his body as the sacrifice to God to take your place in order to give to God what you owed and could not pay.  It is for your forgiveness.  It is for your life.  “Drink of it, all of you,” Jesus says.  “This is the new testament in my blood.”  The old covenant was sealed by the blood of a lamb, but it could not take away sin.  Only the blood of the God become man could take away sin.  This is the blood of the new testament.  It is the blood that actually takes away sins. 


Where the paschal blood is poured,

Death’s dread angel sheaths his sword.


“It is shed for you, for the remission of sins.”  Whose sins?  Your sins!  It was shed for you!  Now it is given to you.  Eat the body that was given for you.  Drink the blood that was shed for you.  Take into your body and medicine of immortality, for this bread and wine are not merely bread and wine.  They are the body of Jesus Christ once and for all offered up to the penal justice of God to appease his anger against sinners.  As we sing:


Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior

Turned away God’s wrath forever.

By his bitter pain and woe

He saved us from the evil foe.


You hear the voice of a minister, but it is Christ who is speaking.  You receive the bread and the wine from the hands of a minister, but it is Christ himself who is the host of this holy meal.  He is feeding you with his holy body and blood whereby he has made full satisfaction for all your sins.


Now what is a greater service than that?  I ask you, dear Christian.  What is a greater service than what the Lord Jesus offers to you whenever you come here to his altar and kneel to receive his body and blood?  Can you do anything that compares to this?  Can your service rival this?  Can your love approach this? 


The service we do cannot take away a single sin.  And should it save a life, that life will die because it came from the dust and will return to it.  The great acts of benevolence, bravery, human genius, and beauty can and should be admired.  As the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4, 8:


Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.


But there is no nobility, justice, purity, loveliness, goodness, or praiseworthy act of virtue that can compare with the service that our Lord Jesus offered in our stead to God when he suffered and died for us.  And there cannot be any treasure more valuable to us that this treasure of his body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.


This holy meal prepares us to live holy lives.  Every time we come, burdened by sins, our gracious Lord gives us the very body and blood by which our sins are forgiven.  We come bemoaning our failures, our deliberate acts of disobedience, our sins of petty pride, our selfish deeds and desires, our unforgiving bitterness, and every other weight of sin that lays us low.  We come, having failed the One in whose name we were baptized; the One whose name we bear.  We come as we are.  Jesus receives us as we are.  He never fails to give us forgiveness of our sins when he gives us his body and blood to eat and to drink.  This food is no mere reminder of an absent Jesus.  It is the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  This sacrament gives us what Christ’s body and blood have gained for us.  We depart in peace because our sins are forgiven, the gate of heaven is wide open, we are at peace with God, and we stand before God justified by the blood of his Son.  Here sinners are declared to be saints and what God declares is always true.


So we come.  We eat and we drink.  We are served by him whose service saves sinners.  We go home justified.  Christ’s body and blood make our humble service to one another acceptable to God.  This is what makes it a joy for us.


Rolf D. Preus


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