Maundy Thursday is the name the church has given to the day on which Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples, known as the Last Supper – and also called Holy Communion, the Eucharist (Greek for thanksgiving), and in the Roman Catholic church it’s known as Mass (the word Mass comes from the Latin phrase said at the dismissal: “Ite, missa est” (it means “Go you are dismissed” or as we might say, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’). There are two important events that are the focus of Maundy Thursday, and we are going to be looking at both of them this evening:
- Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with His disciples and thereby instituted the Lord’s Supper as a lasting ordinance – an act of remembrance – until He returns.
- As the meal was being served Jesus got up from the table and washed the disciples’ feet as an act of humility and service, thereby setting an example that we should love and serve one another in humility.
The word “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word ‘mandatum’ meaning “commandment.” The “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday, then, refers to the command Jesus gave to the disciples at the Last Supper; that they should love and serve one another. Citation “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13v34).
Today, being Maundy Thursday, I want us to look a little deeper, than maybe we normally would, at the Lord’s Supper. I want us to consider the significance and symbolism in the sharing of Communion, which Jesus instituted as a lasting ordinance – an act of remembrance – until He returns. And I want to consider the symbolism in the foot washing incident and see what we can learn. Let me begin by sharing an illustration with you:
When a US Navy vessel arrives or departs from the military bases in Pearl Harbour, the crew of the ship line up in dress uniform (in their pearly whites). They stand to attention at arms-length on the outer edges of the deck, in salute to the soldiers, sailors and civilians who died during World War II. It is a stirring tribute and I’ve read participants often list it among the most memorable moments of their military career. Even for spectators on the shore, the salute triggers an incredible emotional connection, but especially between the servants of today and the servants of yesterday. It grants nobility to the work of today’s sailor, while giving dignity to the sacrifice of those from the past.
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29), it was surely with an eye toward creating something of the same kind of emotional bond. Our participation at the Lord’s Table honours His sacrifice while also granting us a connection to Him, unlike any other act of remembrance. Just as the US Navy carefully prescribes the way it salutes the fallen, so too Jesus taught us how to remember His sacrifice (1 Corinthians 11:26-28). The acts of sharing communion with reverence and thanksgiving serve to honour the past and what Jesus accomplished for us, whilst also giving purpose to the present, as we serve Him and await His return. Citation
We have come to understand the bread and wine we use in Communion as sacraments – defined by St Augustine as ‘a visible sign of an invisible reality’. It has also been called ‘a physical token that expresses a spiritual reality’ and an ‘outward and a visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. – A symbol is a token or sign that represents something; think of a flag, an emblem or badge, a poppy, a cross: symbols that represent something. – The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is deeply symbolic.
With its roots in the Passover, the most important feast on the Jewish calendar, the service of Holy Communion is like an acted-out sermon remembering Christ, our sacrificial lamb who takes upon Himself the sins of the world… who was killed in our place, for our redemption; the forgiveness of sins.
The Jewish Passover commemorated the last of the ten plagues in Egypt, when the firstborn in all of Egypt died, but the Israelites were ‘passed-over’ and spared (or saved) because the blood of a sacrificed lamb was daubed on the sides and tops of the doorframes where they lived. (The Israelites were ‘covered’ by the blood of the lamb.) The lamb was then roasted and eaten with unleavened bread in a meal designated as the LORD’S Passover (cf. Exodus 12).
It was whilst commemorating the Passover feast and eating the meal of remembrance in the upper room (being literally Jesus’ Last Supper) that ‘Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and then gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body given for you; do this is remembrance of me.” After supper he took a cup of wine and gave it to his disciples saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”’ (Luke 22:19-20). These are hugely significant words and actions that tell us Jesus’ own view of his death. In his commentary John Stott mentions three particular truths that stand out:
- The first is the centrality of his death. Jesus was giving instructions for his own memorial service. (…) It was by his death that he wished to be remembered.
- The second truth (…) concerns the purpose of Jesus’ death. According to Matthew 26:28, the cup stood for “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This claim is that through the shedding of Jesus’ blood came the promise of forgiveness of sins.
- The third truth (…) concerns the need for us to appropriate personally the benefits of Jesus’ death. (…) It was not enough for Christ to die; we have to make the blessings of his death our own. The eating and the drinking were, and still are, a vivid acted out parable of receiving Christ as our crucified Saviour and of feeding on him in our hearts by faith. The Lord’s Supper, then, as instituted by Jesus, is a drama rich in spiritual significance. Citation
“On Sunday, July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed their lunar module, the Eagle, on the Sea of Tranquillity. The first thing they did was to celebrate Communion. However, because of a lawsuit filed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, when NASA aired the reading from Genesis by the astronauts of Apollo 8, it decided to black out that part of the broadcast.
Aldrin, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, took out a Communion kit provided by Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. In the one-sixth gravity, the wine curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Just before eating the bread and drinking the cup, Aldrin read from the gospel of John: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” Citation
Sharing Holy Communion is a public Christian witness: It’s an acted-out parable; an act of remembrance in which we recall Jesus’ death and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. But it is also much more than this: Communion is steeped in symbolism. Here are seven things that we share in when we partake in the Lord’s Supper:
- In the Lord’s Supper we share in the proclamation of Christ’s Death. The breaking of bread symbolizes Christ’s body broken for us, and the pouring of the cup proclaims Christ’s blood poured out for us. As Paul said: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26 NIV).
- In the Lord’s Supper we share in the benefit that Christ’s death achieved for us. Jesus instructed his disciples to, “Take and eat; this is my body.” (Matthew 26:26.) Of course, Jesus was physically present in body when he said this, and so he must have been speaking metaphorically, and using the bread, and then the wine, as pictures, symbolising that his body would be broken and his blood spilt for us, for the forgiveness of sins. So when we participate in Communion we signify that we share in the benefits achieved for us by the sacrificial and atoning death of Christ.
- In the Lord’s Supper we share in receiving spiritual nourishment and refreshment for our souls. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54). Again, Jesus was not speaking about a literal eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood to gain eternal life but of a spiritual feeding on Christ: We feed on Christ in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Citation
- In the Lord’s Supper we share in the unity of the saints. Paul wrote: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17). And so in Communion we join together with believers down the ages and throughout the world, in receiving and worshipping the risen Jesus.
- In the Lord’s Supper we share in receiving Christ’s personal affirmation of His love for us. Jesus instituted the sacrament and invites us to partake of it, and so we join together, come into His presence and then we each personally receive a vivid reminder of His love for us in the sacraments, the symbols.
- In the Lord’s Supper we share in receiving Christ’s personal affirmation that the blessings of salvation are reserved for us. We are eating and drinking a foretaste of the King’s wedding banquet, where a place has already been reserved for us.
- In the Lord’s Supper we share in affirming our personal faith in Christ. As we share in Communion we are acknowledging that our sins were the reason for Christ’ suffering and death, and that our forgiveness is found only in accepting by faith the gift of God. Paul wrote: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In addition to all of this, Christ is spiritually present in a special way when we come together as a church and share in Communion. Jesus promised to be with us always: “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). But he also promised to be present when believers gather in his name to worship: “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Think of it like this: Jesus is always with us because we live in the same house, but when we come together in worship to share communion, it’s like we are in the same room, sat around the table. Jesus presence with believers is an abiding presence but in another sense, there is a special presence, a nearness of His being with us, when we come to share in the Sacraments… when, that is, we partake with a sincere and grateful heart (after self-examination).
Warren Wiersbe states: ‘No one should take Communion who is not a true believer. Nor should a believer take Communion if their heart is not right with God and with their fellow believers. That’s why churches have a time of spiritual preparation [the confession and making peace with each other] before we take [Communion], so that partakers don’t bring [rebuke and judgment] on themselves.’ Citation
So before you drink from the communion cup in a few moments, just think what was in the cup Jesus drank from in Gethsemane on the night before He was crucified. You can drink from the cup with assurance because He first drank from the cup in agony. On the eve of His death He prayed: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death… Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:34-36). Note the words ‘overwhelmed with sorrow.’ (If you think your sin is no big deal, perhaps those words will help to change your mind.) Christ drank from the cup of God’s wrath so that you could drink from the cup of God’s grace. Citation
Indeed, Paul warns us: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). Commentators have made several suggestions as to what Paul actually meant by ‘unworthy manner’. It may be a warning against rushing into the ceremony without thinking of its meaning; or to forget the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf; or to come to Communion with un-confessed sin, or even to allow the sacrament to become a cold, lifeless, formal ritual… just going through the motions!
Earlier, in our Bible reading we read that as the meal (the Last Supper) was being served, Jesus got up from the table and washed the disciples feet as an act of humility and service, thereby setting an example that we too should love and serve one another in humility… ‘When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them’ (John 13v12). Friends, do you understand what Jesus has done for you? If Jesus was willing to stoop so low to serve us and save us, how should we respond?
“A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13v34).
And so, as we close on this Maundy Thursday, and before we share in the Lord’s Supper together, myself and members of the leadership team would like to invite you; encourage you to come and have your feet washed by us.
Jesus washed his disciple’s feet but Simon Peter was reluctant to having his feet washed… it was just too close up and personal. Would you have been reluctant? Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” It is uncomfortable needing someone to wash us; it’s un-dignifying! We only submit to it when we know we need cleaning and cannot clean ourselves. We can’t earn God’s forgiveness; we need to be washed. Jesus said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15).
As a symbolic reminder of our need to be washed, and also of our Lord’s command to love and serve one another in humility, during the next three songs I am first going to wash the Team Leader’s feet, and then the Team Leaders will wash anyone else who wants it… so don’t be reluctant or proud; be humble and willing to be one of Jesus’ disciples and be symbolically washed, before we share in the Lord’s Supper together.
(For further resources see The Lord’s Supper)