Our Servant Saviour
Our Servant Saviour
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 & St. John 13:1-15
Have you ever considered that Jesus began and ended his earthly ministry by giving the Sacraments to his people? If you haven’t, don’t worry; I hadn’t either. This week I was reading Alfred Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah and found what he had to say profound:
“With a Sacrament did Jesus begin His Ministry: it was that of separation and consecration in Baptism. With a second Sacrament did He close His Ministry: it was that of gathering together and fellowship in the Lord’s Supper. Both were into his Death: yet not as something that had power over Him, but as a Death that has been followed by the Resurrection. For, if in Baptism we are buried with Him, we also rise with Him; and if in the Holy Supper we remember His Death, it is as that of Him Who is risen again—and if we show forth that Death, it is until he comes Again.”
Both Sacraments make us participants in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Baptism we participate in such a way that our sins are washed away and the life of the Holy Spirit is poured into us, uniting us to Jesus and to all the benefits of his resurrection. And in the Lord’s Supper we again recall his death and resurrection, but at the Table he feeds us with his own crucified and risen self, strengthening us with his grace and reminding us that we live here and now in the hope of a future resurrection of our own.
The Old Testament Church had two Sacraments as well. In Circumcision, the Old Testament saints were united to God in his Covenant. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had begun using the practise of Baptism—a cleansing ritual—along with circumcision to bring Gentile converts into the Covenant. Jesus took that practise of Baptism and gave it new and deeper meaning and used it to replace the old Sacrament of Circumcision.
And tonight, as we walk with Jesus during his last days, as he makes his way to the cross, we see him take the other Sacrament of the Old Testament, the Passover, and give it new and deeper meaning as he turns it into the Eucharist.
In our Epistle lesson from First Corinthians, St. Paul recounts for us what Jesus did that night:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, 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. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
That night Jesus and his disciples met in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover. Again, this was the Sacramental meal that God had introduced to his people through Moses. Through Moses, he had called Pharaoh to free his people from their Egyptian slavery. He had sent nine plagues on the Egyptians and yet Pharaoh still refused to free them people. And so God sent a final, tenth, plague. As he had warned Pharaoh, during the night he sent an angel of death through the land of Egypt to take the life of every firstborn son, from the palace of the king to the shack of the lowest slave. That angel was to pass the homes of the Israelites too. But God instructed Moses that salvation from the angel of death was available to the Israelites. Each family, on that night, was to slaughter a lamb. They were to eat that lamb with unleavened bread and were to paint its blood on the doorposts of their homes. Seeing the blood, the angel of death would “pass over” and leave the firstborn of that home alive.
That night became the first day of the new year for the Israelites and forever after that, they celebrated each new year with a commemoration of the Passover, as they gathered their families to share in a meal: bread, wine, bitter herbs, and a lamb to remind them of those paschal lambs sacrificed the night before their ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.
That’s what Jesus and his disciples were commemorating that night. Jesus presided over the meal as they broke unleavened bread, passed the cup of wine, and ate the Passover lamb. The focus of the meal was on the lamb. It was the custom by Jesus’ time to mark the completion of the sacrificial meal by passing the cup a final, third time, and to break apart and eat a portion of the unleavened bread that had been set aside earlier in the evening. And it was at this point that Jesus transformed the old Sacrament in to the new. They had finished eating the sacrificial lamb; the Sacrament was over. And Jesus seems to have anticipated this in his timing. That was the last true Passover; that was the last time God’s people were required to celebrate that meal. When the lamb had been eaten, Jesus took the final cup and that leftover bread and instituted the new Sacrament of his own body and blood. At that point Jesus became the true Paschal—the true Passover—Lamb. The Passover that had taken place in Egypt all those generations before was only an imperfect type and shadow pointing the people to what Jesus was about to do.
And so as he broke the bread and passed it to his disciples saying, “Take and eat; this is my Body given for you,” and as he passed the cup, telling them, “This is my blood, shed for you,” the Passion of our Lord began. Jesus knew he was beginning his journey to the Cross. As the lamb had been sacrificed in Egypt for the redemption of the firstborn, Jesus, the truly pure and spotless Lamb of God, was to offer himself as a once-and-for-all sacrifice that Death itself might pass over all those who would put their trust in what he was about to do.
And yet the Maundy Thursday message isn’t so much that Jesus instituted a new Sacrament. It’s not even so much the message about Jesus’ death at the cross as the true Passover lamb. The message of Maundy Thursday lies in what Jesus calls us to do in light of our participation in his death and resurrection. The Cross is our source of forgiveness. We understand that. But forgiveness is only the beginning. The Father sent his Son to take our sins upon himself, to die in our place, and to be a means of forgiveness so that we can be restored to his fellowship and to the fullness of life he intended for us. Our sin separates us from God; it separates us from life. And so, at the Cross, Jesus deals with our sin. But, brothers and sisters, in dealing with our sin, Jesus transforms us. He pours his Spirit into us and unites us to himself. Like dead branches grafted into a living vine, he causes his own life to course through our spiritual veins and restores to us the eternal life that God intended for us. Ultimately, the Cross is about us partaking in the divine life of our Saviour and being transformed in his likeness.
This is why we’re warned over and over that true faith in the Cross of Christ manifests itself in love and good works—in Christlike behaviour. True and saving faith unites us with Jesus and if we are united with Jesus, we become more and more like him each day. This is why, as part of that same Passover celebration, Jesus not only introduced the Sacrament of his Supper, but he also washed the feet of his disciples. He was their Master; he was their Lord. But when he knelt and washed their feet, doing the work of a household slave. He reminded them that he was also their servant. As Sunday’s lessons taught us, Jesus came not like a great earthly king. He didn’t come with violence to force men and women into submission to him. He didn’t come in great power or great wealth. No, he came humbly. In fact, on the day of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as the great king, come in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies, he came humbly and riding on a donkey. The earthly mission of our divine Lord and Master was to be the servant of his sinful and rebellious creatures.
And so the first lesson that Jesus taught his disciples as he went to do his work at the Cross was that redemption means following in the servant footsteps of our Lord. It means being servants ourselves; servants to our brothers and sisters in Christ and servants to the world around us. As he washed their feet that night, Jesus told his disciples:
I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:15-17)
What does it look like to be a servant? Later that same night, Jesus went on to tell them:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:12-17)
Being a servant of the Cross is about love. It’s about the love of the Father who sent his only Son for our redemption. It’s about the love of the Son, who humbled himself and took up our nature and who offered himself on the Cross that we might be restored to his divine fellowship and life. And, brothers and sisters, it’s about our being so transformed by the love of God, that divine love pours forth from us as we give of ourselves for the sake of others.
People often wonder what the word “Maundy” means. It’s an old English word that comes from the Latin word mandatum: “mandate”, “commandment”. Maundy Thursday, the night on which Jesus begins his Passion, is the night on which Jesus gives us this new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He gives us that commandment as he invites us to his Table. It’s the old Passover table, but through the Cross it has new meaning. At the Table we’re reminded that Jesus is the true and once-for-all Passover Lamb, who died and rose from the grace for us and who feeds us with his own divine love that divine love might grow in us and define our own life and being.
Let us pray: “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.”