UPDATE: Audio download here.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, took bread….
Tonight is that night for us. The night of betrayal. The night when he gave his true body and blood under the bread and wine for us Christians to eat and to drink. We hear again what happened on Holy Thursday. In the Gospel reading, John mentions Judas deciding to betray Jesus. We don’t hear of the betrayal itself. Just the plot. The betrayal is saved for Good Friday. Tomorrow we begin in the garden of Gethsemane, and move through the events beginning with the betrayal, ending at the hasty arrangements at the garden tomb. Tonight we hear the account of what happened in the upper room. Jesus speaks to the disciples – his final instructions. Four chapters of teaching, included only in John’s Gospel. Tonight we hear a few words from the beginning of that account. The Gospel reading is Jesus instructing the disciples.
So is the Epistle reading. If you have a red-letter edition of Holy Scripture, where the words of Jesus are printed in red, you notice pretty quickly that the red print is centered on the four Gospels. Page after page of red print there. Once you hit the book of Acts, there are only a few scattered verses spoken by Jesus. There’s a little bit in Revelation again. But in Paul’s letters, there’s really only one spot. We have it tonight. Take eat… Take drink. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he includes an account of the upper room. The institution of the Sacrament of the altar. The words spoken on the night he was betrayed. The Epistle and Gospel reading this evening both have Jesus words in the upper room to the disciples. They are words about service and sacrifice, blood shed and forgiveness.
Jesus, loving his own to the end, so he washes their feet as if he were a servant. He is a servant. The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He loved his own to the end – and the end is fast approaching. The moment where he will leave this world and go back to the Father. The moment that he will die for the sins of the world. The moment when he shows the no-greater-love sort of love. Laying down his life for his friends. And Jesus has called them friends. He has chosen them to be his friends. He will give his life for theirs. Not the other way around. We don’t choose him, or commit our lives to him. He gives his life up for us, he chooses us. That’s how the sheep-shepherd relationship works.
But before the sacrifice on the cross, first the washing of feet. If we are to be cleansed, Jesus must cleanse us. The work can not be ours. The work must be his. Peter tries to object, but Jesus tells him that if he will not let Jesus do the cleansing work, he can have no part of Jesus. We are unable to accomplish even a beginning to the salvation he offers. Jesus is the one who dies, while we are yet sinners. He is the one who gives his life in exchange for those who made themselves enemies of God. He is the one that shows us love we neither deserve nor want, so that we would be his own – even in opposition to the desires of our flesh.
We are sinful. We can not reform, or fix that. We can not rehabilitate it. We are sinners who belong to our father the devil. Jesus comes and by his death and resurrection breaks the power of Satan over us so that we could be children of the most high God. Through Holy baptism we are taken from Satan grasp, and are grafted into the holy vine of Jesus. God is our now our heavenly Father.
And yet, the flesh is still a struggle for us in this world. The Holy Spirit has made a beginning of faith, a beginning of obedience. And by that Spirit we want the things of God. As we pray, “Create in me a clean heart oh God and renew a right spirit within me.” We want to fear love and trust in him above all things. We want to love our neighbor as ourselves. But we are weak. We stumble and fall.
And so, Jesus gives us the sacrament so that by his body and blood we would be strengthened and preserved in the true faith. So that we would learn of Jesus to have faith in God, and to love our neighbor. That’s why Jesus gives us the Holy Sacrament. That’s why we need to receive it often. So that we would be strengthened. So that we would not be led astray. So that when we are weak, when we stumble and fall, we would be forgiven our sin, restored as a child of God, and strengthened for our struggle against the Devil, the world, and our flesh.
Tonight in our readings, we have both the promise of forgiveness of sins, and the promise that God will continue to hold us in his hand, that we will be forgiven when we fall, that the grace of Baptism sustains us all the days of our life. That God loves us and forgives us our sins. And that we, in response to that love shown, can now make a beginning of loving our neighbor. Jesus gives us the example. Not because we just weren’t sure what love was until Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. We were unable to love until God showed us love in the death of His Son. But now, having been redeemed, having been called according to his purpose in Jesus Christ, we have the promise of forgiveness of sins, we have the promise that, as he has forgiven us, so we can now forgive others. As he has loved us, so we can now love others. That is Jesus, working his salvation in us, even as we struggle in this world with our sinful flesh. The love we show to others is a reflection of the love he has shown to us. And in that love which we show to others, the world sees the love of Jesus for them.
That is why when we come to celebrate this most holy night – the night when darkness reigned, and betrayal was in the air, we hear the word of our Lord, the word spoken at each Divine Service, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” We also hear the admonition and promise from Jesus that we would love one another as he has loved us. It is an admonition because it is not always easy for us to do, and we struggle to fulfill the word of Christ. It is promise because we not only have his example of love – which he showed in washing the disciple’s feet, and then most especially on the cross – we have that example of love to strengthen us. We have the promise that the Spirit will work in our hearts, will take from us our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh – so that we would hear the word, and believe the promise of forgiveness for Jesus sake. That we would also then learn to love one another as he has loved us.
Scripture says that those whom God loves, he disciplines. He gives us chances to show love to the unlovable, he gives us opportunity to forgive those who sin against us. He gives us opportunity to show to others the love he has shown to us. And the promise that he will aid us – even against the will of our old Adam, our sinful and worldly flesh – that he will help us to show love to others.
We pray for this each Sunday when we receive the sacrament – that we grow in faith toward you and in fervent love toward one another. Tonight that prayer – and the rest of the post-communion liturgy is omitted, as we commemorate and hear again of the passion of our Lord. The stripping of the altar, the missing benediction – the word of blessing – until Sunday Morning. Things are not right this evening. Because of our sin, our weakness, our sinful desire to stray from God and his word, we hear again each year the passion and death of Jesus. We re-play the ceremonies that help us to focus on those things.
They help to teach, to instruct, to remind, so that we would believe the promise.
The promise that is given in the Sacrament itself. ” For the forgiveness of your sins… love one another as I have loved you…” The ceremonies instruct and teach us what is given in the sacrament. And it is in the sacrament the goods are given. The promise is given to you. Jesus says that. “For you.” God gives you his own flesh and blood in the sacrament so that you would have life. So that you would cling to the promise and so receive the promised inheritance. On this most holy night, and as we enter what the church has called The Triduum – “THE Three Days”, may God grant that we hear the word profitably, that we receive the gift to our benefit, and that we be partakers of the salvation he offers.
Only through Jesus name and for his sake.