Why is this night different from all other nights?
For starters, everything is in a different order than any other worship service of the whole year. I’m here in the pulpit doing a sermon at the very beginning of everything, which seems odd but since the main focus of this worship is on scripture and Holy Communion it makes sense to go into the service after having learned about what and why we are doing what we are doing. Then, it has a strange name: Maundy Thursday. I have a friend who said she always thought I was saying Monday Thursday. That doesn’t sound like a good thing at all! The word Maundy means commandment. So, it is Commandment Thursday and it is called this because it is a night that we hear things God commands us to do. It could also be called remembrance Thursday because it is also a night in which we are called to remember. In scripture, the word ‘remember’ doesn’t mean simply to think about something in the Hallmark Card kind of way. It is not simply a sentimental gesture like a flip through a scrapbook. It means to call to mind an act upon. Remember is a word of action. It is not just a thought, it is something you do. Tonight, we remember the things that God has done for us, is doing for us and continues to do for us, the people of God, and those things that he has told us to do as well. Tonight, we remember, we learn and we teach one another.
The first thing we learn about is something that happened long before the first Maundy Thursday: Passover. We will hear one of the many scriptures from the Old Testament which refers to the Passover remembrance in just a little bit. At one point in the Passover meal, a child asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This question provides a wonderful way for the adults to get to tell the story to the children and one another. So much of our faith is learned and remembered in asking questions and in telling the story. We hear the answer to this question in scripture. This night, Passover, is the time that God saved his people once again, the time that God used the blood of a lamb to mark his people so that death passed over them. This night is different from all other nights because we remember the time God freed his people from a bondage from which they could not free themselves
The second thing we learn about is another meal: Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. We will hear Jesus’ words about this meal in our second reading from 1Corinthians. It is a meal of bread and wine Jesus had with his disciples. A Passover meal; his last supper. We may ask: why is this meal different from all other meals? It is the meal when we, God’s people, consume his broken body and shed blood, given for us for the forgiveness of sins, for the sake of a new covenant made in that blood—Jesus’ blood—for the gift of his life. This meal is different from all other meals because it is the gift of freedom from a bondage to sin and death, a bondage from which we cannot free ourselves.
Each time we celebrate Holy Communion, we use the words that we hear from 1 Corinthians. Just before we hear those words from Jesus’ last meal, we will hear a special prayer called the Proper Preface. It is always the same in some parts but different for different times of the year. The one for tonight is: It is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanks and praise to you, O Lord, holy Father, through Christ our Lord. Who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all, that, where death began, there life might be restored, and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome. And so with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.
This particular prayer has always been fascinating to me. The middle section is the part of the prayer that changes with each of the seasons of the church as we retell over and over the story of our faith. This prayer is special to me because it has provoked me to ask questions. Think about the words: “He, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome” Why is this tree different from all other trees? This prayer, like a lot of our prayers, is very ancient and was most likely written in the 8th century. It is one of the many ways in which we are tied not only to one another but also to all the Christians who came before and will come after us.
“On the tree of the cross, Jesus gave salvation to all so that where death began, there life might be restored. He who by a tree once overcame…” It is the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden of Eden where death began, the tool that was used by the devil to bring sin and death to overcome us and separated us from God. “…might by a tree be overcome” That’s the tree of the cross! Evil is overcome by the cross! It is Jesus on the tree that overcomes the evil done so long ago, defeats death and restores us all to life! This tree is different from all other trees because it is the cross through which we are saved.
In our Gospel lesson for tonight, we will hear of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Why is this act of service different from all others? This is the act in which Jesus, the Lord and teacher, humbled himself to serve his followers. It is the act through which Jesus teaches us to love one another, not just as we love ourselves but as he loves us with this kind of sacrificial, humble love. This act of service is different from all others because it is the act of Jesus, who knew all things had been given into his hands and chose to use those hands to wash the feet of those who served him.
So, that brings me to our last question for tonight: What makes this man Jesus different from all other people? It is, I think, the most important of all these questions. It may be the most important question we can ever ask. I think it has something to do with all the scriptures tonight and that prayer. I think that the answer to that question is the summary of all the others. What makes this night, this meal, this tree, this act of service, this man different from all others?
This man, the one we call the Lamb of God, is different from all others because he let his body be broken and his blood shed, every last drop, on the tree of the cross, so that the angel of death would pass over us, so that death would be destroyed forever, so that we would have a new covenant; a restored and redeemed relationship with God. One we could never have accomplished on our own. This man, though he knew that he was from God and knew he was returning to God, still chose to love and serve those who were his servants so that he could teach us to truly love; to love as he loved, with every last drop of blood. This man is different from all others because he went to the tree of the cross, to the place where death itself began, to overcome death forever and restore life to us all.