Lectionary Commentaries for April 5, 2012
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

Every year the Revised Common Lectionary offers the opportunity to read through significant portions of the Jerusalem narrative on Palm/Passion Sunday.

This gospel lesson is drawn from the Synoptic Gospel that anchors the year. So on Palm/Passion Sunday of this year, the gospel lesson is taken from Mark 14:1-15:47 (with a shorter option from 15:1-39-47). The longer option includes the synoptic version of the Last Supper with its emphasis on the institution of the Lord’s Supper.

The Revised Common Lectionary, therefore, designates John as the Gospel to be read on the weekdays during Holy Week every year to give us a different version of the events that occurred during Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. Thus on Holy Thursday each year we read John’s version of the Last Supper with its emphasis on the institution of footwashing and the pronouncement of the new commandment to love one another.

The way the Revised Common Lectionary establishes the boundaries of this lection, we are led to read the two sections as sharing the same message. In other words, we read the institution of footwashing as an example of loving one another. Or better, the footwashing as a manifestation of Jesus’ love for “his own” (17:1) leads to the instruction to love one another. His love for them makes their love for one another possible (verse 34).

This interpretive connection is appropriate but incomplete. It distorts somewhat the structure of chapter 13 as a whole. A word about context will help us see why this is so. A major transition takes place between chapters 12 and 13. In the first half of the narrative, it is clear that Jesus’ hour to be glorified has not yet arrived (2:4; 7:6, 8 30, 39; 8:20). But just after he enters Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus chooses not to meet some Greeks who are seeking him because his hour to be glorified has arrived (12:23). John 13-17, then, comprises Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. It follows the ancient literary technique of presenting the last will of important figures. Properly speaking, the last will is made up of chapters 14-16.

This section is framed at the end by a prayer (chapter 17) and at the beginning by the material in chapter 13. The gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday includes the positive material of the chapter — the institution of footwashing (verses 1-13) as practice for the disciples/church and the commandment to love one another (verses 31-35) as an ethic for the disciples/church. But to read these passages in isolation from the negative material in the chapter steals some of the power from them as the chapter introduces the farewell speech. The footwashing is followed by the prediction of Judas’ betrayal (verses 21-29), which is already mentioned before the footwashing (verse 2); and the new commandment is followed by Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial (verses 36-38). This sets up a pendulum effect or parallel structure to the introduction to Jesus’ discussion of his “departure”:

Institution of footwashing    — Prediction Judas’ betrayal

Commandment to love one another    — Prediction of Peter’s Denial

Jesus’ love for “his own” is rejected by Judas and Peter (albeit in different ways). And yet as both this chapter and the following discourse show, such rejection does not diminish Jesus’ love in the least. Indeed, his concern in the farewell discourse is not about how the disciples have abandoned him, but about how he orphans them with his departure.

What this means, then, is that the command to serve one another by washing each other’s feet (verses 12-20) and to love one another (reiterated in the discourse proper in 15:12ff) should not be read as duties (and certainly not as burdens) so much as gifts. The love and service to one another in community are as much a way of caring for the church in the shadow of Jesus’ departure as is the gift of the Holy Spirit (14:15-31). And as such they stand counter to (i.e., as more powerful than) any ways we might turn our backs on God. Mutual love and service in the community of Jesus’ disciples are means of God’s grace.

There are three main dangers in preaching this lesson which should be avoided. The first is moralizing the instructions. While John clearly intends the instructions to shape church behavior, as we have just seen the passage is really not about what we can achieve but about what Christ gives to us in this behavior. So preachers should be careful not to use this text (especially on the occasion of Maundy Thursday) to offer exhortation in the place of proclamation.

Second, like so many of John’s passages, this chapter is filled with a myriad of different theological and narrative nuances. There are christological, soteriological, and ecclesiological claims all mixed together with the agenda of advancing the narrative towards the passion. If they are not careful, preachers can get lost in all these competing elements.

And, third, because the text has a behavioral aspect and a cacophony of theological elements all sounding at once, preachers can forget to frame their interpretation of the passage as foreshadowing Jesus’ departure and equipping the church to live in the aftermath of that departure. Without upstaging Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Holy Thursday sermon on this text should consistently keep Jesus’ death and resurrection before the congregation.

A strategy to help avoid these three dangers and focus on the passage as an offering of grace is to ask the congregation to identify with Peter. One might even begin this identification by narrating the scene in which Jesus tells of Peter’s denial (13:36-38). Less than denouncing or accusing Peter, Jesus simply names Peter’s denial as a fact. But this announcement follows a dialogue unique to John. Peter asks where Jesus is going in light of the language of departure. Jesus does not really answer, but says instead, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now…” This foreshadows Peter’s denial but without taking a breath, Jesus goes on to say, “but you will follow afterward.” Jesus brings Peter back into the fold before Peter has even left. (Of course, this dialogue foreshadows 21:15-23.)

By starting at the end of the chapter, with Peter promised redemption proleptically, the congregation can experience the story of the footwashing and the new commandment as a gift to Peter for when he will need it in the future. This is an interesting way to interpret the footwashing as part of the Maundy Thursday service, then. Baptism has cleansed us from our past. Footwashing cleanses us for what we yet face.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14

Mark S. Gignilliat

The Passover narrative in Exodus is intriguing and frightening.

The images from Cecil B. Demille’s Ten Commandments may be partly responsible: the darkness of night, haunting music, and a sinister mist making its way through the Egyptian streets. The Passover, or pesach which birthed the English adjective paschal, marks the defining redemptive moment of Israel’s history.

As Passover is practiced today, the eschatological dimension of Passover is expressed: “This year here, next year in the land of Israel; this year as slaves, next year as free.”1 In the Christian tradition of reading, the Passover narratives are read as a figural anticipation of Christ’s redemptive work and our Eucharistic participation in that work. In fact, the first recorded Christian homily, a homily by Melito of Sardis, is an extended theological exposition of the Pascha in light of Christ’s atoning work.

The images of Exodus 12 are ripe for Holy Week reflection. An unblemished lamb or goat is slaughtered; the sacrificial blood is smeared on the extremities of the family dwelling (when the priests were consecrated, the blood was smeared on their extremities as well: ear, finger, toe). When the angel of the Lord sees the blood on the mantel, the angel will pass over the house leaving its inhabitants in safety. The ritual is a communal ritual as the whole congregation of Israel participates. The Passover meal is eaten in haste. Loins were to be girded so as not to impede maneuverability and speed. The scene is visceral and filled with expectation. Redemption was imminent.

The liturgical placement of this text on Maundy Thursday provides an interpretive point of entry. Here we are in the middle of Holy Week moving gradually, meditatively, yet forcefully, to Good Friday and the hope of Easter Sunday. Anticipation is starting to build on this Thursday where we celebrate the new commandment Christ gave us: love one another in service, wash one another’s feet. Much like Israel in Egypt, we celebrate this feast day in anticipation of what is coming tomorrow. Our paschal lamb is about to be sacrificed for us. Our lives are about to be forever altered as we leave the chains of Egypt on a journey to the celestial city.

As Christians, we too live in the tension of looking back to the Easter event and hoping for the future consummation of all the promises attached to that definitive moment in history. Our annual celebration of Holy Week reminds us of the continued tension we live in as followers of Christ. Familiar terms used by theologians such as “already” and “not yet” tap into this tension. All the promises are yes and amen in Jesus Christ. Yet, more is needed, more is desired, more is promised: Maranatha! Who knows, maybe next year in the heavenly city?

“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you” (Exodus 12:14). Passover was intended as a perpetual day of remembrance. In biblical parlance, remembering is not a mere passive activity or a sentimental act of nostalgia. Remembering is active, a moment when members of the present community participate in the events of the past. The activity is more dynamic than inert as past events and their significance are brought into the present moment. The results of such active participation are twofold. One, active remembering produces contemporary action. Two, participatory remembering yields future hope.

The first result might be properly called the ethics of liturgy or liturgical ethics. Our gathering in worship to commemorate, to remember actively the redemptive works of God should motivate and encourage gracious acts of justice and mercy. For example, the verses that precede Micah’s call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God (6:8) — a verse of bumper sticker status — are a challenge to remember the Exodus, to remember our redemption. Remembering in gratitude God’s gracious acts of redemption produces the good fruit of mercy and justice: a fitting theme on this Maundy Thursday.

The second result takes us from the tension of the current moment and thrusts us in hope toward a future day. If God redeemed in the past, we are confident God will do so in the future. “I believe in the resurrection of the dead,” so ends our creedal confession. This remembering the past for the sake of future hope is artfully summarized in Psalm 77. The Psalmist begins in the lamenting groans of the disoriented self: “I think of God, and I moan” (77:1).

Honest, if troubling, questions are asked: “Has God forgotten to be gracious” (77:9)? The moment of disillusionment is ameliorated when the Psalmist confesses, “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; “I will remember your wonders of old” (77:11). Our liturgical moments of remembering from Sunday to Sunday and in this Holy Week propel us to future hope. God inaugurated his kingdom in the work of his Son and will surely consummate it in the coming day.

Our sacramental life in the church is a physical reminder of God’s redemptive acts. Remember, you are baptized. Remember, you have made the Exodus journey, having passed through the sea to safety. “Do this in remembrance of me,” as we feast on Christ in faith. During this Holy Week as we celebrate our Exodus from the dominion of sin and death, we remember our Lord’s passion. May such remembering yield acts of mercy and justice and fill our hearts with hope.

1</sup As quoted in Brevard S. Childs, Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 208.


Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19

Jerome Creach

Psalm 116 is a prayer of thanksgiving.

Like other psalms of this type (see Psalm 30; 32; 34), Psalm 116 begins by saying that God has rescued the psalmist from trouble (verses 1-2). Then the psalm describes the distressing circumstance now past (verse 3), recalls a prayer for help (verse 4) along with the Lord’s saving response (verses 5-11), and then vows to give witness to God’s salvation before the congregation (verses 12-19). Perhaps the most distinctive mark of this type of psalm is the promise of a thanksgiving offering (verse 17). The thanksgiving psalms probably began as part of the liturgy that accompanied this offering (see Jeremiah 33:10-11).  

Although the original use of Psalm 116 is relatively certain, this psalm also clearly took on a distinct liturgical role in Jewish tradition. It came to be and is now read as part of a larger group of psalms, Psalms 113-118, known as the Egyptian Hallel. The word hallel means “praise.” This word is related to the expression hallelu-yah (“Praise the Lord”) that begins and ends many of the psalms in this grouping, including Psalm 116 (verse 19). Since ancient times the Egyptian Hallel has been used in the celebration of Passover.

The theme of deliverance from death makes this quite appropriate (see verses 3, 4, 8, 15). More specifically this psalm is linked to the Passover meal. Thus, the Church reads this psalm on Maundy Thursday, the day during Holy Week when we recall Jesus’ last meal with his disciples in the context of Passover.

The psalm begins in a rather unique way, with the psalmist declaring love for God (verse 1). It is much more common for the psalmist to speak of trusting God, seeking refuge in God, or waiting for God. The word “love” (ʼāhab) does not connote an emotion as much as a commitment of loyalty. Love is a covenant word (see the word in the context of David’s relationship with Saul [1 Samuel 16:21] and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3]).

Thus, the psalmist pledges fidelity to God because “he has heard my voice and my supplications” (verse 1). But what the psalmist pledges in loyalty to God is not obedience to cultic or moral legislation. Rather the psalmist simply promises to “call on him as long as I live” (verse 2). Like so many other psalms, therefore, Psalm 116 begins by recognizing reliance on God as the supreme expression of faithfulness.

The final segment of the psalm raises the question of what the psalmist can give back to God in return for God’s goodness and salvation (verses 12-19). Verse 12 recalls verse 7 in which the psalmist called himself or herself to “return, O my soul, to your rest” because of bountiful ways God has responded to the psalmist’s cries. Now the psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”

The answer comes in verses 13-14 in three statements. First, the psalmist promises to “lift up the cup of salvation” (verse 13a). Originally “cup of salvation” probably referred to a libation offering (see Exodus 29:40). But later tradition associated the cup with the portion of Passover in which four cups of wine are offered. Psalm 116 (along with Psalm 115 and 117-118) is read in connection with the fourth cup.1 For Christians the cup came to refer to the salvation found in Jesus Christ who reinterpreted this element by identifying the cup with his sacrificial death and the new covenant that came from it (Matthew 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:20). 

The second answer to what the psalmist can give back to God is simply “to call on the name of the Lord” (verse 13b). This statement recalls the declaration in verse 2. Again, the psalmist pledges to show faithfulness to God by depending on him. The third answer to how the psalmist will respond to God’s goodness is in vows to be paid before the congregation (verses 14, 18). The vow was perhaps made originally when the psalmist prayed for help (see Psalm 65:1). Now, the vow is mentioned again and the psalmist “pays” or fulfills the vow, perhaps with the offering being given in the presence of the congregation.

After focusing on God’s goodness, verse 15 may seem to turn in a completely different direction. The statement that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” sounds like death is precious. The word translated “precious” (yāqār), however, means something like “costly.”2 Thus, it states that God takes seriously the death of those who are devoted to him. For that reason the psalmist identifies herself as God’s servant and celebrates the fact that God has liberated her (verse 16).

The final three verses focus specifically on the offering hinted at earlier. The thanksgiving sacrifice is prescribed in Leviticus 7:12 as proper response to God’s gracious acts. The main features of Psalm 116:17-19 is the public nature of the offering. The psalmist will make his offering “in the presence of all his people” (verse 18b) and “in the courts of the house of the Lord” (verse 19a). The “courts” here refer to the precincts of the Jerusalem temple, the central worship site for the people of Judah.

For Christians who read Psalm 116 on Maundy Thursday the psalm’s celebration of deliverance from death takes on a unique character. It is not read as testimony to what God has done in the past so much as it gives hope for deliverance in the future. The psalm’s images of death now apply to the coming suffering of Jesus. The celebration after deliverance draws us into the suffering of Jesus as his offering to God and to us. Jesus himself has become a sacrifice and we now benefit from his faithfulness to God.

1J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” NIB, 4:1149.
2McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” 1149.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Susan Hedahl

Note:  Part I explores the biblical text and Part II discusses homiletical strategies for the text.

Part I

As with other major liturgical services, the gospel text is often used for proclamation.

Paul’s discussion of the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, however, is definitely worthy of Maundy Thursday service use.  In these brief verses Paul reflects on the following in relationship to this tradition: the source of the meal; the community background of it; Jesus’ words about the bread and wine, and the future intention involved in the supper.  This text then offers a superlative example of how preaching and teaching can be combined for the listeners and participants in the Maundy Thursday service.

Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s meal is ensconced in a chapter which takes the Corinthians community to task for their behavior in worship.  Congregational conflict was rampant!  These verses are set in a context which is bookended by words about abuses of the Lord’s Supper and by participating in it in ways that are unworthy.  These verses are meant as a liturgical corrective for the celebration of the meal.

Paul begins by noting that he is not simply telling them from his own perspective how he thinks they should join the meal.  Instead he is sharing with them directives he has “received from the Lord” (verse 23a).  The latter half of verse 23 is brief but bears enormous interpretive weight. 

Paul notes that the context of the meal Jesus instituted occurred “on the night he was betrayed.”   This meal did not originate among human beings who were of one mind or heart regarding Jesus and his gospel.  To the contrary, Jesus fed his disciples knowing that he was doing so in the company of a betrayer, one who would cause his death.  This fact places a permanent stamp on all earthly celebrations of the Lord’s meal: it comes as a gift from God to sinful human beings —  always. 

The word “betrayed” rings poignantly and perpetually in every celebration of the meal; it is the verbal acknowledgment of the dark side of those who receive it.  Norma Wirzba in his new book on eating describes, among other meals, the Eucharist.  He wisely notes that the first transgression was one that involved food.1   Paul’s observation concerning the fact of the betrayal as a backdrop to the meal reflects precisely the thematic to which Wirzba is referring.  It hints at the motives and intentions of any collection of human beings who gather for the Lord’s Supper.

The text uses quotes in verses 24 and 25 to set off Paul’s repetition of Jesus’ words; he is not using his own wording here but that of the tradition.  These verses conceal a significant cache of traditions related to the Passover meal and developing forms of celebration of the Lords’ meal in the early Christian community.  Paul’s directions are based on the early combination of two types of meals within the same event: the secular meal and the sacred celebration. 

If this text is used for proclamation, the preacher does well to consult sources which describe this sequence of eating and drinking in this historical context as there are differences between the two.  An example of this is in verse 24 in which Jesus gives the bread at the beginning of the meal and in verse 25 when he gives the wine “after supper.”  Today, however, the words are used for the Eucharist solely and a secular meal is almost never involved or paired with it.

Jesus’ words in this section describe the two-fold connection he makes with himself.  Since his commentary on the bread and wine was made before his death, it was obviously heard by the disciples in a state of surprise and confusion.  Only in the days following his Resurrection would meaning-making emerge in a new way around bread, wine, Jesus’ death and sharing in that death through eating together.

Verse 25 refers to “the new covenant in my blood.”  Blood language here is again historically laden with multiple meanings in relationship to the old covenental system of animal sacrifice and the efficacy of blood in reconciling the repentant sinner to God.  This phrase sets up a contrast between the old and new covenants, which bases the meal Jesus offers directly in the fulfillment of God’s on-going promises to humanity, forged through God’s covenants over time.

Paul offers a rationale for participating in the Lord’s meal.  Every time human beings do this, two things occur.  First, participation in the meal is a public proclamation to oneself and others of the Gospel and secondly the meal marks the time until the final coming of Jesus.  The text uses the word “remembrance” twice and Paul joins that to hope in the final verse.

Part II 

The preaching possibilities of this text cover emphases on the historical, liturgical, ecclesial and the personal.  Many listeners to this text may be unacquainted with the history and origins of the meal. Paul’s words are useful to review in that respect.  Liturgical origins of this text, if referenced in the sermon, could include some discussion of how Jesus’ meal is both related to and different from the Jewish seder meal.  In congregations which re-enact seder meals, holding up both similarities and differences are crucial for a clearer understanding of the uniqueness of what Jesus offered to his disciples.

Finally, this meal is one offered to all of humanity and connects bread and wine with the life and death of Jesus.  It comes to individuals and it comes to communities alike in all times and places.  As the word “betrayed” signals so clearly, the meal is offered to sinful creatures who are invited to both memory and hope for the human condition because of this supper invitation.

1For a truly excellent work on eating: personally, globally, politically, environmentally and theologically, see Norman Wirzba, Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge University Press, 2011). For a review of this work see www.hedahl.us