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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Maundy Thursday 4/2/2015

If you did a survey asking people to name their favorite book of the Bible I’m pretty sure that Leviticus would get no votes. My guess is that many well intentioned efforts to read through the Bible cover to cover have probably come to a sad ending somewhere in Leviticus with its lists of offerings and sacrifices described in agonizing detail, along with rules, lots of rules, lists of purification rites, lists of prohibited foods, descriptions of diseases like leprosy along with way more than you want to know about assorted bodily discharges.

Leviticus is tough sledding, not an engaging read, but why am I even talking about it tonight, this night that begins the Great Three Days of the Christian year? None of the Maundy Thursday readings are from Leviticus, in fact only one set of verses from Leviticus ever shows up in the lectionary; if you’re lucky you can go three years and never hear anything from Leviticus. Leviticus does constitute material that is quite alien to us, it’s not very engaging, quite boring actually, but…seen more positively, the purpose of all the rules and rituals was to provide a way of hosting the presence of the Lord in an environment seemingly marked by the Lord’s absence. The details of how to do this don’t make much sense to us, but the purpose of Leviticus is quite lofty.

The book of Leviticus as we know it probably reached its final form during the exile in Babylon when the people had been separated from the temple in Jerusalem. That separation is significant because the temple was understood to be the dwelling place of their God, the place where they could experience God’s presence. In exile, far away in Babylon, they couldn’t do that, plus the temple had been destroyed anyway, so another way was needed to reassure the people that God was still present and active. The offerings and rituals described in Leviticus, offerings and rituals that just seem odd to us, were that other way, a new way intended to make God’s presence known in that new environment.

That brings us to tonight. As the disciples gathered with Jesus in that upper room to celebrate the Passover meal, they too were faced with separation. It was a different kind of separation than what was experienced by the people of Israel in exile because the disciples weren’t going anywhere, but Jesus was. For a few years they had experienced Jesus’ immediate physical presence with them, but that was about to change. The forces opposed to Jesus were coming together and gaining strength and while the disciples probably didn’t really understand what was happening or why, Jesus did. He knew that his hour had come and that he wouldn’t be physically present with them much longer. A new way of being present to them was needed.

But Jesus knew the power of ritual. He knew that when done properly, rituals can evoke responses and emotions that aren’t entirely rational, they can accomplish things in ways that can’t be rationally explained. Jesus probably knew Leviticus and he probably found it boring too, but he knew that those rituals had their place; they had been an effective way to host the presence of God. At their best, those rituals had been a gift of God’s grace making interaction with God possible, making a relationship with God possible. At their best, they provided access to the divine.

With the institution of the sacrament we call Holy Communion, Jesus provided access with a new gift of God’s grace, one which would mediate Jesus’ presence not just to his disciples, but to all those who would become followers, all who would participate in this ritual, all who would “Do this,” as Jesus said to… people like us.

Tonight’s reading from Corinthians is familiar; it’s one of the most recognizable readings in the whole Bible because you hear these words or words very similar to them pretty much every Sunday. To us, of course, the words and the actions associated with the words are not strange; it’s what we do. If you step back though, and think about what we do from an outsider’s perspective, it might not be as strange as what Leviticus offers, but to claim that a little piece of bread and a small sip of wine make Jesus really present doesn’t make a lot of rational sense.

But that’s the power of ritual, that’s the power of this ritual; it does what it says, making Jesus present to those who have faith. Jesus could have just told his disciples, “Remember me when I’m gone. Try to treat others the way I’ve treated them, the way I’ve treated you. Don’t forget what I’ve taught you.” He could have done that and he sort of did as he washed their feet, another action that we repeat here tonight. That commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” is important as an ethical teaching. It does help to reveal the kingdom that Jesus talked about and that is very important. But as important as Jesus’ teachings are, they don’t make Jesus present the way he is present in Holy Communion.

What Jesus did as he broke bread and shared a cup of wine at that Passover meal was to provide a way to overcome the separation that was about to happen. He didn’t just say, “Remember me,” he said “Do this, in remembrance of me.” Do this; he showed them the way because the presence happens in the doing. Jesus can be present to us in other ways too, spiritual ways, but in and through the bread and wine, with the words, “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you,” Jesus is present in a different way, a physical way that can’t really be explained, only experienced.

That’s the thing with rituals; you do have to experience them. If you just read about them or talk about them or observe them, it’s not the same. It’s the doing and it’s the repetition of the doing that provides the meaning. Obviously Jesus knew all this, so on the night he was betrayed, this night, he gave his disciples and us this ritual, this sacrament and he said to do this.

We’re given this gift of presence, but tonight we also experience absence. In another powerful and moving ritual, this one done only once a year, the altar is stripped, other items from the sanctuary are removed and the church is left dark and bare. It’s an experience of absence and while it’s not pleasant, it’s important. Presence is more powerful and more deeply felt when the possibility of absence is made real.

Tonight we experience presence, but end in absence, absence that extends through tomorrow and doesn’t begin to lift until the new Paschal candle is lit Saturday night and the light of Christ’s presence begins to slowly increase among us. The rituals will unfold over these three days and they are effective, an important part of telling the story around which our faith revolves. They help to tell the story and, in all that is done, Jesus is revealed.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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