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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Maundy Thursday 04/09/2020

Out of all the days of the church year, in my opinion Maundy Thursday is the one most about the word being presented through ritual. Normally those rituals would be individual absolution of sins, footwashing, Holy Communion and the stripping of the altar as in combination, these rituals pretty much tell the Maundy Thursday story. With our present coronavirus reality however, we can’t do much in the way of ritual this year apart from providing some images from previous years which isn’t quite the same but we’re fortunate we can at least do that much.

Of all the rituals though, my guess is that for many people what they most associate with Maundy Thursday is the Last Supper and Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion. That’s the focus I remember growing up and, in many churches,, including this one, First Communion has been celebrated as part of Maundy Thursday worship. Liturgical renewal that started with the green hymnal has helped the other rituals I mentioned to gain greater prominence and importance over the years and more emphasis has been given to the gospel reading about the commandment to love one another, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” But still, for a lot of us when we think of Maundy Thursday, communion might likely be the first thing that comes to mind.

Unfortunately, Holy Communion is one of the things from which we have had to fast since social distancing started. That’s not a good thing, but it does provide an opportunity to think about our communion practice, what we do and why we do it.

Most of us remember a time when communion was only celebrated once a month and we were OK with that, in part I suppose because we didn’t know any different. However, from New Testament times on, Holy Communion has been the central act of Christian worship. The Reformation and Luther’s renewed emphasis on the Bible, on scripture, didn’t change that. In fact, the Augsburg Confession which was and continues to be the foundational faith statement for Lutherans, strongly endorses the idea of weekly communion refuting accusations that the reformers had abandoned the mass.

I’m not sure when or why the once a month practice started but back in the 1970’s, when the green hymnal, the LBW was published, it started to change and a move toward weekly communion began. Over time, many churches went to a twice a month practice and then finally to weekly communion. There were some who were afraid that if celebrated weekly, communion would lose the sense of being “special.” In most cases though, it turned out to be quite the opposite, the result being greater appreciation for the power of the ritual and the sense of Christ’s real presence in the elements. For many of us, it has reached the point where if we go to church and communion isn’t celebrated, it feels like something is missing. It may be that some of you feel that way right now with worship being another thing being done at a distance. We can provide words and images and music, but for communion, you kind of have to be here.

This provides a reminder though, that we are a church not just of sacrament, but of Word and Sacrament. The Word is not a sacrament, but it is sacramental. To quote Gordon Lathrop who is one of the ELCA’s leading liturgical scholars, “The Word is the full presence of Christ, come “to do us good.” He quotes Luther who said, “When the Gospel book is read and preached, we should know that Christ is here, coming to us or we being brought to him, present in the reading and preaching, doing to us now what the text says he did then: forgiving us, healing us, raising us from the dead.”

Luther goes on to say, “If you pause here and let him do you good, that is, if you believe that he benefits and helps you, then you really have it. Then Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift. After that it is necessary that you turn this into an example and deal with your neighbor the very same way, be given also to him as a gift and an example.” As Lutherans we do talk about the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, but clearly Luther also found real presence in the read and preached word.

With that, we remember that tonight’s primary word, tonight’s gospel is not about Holy Communion but is about just what Luther talked about in terms of caring for the neighbor. Maundy Thursday gets its name from the Latin word for commandment, mandatum, in reference to Jesus’ new commandment to love one another, a commandment that really isn’t new at all. What’s new is the “Just as I have loved you,” part of it: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Starting with Passion gospel we heard last Sunday along with the events that we remember tonight and tomorrow, “Just as I have loved you,” is taken to new extremes as Jesus’ journey to the cross comes to its conclusion. With that conclusion, we remember that what Jesus does, he does for us. His Last Supper words of institution echo into the present, “This is my body, given for you.” Just as I have loved you is given new and deeper meaning.

As is often the case, Jesus sets the bar at a height that we can’t reach. Try as we might, we can’t reach his “just as I have loved you standard.” What he always does though is to call us to think about what we can do as opposed to what we can’t do in loving and caring for the neighbor. We’re presently living in a strange time though, a time in which in many cases, the best way to care for someone is to stay home and stay away from them. It’s an unusual way to think of “love one another.”

What we have to remember though is that keeping your distance doesn’t mean forgetting about others. There are those who don’t mind a degree of isolation, perhaps those who even welcome it, but even for the most reclusive among us, the current situation presents challenges. Think especially though of those who perhaps live alone but thrive on being around other people and now have all their usual gathering places, including the church, closed. A simple phone call might mean a lot.

Hold in prayer not just those who are sick but all the healthcare workers on the front lines of the battle along with those working in grocery stores and convenience stores and other such places so that the rest of us have what we need to shelter in place. Think of all the teachers going the extra mile to provide instruction with the schools closed. There is a lot that we can do.

We do hear the commandment to love one another differently this year. But we also remember the one who issued the commandment, the one who gave himself up for us, the one who still walks with us in the midst of something none of us would have thought possible.

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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