10 Ways to Preach on Maundy Thursday

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What is Maundy Thursday?

The liturgy for Maundy Thursday begins a three-day observance of the most holy events in the Christian Liturgical calendar. Known as the Triduum, the service of Maundy Thursday, followed by Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Easter Vigil, cover a four-day/three-night journey into the heart of the Christian Gospel. The name “Maundy” comes from the first word of the Latin phrase Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, the decree Jesus gave to his disciples that night:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

The Lessons

The Scripture passages that lead us through this night are rich. The text from Exodus (12:1-14) recounts the First Passover. The passage in 1 Corinthians (11:23–34) covers Paul’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper in the early church. Then, there are two choices for the Gospel reading. The choice is either one of the Synoptics: Matthew 26:17–20, Mark 14:12–17, and Luke 22:7–16, or John’s account from 13:1–35. The Synoptic accounts cover the Passover meal as the Last Supper, while the foot-washing episode, followed by the Last Supper story covered in John’s account, takes place the day before the Passover.

Sponsored

Along with commemorating the foot washing from John’s Gospel and the Last Supper from the Synoptics, the Maundy Thursday observance can get even more dense. Some churches will read Psalm 86 to remember Jesus’ capture and incarceration after the Passover meal. Some churches dramatize a cleansing or stripping of the altar as the night’s final act. The communion vessels, appointments, and banners are removed, leaving the altar table barren and the chancel empty. And some churches will dramatically read the entire text of Psalm 22 which, in the context of Holy Week, is powerfully prescient and prophetic.

Preaching Maundy Thursday

With all of these options packed into a solemn evening, the Maundy Thursday sermon should be focused and to the point. Here are ten different ways to preach it.

1. Foot-washing

Washing another’s feet is a symbol, not a sacrament. It is so foreign to modern times that the preacher should thoroughly explain the humility required. It is awkward, intrusive, and anachronistic. Preachers may remember the Super Bowl commercial sponsored by #HeGetsUs. Whatever else you thought about the commercial, it was clear that many in the culture simply didn’t get it. Yet, Jesus tells us to love one another and, as the foot-washing demonstrates, serve others for their own good. Jesus gives the order, the mandate,” to love one another as he has loved us while washing the disciples’ feet. This might be one of the few occasions during sermon time when actions (foot-washing) should speak louder than words.

2. Passover/Last Supper

The Synoptics tell us that Jesus observed the Passover meal with his disciples and, during the (then) 1400-year-old traditional celebration, repurposed it to refer to himself. This is an astonishing moment in history. One by one, all the elements and ceremonies of the traditional Jewish Passover found their fulfillment in Jesus.

  • The Passover Lamb from Exodus became the Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world.
  • The unleavened bread from the ancient meal was re-signified to become the Body of Christ.
  • The third cup of wine, known as the Cup of Redemption, symbolizing the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery, gained a new reference: it was the blood of Jesus, shed for our deliverance. The blood of the lamb that protected the children of Israel from the Angel of Death became the blood of Christ, not smeared on the outside of our homes but taken within as it was drunk.

Let’s face it: these symbols and sacraments are too rich and powerful to be understood through a single sermon. They must be experienced yearly, week by week, as God’s people celebrate the Lord’s Supper. But on one day of the year, it is good to connect these two pivotal events.

3. Betrayal/Denial

Two of Jesus’ disciples are known for their mistakes and misdeeds during Holy Week. Judas betrayed Jesus. In John’s account, he left the supper to do his terrible crime. Later that night, Peter would fall, too. He denied Jesus—three times. What is the difference? Is there any? In Jerusalem, Peter refused to acknowledge that he knew Jesus before a group of nobodies huddled around the fire. Three times! He was afraid of guilt by association. But Judas conspired with the Romans and the Pharisees to bring down the entire ministry. To use a Roman Catholic distinction, denial is a sin of omission, but betrayal is a sin of commission. Peter abandoned the ship, as it were. Judas tried to scuttle it.

We know we can be forgiven for the times we have denied our Lord. We see this in the celebration of the First Breakfast in John 21. But betrayal is another thing. Jesus is clear about those who betray the Son of Man (Luke 22:22).

4. Testimony

As every preacher knows, each Gospel is weighted to the last week of Jesus’ life. Of all the texts devoted to the life and teaching of the Lord, nearly 30% of it covers the last three days of Jesus’ life. Even his last three hours are detailed. This fact tells us that each Gospel is written so every reader and every believer knows the story of Jesus’ final days and the purpose for his death. On this night, most especially, the preacher could answer the traditional question asked by the young child at a Seder meal: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The answer could include the preacher’s account of what happened at the Last Supper and how the preacher came to believe in Jesus and trust him as Lord and Savior.

It is not wrong to think that Maundy Thursday is like a wake for a dead, beloved friend. Therefore, perhaps the preacher’s testimony about their relationship and love of Jesus—how they came to know him–could be a powerful moment.

5. Anamnesis

Sometimes, a sermon can have a single word as its focus, and this word—anamnesis—is worthy of a deep dive and focused message. As worshipping Christians, we hear the word ‘remember’ quite often. It is used over 500 times in the Bible. But the Greek word for “remember” that Jesus uses—anamnesis—is in a class by itself. The word is as deep as the ocean. Anamnesis is not merely a recollection of past events. It is a dynamic and active involvement in them. We should help our modern congregation understand that when Jesus told his disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me,” he wanted to connect their lives with him and eat the bread and drink the wine in “real” time, without the distance of time and space. Jesus wanted to be re-membered: joined together across the ages. Fredrick Buechner wrote,

Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still. (from A Sacred Journey, pg. 21)

Memory doesn’t mean much today. We think we can buy it by the terabyte. But for all Jews and Christians, memory is the essential muscle of faith. If we do not remember, we do not believe. A Christian with amnesia concerning the work of God over the ages is an oxymoron. This is what anamnesis is. It is the undoing or correction of our amnesia. This idea is in the word itself. We might paraphrase Jesus this way: Do this to fix your amnesia of me.

6. The Full Story

The assigned readings for Maundy Thursday end with the Last Supper, but the rest of the story will be on everyone’s mind. Any of the stories from the rest of the Passion account would make for a rich and meaningful sermon: the agony of prayer in the garden, the arrest of Jesus, the escape of young Mark, Peter’s violent strike at the High Priest’s servant, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ prayer for Peter’s recovery, etc. There are months’ worth of sermons available for the preacher if they slow down and read the text closely.

It is always appropriate for the preacher to remind and encourage the members of the church to attend Good Friday services. Over decades at the same congregation, it became customary for our church to have large crowds on Easter (as all churches do) and Holy Week. I would always tell the congregation to consider the answer to this question: Would you attend the funeral services of your best and dearest friend? Then, accordingly, you are invited to attend all services during Holy Week.

7. Communion

Much as Passover has reminded Jews of their history for millennia, Holy Communion serves a similar purpose for Christians today. It keeps the recollection of God’s redemptive acts at the center of attention. The regular practice of participating in Holy Communion might seem curious to those not part of the Christian community. Yet, for believers, this weekly ritual keeps the consciousness of God’s deeds through Christ fresh and impactful. The habitual aspects of our existence are sometimes more than just automatic behaviors; they embody the rhythms of a life governed by the sovereignty of an ever-present deity.

8. Servant Leadership

There is no doubt that the disciples were shocked at Jesus’ willingness to serve them and to wash their feet. They even pushed back hard on it. Why? They could not fathom the majestic, absurd gesture of our Lord as he took the form of a lowly bondservant. A sermon for Maundy Thursday could underscore the amazing, uncanny humility of the one who, in Paul’s terms, took the form of a lowly servant and emptied himself upon the Cross. Can you help your people see the humility of the Lord—what God stepped down into, what He condescended to become? Use the text from Philippians 2 and the mystical poem of George Herbert in “Bag.”

Hast thou not heard, that my Lord Jesus di’d?
Then let me tell thee a strange storie.
The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glorie,
to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

9. Chaos and Order

Another approach to the Maundy Thursday sermon would consider the story of the entire week. While it may look as if the events are out of control, the politicians and leaders are corrupt and capricious, and the mob is unruly and wild, the true story is very different. Behind the scenes, Jesus is in full control. He knows the crowds and has worked with and around them all his life. He has complete mastery and dominance over the chief priests, the lecherous Herod, and the spineless Pilate. Holy Week is not a tragedy of accidents, it is a triumph of God’s providence to bring the Son of God to his glorious end.

10. In the Garden

One of the most relatable moments in the Holy Week saga occurs in the Garden of Gethsemane: our all-to-human desire to let a “cup” pass us by. However, the preacher can help the congregation understand the image of “the Cup” from the Old Testament. Many commentaries miss this. The Cup was not just a symbol of something undesirable. The preacher should ask, “What is in the Cup?” The answer, as Jesus had in mind, is an image from Jeremiah 25:15: “Take from my hand this cup filled to the brim with my anger and make all the nations to whom I send you drink from it.” Literally, the Hebrew speaks of “this cup of the wine of my wrath,” and every person in every nation is to drink it.

So what’s in the cup? God’s anger. God’s wrath. Every sin, sorrow, suffering, and symptom of the Fall is in the Cup—God’s righteous and just anger. Jesus’ choice is to drink it instead of us. Jesus took God’s wrath and sin’s full weight, which we could not bear. He drank our death. (Mark 10:38-40)

Let your congregation feel the weight of the moment. It is humbling.

The Wondrous Story

These ten ideas do not come near to plumbing the depths of the vignettes and episodes in the Holy Week story. The subjects are too deep and our minds too feeble to comprehend it. But suffice it to say that the Maundy Thursday sermon should remind people of the holistic work of God through Christ. It should draw us to a deeper awareness of our sin—that it took the intervention of our God and the sacrifice of his son—to declare our sorry state redeemed. The sermon should stand us in awe of his divine nature who did what we could never do ourselves: save us.

You might even conclude by pointing to Good Friday to come, by singing from Issac Watt’s great hymn, “When I Survey“:

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

(Isaac Watts 1707, from Galatians 6:14)


Image: adapted detail of The Last Supper by Carl Bloch (late 19th Century)

Published on

March 20, 2024

Author

David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry

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