Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday 4/1/2021. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 7pm, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Maundy Thursday Bulletin
The texts for the sermon were the day’s gospel and Old Testament lessons. To read the Bible texts for Maundy Thursday, click here.
“What can I say? Thank God.”
Those were the words of the priest who was celebrating the Eucharist at the church in Tanta, Egypt one year ago.
His son and at least 26 other people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked during Palm Sunday Mass. At least 17 more were killed as a second bomber attacked another church in Alexandria a couple hours later.
What can I say? Thank God.
Of all the things this father could have said, that was perhaps least likely, and probably the most difficult.
Why, do you suppose, that he was grateful?
Grateful simply to be alive? It’s hard to imagine any father, at the murder of his own son, being thankful for being left alive.
Perhaps he’s patient like Job, who at the death of all his children, refused to curse God, and instead confessed: “The Lord gives and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
But even Job, whose blamelessness is heralded in the Bible, even Job finds that his patience wears thin. Job is drained of his gratitude as he finds that his understanding is at odds with the will of God.
So how about this: maybe that priest, that father, is more like Jesus.
In our Gospel lesson, St. Matthew paints such a familiar picture that you might have missed its vivid cruelty. Jesus knew that his hour was at hand. He knew of his betrayal. He knew who would betray him. He knew that everyone would abandon him. He knew that he would be delivered into the hands of men.
And he knew that all the blood shed by goats and calves and bulls, and sprinkled everywhere on everyone and on every holy thing under the Old Covenant, all of that was nothing, a shadow, a foretaste of what was about to happen to him. A foretaste of the shedding and sprinkling of His blood.
And in the middle of all that, Jesus thanks God. On the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread and blessed it. And he took the cup and gave thanks.
And he said to his disciples, “This is my body and my blood, given and shed for you.”
He thanked God. He could look down in his hands and see that he was holding in them the very price that he was about to pay for our sins.
He could look down into his hands and hold before the disciples the body and blood that he would offer in sacrifice. And he invited them not only to look at or contemplate his suffering and death. He gave it to them to be eaten.
He knew he’d be abandoned. He knew he’d be betrayed. And that even they, his closest friends, would disavow his body and blood.
Not only were they with Jesus, as people in the court of the high priest supposed of Peter, and not only had they dined with Jesus, but Jesus Himself had fed them with Himself, with His own Body and Blood, drawing them closer than is even possible.
And yet they would pretend that it had never happened. Jesus knew all of this. And yet he thanked God.
Who can do that? Who can thank God in the middle of suffering and death?
The Christians in Egypt know what it’s like to be in the middle of suffering and death. For us, it is hard to imagine what a fearful experience it must be simply to go to church.
If you’ve seen the pictures of those bombed-out sanctuaries, you’ve almost certainly noticed all the blood. It’s everywhere. This conspicuous, deep red, in pools on the ground, and sprinkled everywhere and on everyone. On the columns and walls and the icons, and dripping down the backs of the pews.
Those pictures satisfy a morbid curiosity from most, and hopefully they arouse pity from some.
But for the Church, for you, the sight of that blood does something else. The sight of that blood calls to mind sacrifice.
The sacrifices of Israel – blood sprinkled everywhere. The Passover lamb – with blood painted on the doorposts and lintels. And then Christ – the Lamb of God, standing before His disciples with His blood of the New Covenant, which he is about to sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
So maybe, just maybe, that priest, that father, that Christian, is like Jesus.
Maybe he is like Jesus because at the horrifying sight of all that blood, he gives thanks. And maybe he gives thanks because he knows that this is what it means to be the body of Christ, to be the Church.
Maybe he gives thanks because he knows that although he has lost a son, the noble army of martyrs into which that son has enlisted, praises and thanks God.
He knows that to live is Christ, but to die is gain. And he knows that the body of Christ is glorified in suffering and in death.
Maybe he gives thanks because he knows that when Jesus entered once and for all into the High Place, not with the blood of animals, but with His own blood, He secured an eternal redemption for us.
Maybe he gives thanks because by seeing the body of Christ persecuted and wounded and bleeding, he is reminded that this is precisely how Christ has saved us.
Today marks the beginning of a three-day Eucharist, a three-day feast of thanksgiving. That’s what the word Eucharist means. And that’s what the Church does in the Divine Service. We give thanks.
We offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, precisely by receiving from God the very things for which we are thankful: the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, vindication over suffering and death, Christ’s very own Body and Blood, His own living flesh.
And here in this Eucharist we learn the answer to that question. Who can be grateful in the midst of suffering and death?
The body of Christ can. The Church can. Thank God.