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Christus Factus est: Sermon for Maundy Thursday

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ April 29th, 2011

Sermon on Philippians 2:8-9; I Corinthians 11:23-32; St. John 13:1-15Maundy Thursday

+ Jesu Juva +

Christus Factus est

The propers for Holy Week are rich in grace. There is a full set of propers (lessons, Introit, Gradual, etc.) for every day in Holy Week. They lead us to the cross and empty tomb in repentance and faith. Three of tonight’s propers for Maundy Thursday will guide our meditation this evening. The gradual, known in Latin as Christus Factus est (Christ was made obedient), traces the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. Our Epistle gives us the words instituting the Sacrament. And our Gospel lesson describes Jesus’ servitude on the night He was betrayed. A rich portrait of the life and work of Christ, the One who was made obedient unto death, even death on the cross.

The first half of our Gradual describes the humiliation of Christ. St. Paul says that “Christ hath humbled Himself and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” If you have a chance to read this entire “hymn to Christ” (Carmen Christi) in Philippians 2:5-11, you’ll discover that St. Paul was admonishing his hearers to have the mind of Christ. The mind of Christ is the mind set on heavenly, rather than earthly, things; the mind that takes suffering before glory and repentance as a prelude to forgiveness; yes, the mind that suffers all, even death, before expecting exaltation to God’s right hand. Allow me to quote this early Christian hymn at some length:

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).

Of special interest here is the phrase “[Christ] was made obedient” (Christus factus est). It describes something we call “the humiliation of Christ,” the period of His life from His conception to His burial; the time when He put the powers of His Godhead in “neutral” in order to suffer all, even death on the cross. To be sure, Christ was fully God during His humiliation. He was still “of one substance” with the Father, as the Nicene Creed puts it. But He did not use His majesty for His own glory or for any selfish purpose, but hid His majesty in the state of humiliation that He might save us from our sins. And all who humble themselves through repentance will share the mind of Christ and His gifts.

Our Gospel lesson offers a similar portrait of Jesus’ humiliation, the washing of the disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday. It was the most solemn and holy night of His life. The disciples were probably still perplexed over the progression from the “Hosanna’s” of Palm Sunday to the conflicts that quickly developed as the week progressed.. And what did Jesus do? As part of His humiliation and His obedience to God the Father, He took the lowest form known to the working class: a foot washer. He laid aside His outer garments and tied a towel around His waist. He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet. In modern terms, picture a five-star general taking off his dress blues, putting on an apron, and washing the feet of newly enlisted recruits. Foot washing was the lowest, most menial, entry-level slave duty of the day. Think, for instance, of the accumulation of dust and dirt in the feet, in a day before modern roads and well before our custom of taking a shower every day. Foot washing is an icon of Jesus’ obedience. He was made obedient for poor, undeserving sinners like us. The holy One serves the unholy ones. The righteous washes the unrighteous, foreshadowing the bath of Holy Baptism, where He cleanses us to stand righteous before God.

Our Epistle lesson also provides a vivid snap shot of Jesus’ obedience. It was also on this night, the night He washed His disciples’ feet, that He was betrayed. You all recognize tonight’s Epistle as the Words of Institution, those words that we preach as a sermon over the bread and wine every Sunday; those words which, when used properly, have the power to unite Jesus’ body and blood to simple bread and wine. In keeping with our “Christ was made obedient” theme, I wish to highlight this phrase: “On the night when [Jesus] was betrayed.” Yes, on the night that the devil entered Judas; on the night that the Son of Man was betrayed with a kiss; on the night that the treasurer, on of the trusted Twelve, quite literally sold out on Jesus; yes, this was the very night that Jesus gave His disciples His true body and blood. As the Passover meal was originally eaten on a frightful night in ancient Egypt, so this, the NT Passover, was given in the context of betrayal, death, and abandonment, as He left us “in a wonderful Sacrament a memorial of [His] Passion” (Collect).

So the entire episode has the word “obedience” written all over it. He obeyed His Father’s orders to become man, to become obedient, and to become the once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus obeyed the orders to become a servant of all, the One who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. And He fulfilled the obedience once foreshadowed in the Passover lambs of old to become both the sacrifice and the meal. It all points to the cross, doesn’t it? Here is the ultimate expression of His obedience, humiliation, and servitude. For here, on the cross, every promise of the obedient One was fulfilled as He shed His blood for us. As we heard in tonight’s Introit, “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).

But the cross was not the end of the story. St. Paul continues in his “Hymn to Christ”:

“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11). This is a description of something we call Jesus’ “state of exaltation,” the time from His descent into Hell to His second coming, the time when He is fully using the powers of His Godhead to proclaim the victory of the cross. St. Paul says, in effect, “Since Christ suffered all, even death, for us and for our salvation, God also raised Him from the dead, vindicated the Divine name, and lorded His death and resurrection over all creation, world without end.”

The state of exaltation also permeates tonight’s Epistle and Gospel lessons. Indeed, the Lord’s Supper combines Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation. St. Paul says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” These words are not part of the Words of Institution (the words of our Lord), but they are worth hearing every Sunday nonetheless. “You proclaim the Lord’s death.” The original language means “you all preach.” Yes, you yourselves preach when you come forward to this altar to receive the Lord’s gifts. And what are you preaching? You preach Jesus’ death, the climax of His humiliation. But you also preach the reality of the Lord’s resurrection. Many of us probably grew up thinking that the Lord’s Supper is primarily a re-enactment of Good Friday. There is supposedly a Lutheran myth that you’re supposed to look sad when you go to and from the Lord’s table. However, our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is primarily an expression of Easter Sunday. That’s why it’s called the “Easter feast.” Another old saying reminds us, “The Lord’s Supper for the Lord’s Day.” And, above all, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, the day of the resurrection, not necessarily on Thursday nights or Friday afternoon, the time of the Lord’s Passion. Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is another resurrection appearance of our Lord, where He bring the Easter gifts mentioned in tonight’s Introit: “salvation, life, and resurrection from the dead.”

As He commands us to eat His body and drink His blood in these last days, so he also commands us to wash one another’s feet: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Jesus washed His disciples on Maundy Thursday as an expression of His own humiliation. That was a one-time event. But the ongoing washing is the good news that all disciples are to wash one another’s feet until He comes again. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. So what do we do in the meantime? We live for and serve one another. So wash one another’s feet by calling each other to daily repentance and faith. Was your neighbor’s feet by sharing the Ten Commandments with him, for they will show him his sin and his need for spiritual cleansing. And wash one another’s feet by speaking the word of forgiveness. Forgive one another and love one another, just as God in Christ loved you enough to send His Son to you with the forgiveness of sins. And therein “the fruits of [His] redemption may continually be manifest in us” (Collect).

From humiliation to exaltation, from the cross to the resurrection, tonight’s propers deliver the full strength of the Law for the sake of the consolation of the Gospel. Perhaps nowhere is this progression from humiliation to exaltation clearer than the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday. Tonight, the altar will be stripped bare, reminding us of the depth of Jesus’ servitude as He was made obedient unto death. The altar is then prepared for Good Friday, a day of solemnity and bareness. But tonight, as we watch the altar made bare, we cannot help but look ahead to the glories of Easter Sunday. Then the altar will be festive, adorned in white and in trumpet-shaped flowers, along with festive banners and the triumphant return of the “Alleluia.” As Christ was exalted in His resurrection, so we will be exalted with all the gifts of Easter Sunday, until every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

God grant it unto us this Easter for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church

Bayside, NY

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