One of the places I want to visit someday is Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. There, next to one another are the USS Arizona Memorial and the battleship USS Missouri. In perfect symmetry you have the battleship USS Arizona that was sunk on the day World War II began for the United States in 1941, and the USS Missouri where the Japanese surrender documents were signed that ended the war in 1945.
The USS Arizona Memorial has an interesting history. The ship was sunk in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 with the loss of 1,177 sailors and Marines. Devastated by the attack, unlike most of the other battleships sunk, she could not be raised and restored for service. She remained sunken and easily visible in the shallow water.
It was, however, more than twenty years before the memorial was built. Although the creation of the memorial had been approved in 1958, by 1960 only half of the $500,000 dollars needed for construction had been raised. In 1961 Elvis Presley did a benefit concert that raised $64,000 dollars. Presley also made his own personal donation. The publicity surrounding the concert helped call attention to the project, and the rest of the money was raised so that the memorial could be completed in 1962.
A memorial is a place that causes us to remember an event and the people who were involved in it. Like the USS Arizona Memorial, memorials often are solemn places because they were built to remember people who have died in an event. In the case of the Arizona Memorial this is especially poignant because 1,102 Americans are entombed in the sunken ship.
Our text for Maundy Thursday teaches us that the event we are celebrating tonight was grounded in the setting of a memorial. Our Lord’s last supper with his disciples took place in the setting of a Passover meal which was held each year as a memorial of how God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. As Jesus celebrated this memorial, he instituted a new and even more significant memorial for what would happen the next day.
The first part of the Book of Exodus says, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Because of Joseph’s position of power in Egypt and the famine that had come upon the region, Jacob and his family had gone to live in Egypt. There God blessed and them and over time they became a numerous people. But as the years passed, Joseph’s role in helping to save Egypt was forgotten. Eventually the Egyptian leader Pharaoh saw the Israelites as a potential threat. He used them for slave labor and sought to control them by killing the male children.
God called Moses to be his instrument by which he would rescue Israel from slavery. Moses announced nine terrible plagues that then fell upon the Egyptians. However, Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to leave. So finally, Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle.” However, Yahweh announced through Moses that he would spare and protect Israel.
We hear in our text that in preparation for this event, Yahweh told the Israelites to prepare a meal. They were to take a lamb without blemish and kill it at twilight. God told them to take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they ate it. They were to eat the meal their belt fastened, their sandals on their feet, and their staff in their hand. They were to eat it in haste, ready to leave.
The reason for this was very clear. Yahweh said, “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”
Israel was to celebrate the Passover meal that night as Yahweh was about to rescue them. But this was not to be a one time event. Instead he told them, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” The Israelites were to continue to celebrate this meal in the promised land. When their children asked what it meant they were to say, “It is the sacrifice of the LORD's Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.”
Jesus was a faithful descendant of Israel. The Gospel of John shows us that he regularly came to Jerusalem as a Passover pilgrim. He had returned to Jerusalem for the Passover during Holy Week. But this trip was different because it was his last trip. On the way there he had told his disciples that the Jewish leaders would hand him over to the Gentiles to be crucified, but that he would rise on the third day.
Our Lord was celebrating a meal with his disciples that was a memorial – a remembrance – of how God had redeemed his people from slavery. Yet the event in the Old Testament that the meal celebrated pointed forward to what Jesus would do the next day for you.
The Son of God had come into the world to redeem you from slavery – to free you from the slavery of sin, death and Satan. Conceived as fallen people, your lives daily are ones in which you break God’s law. Because of this what we just confessed is true – we deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.
We deserve this. But Jesus Christ died on the cross in our place as he shed his blood. He received the wrath of God against our sin. Now, just like the blood that marked the houses of the Israelites on the night of the Passover, his blood causes God’s judgment to pass over us. God who redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, has redeemed us by the death of Jesus Christ.
At the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples. But during that meal he did something completely new – something that was, quite frankly shocking, as he took the Passover and made it his own. He took the bread of the meal, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to the disciples saying, “Take, eat, is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance me.” Our Lord said that he was giving to them his body to eat – the body given for them. They were to do this in remembrance of him.
Later on, after supper, he took the cup and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Take and drink. This cup is the new testament in my blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.” Our Lord said that he was giving them his blood to drink – the blood shed for them for the forgiveness of sins. This too, they were to do in remembrance of him.
At 9:00 a.m. the next morning, Jesus would be suffering as a slow death as he hung on a cross. At 3:00 p.m. he would breathe his last and die. Those events explained what Jesus said at the Passover meal. Our Lord gave his body into death on the cross in order to free us from sin. He shed his blood as he died to give us forgiveness.
At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Altar. His words are plain, straightforward … and shocking. Jesus took the memorial of the Passover and turned it into a memorial of his death, because he was the fulfillment of the Passover lamb.
However, human memorials are about remembering events in the past that involved people who are no longer there. Jesus’ memorial is completely different. He said that he was giving the disciples his body given for them. Our Lord is the Son of God who has no limitations. He does what he says. If you want to say that can’t or wouldn’t – well, that is your problem. Then Jesus said that he was giving them his blood shed for them. These words confirm that our Lord was doing something new and unheard of, because Jews were strictly forbidden from drinking blood. The very idea of it was shocking. But that is precisely what Jesus said he was giving to them.
Our Lord said to “Do this in remembrance of me.” Tonight, just as the Church has for two thousand years, we again obey his words and receive his gift. In the memorial of the Sacrament, Jesus is not absent. Instead, he is present in his true body and blood. And the Sacrament is not simply about our remembering what Jesus did. Instead through his body and blood Jesus gives to us here and now what he accomplished on the cross. It is his body and blood, given and shed for you. His body given on the cross. His blood shed on the cross. That is what he puts into your mouth as he applies what he won for you – forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
In the epistle lesson tonight, the apostle Paul writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” In the celebration of the Sacrament we proclaim our Lord’s death. This occurs in the Words of Institution. It occurs in the words of distribution. It occurs as we gather to receive the body and blood of our the Lord, given and shed for us on the cross.
We proclaim the Lord’s death. But it is the risen Lord who is able to do this. It is the risen, ascended and exalted Lord whose word causes bread and wine to be his true body and blood – the means by which he gives us forgiveness and strengthens the new man. This our Lord does until he comes on the Last Day. And when he does, he will transform this meal one last time into the feast of salvation that has no end.