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Sermon Given at the Sung Eucharist with the Washing of the Feet, Maundy Thursday 2017

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Thursday, 13th April 2017 at 5:00 PM

‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.’

St Paul, writing to the young Christian community in Rome, knows what really matters and instructs them as to how they should behave. Let love be genuine. Love one another with mutual affection. St Paul had never seen Jesus Christ in the flesh, though he had a vision of the risen Lord. But he had heard and learnt from an absolutely central tenet of his teaching. ‘Love one another.’

The title most frequently used for today, the Thursday of Holy Week, is not Holy Thursday but Maundy Thursday. And the word Maundy derives from the words of our Lord at the Last Supper with his disciples, ‘mandatum’ being the Latin word for ‘commandment’, ‘I give you a new commandment, [a new mandate] that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

To love one another is to be a particular mark of the life of the Church. Christians are to be recognised as those who love one another. Jesus is quoted in the gospels of St Matthew and St Mark as instructing his disciples about loving God and loving their neighbour. ‘One of the scribes asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Jesus is quoting from two passages in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy is the instruction to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And in Leviticus, there are instructions about how people should relate to their neighbours. ‘You shall not defraud your neighbour. You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.’

But our Lord Jesus Christ goes far beyond the spirit of Leviticus. First, he demonstrates himself what is meant by loving your neighbour. This is not just about being fair and respectful. It is far more radical than that. Jesus takes a towel and wraps it around his waist and bends or kneels to wash the feet of his disciples. The role of the servant, washing the dusty, possibly filthy, feet of a guest before the meal, is one that he takes upon himself. He shows that those who are to exercise leadership must first serve. ‘The Son of Man’, St Mark quotes him saying, ‘came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.’

And secondly, Jesus reinterprets what is meant by a neighbour, as we know from the parable we call the Good Samaritan. A neighbour is not just someone living next door, a friend, a mate, a colleague, someone like us. The definition of a neighbour is to include someone radically different from us, someone whose way of life we really disapprove of, someone we may even despise, even an enemy. I spoke about this parable in my address at the Service of Hope we held here a fortnight after the Westminster attacks. The point about the Good Samaritan and the Jew he helped was that their peoples, their countries, had been enemies for centuries; they would have loathed and despised each other; had nothing to do with each other. Jesus shows us that we should love people and do so actively far beyond our own kith and kin. St Paul understood this as he told the Christians in Rome, ‘Extend hospitality to strangers.’

Really grasping the message of Jesus and his meaning has always been difficult. In recent centuries, Christians fascinated by Jesus have found whole aspects of his teaching or his actions resistible, even incomprehensible.

For example, in the 19th century, a powerful movement tried to play down the miracles of Jesus, even the healing miracles, and focus on his teachings, as if Jesus were no more than an itinerant preacher amongst many others, just rather better than most.

Later, in the 20th century, another movement aimed to concentrate everything on the kingdom of God and Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom, to the exclusion of almost everything else, as if Jesus could be understood as an eschatological or apocalyptic preacher.

And then, think of pictorial or stained glass images of Jesus, surrounded by children, with a lamb on his shoulders. Teaching intended for children about gentle Jesus, meek and mild somehow remained in the minds of adults unable to refocus their attention away from a childish understanding, as if love were simply sentimental, something soft, warm and cuddly. But the Jesus we see today in the Upper Room and in Gethsemane was no milksop, no mollycoddle. Gentle Jesus meek and mild could not have borne what we see him bearing this week.

If we are to see Jesus clear and to worship him as the Son of Man and Son of God, that is, the eternal Son of God the Father, God the Son, born into human flesh for our salvation, we must embrace his whole teaching, his compassion, all his miracles, his relationships, his disputes with the Jewish authorities, as well as his suffering and death and his resurrection from the dead. And our love must be not sentimental but tough.

This evening we see Jesus, in a final powerfully symbolic act, reinforcing his teaching about love. Then he humbly embraces the suffering prepared for him, in the fulfilment of God’s plan from before the world began, the only means by which humanity can be saved, the only means by which he can win the victory over sin and death by his death on the cross.

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