Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday 2021

A very strange day for a preacher, for it is not really a day for words.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Thursday, 1st April 2021 at 6.00 PM

Maundy Thursday is a very strange day for a preacher, for it is not really a day for words. The three commands around which our liturgy is based as we enter these three holiest days of the Christian year, are commands to do. Not to talk about or take apart, but simply, radically, to do three things. First, to wash one another’s feet as a sign of service and communion. Secondly, to love one another as Christ has loved us. Thirdly, to make a perpetual memory of Christ’s death and resurrection until he comes through the sharing of broken bread and outpoured wine. Do this in remembrance of me. Three intimately connected instructions for action.

Usually, in this Eucharist, the celebrant would wash the feet of twelve members of our extended Abbey community, acting out the scene we just heard in the Gospel. Not a piece of especially curated theatre but a symbolic realisation within the liturgy of what the Church is called to do and to be in every place and in all times – this particular church and the whole church. Pope Francis regularly refers to the Church as a ‘field hospital’, a space where the wounded are gathered together for healing, nourishment and recovery, a space where the medicine of the Gospel can grow deep roots within us. It is our baptismal vocation to serve and tend one another, and therefore to build up the Body of Christ. This tells us something pretty fundamental about the nature of the God we claim to serve. The place of revelation for us may be someone else’s feet. That’s quite a shocking thing. We may realise what Christ has done for us precisely as we serve another, especially when that service is costly, undeserved or difficult. When Christ took our nature upon him, poured himself out for our salvation, his descent into our depths was absolute. This incarnate Christ goes to the end for us, to the darkest place of annihilation and death, and as a result shows that his life is indestructible. This love cannot be destroyed. But on his way to the cross, Jesus chooses to illustrate it by washing the filthy, gnarled feet of his motley crew of friends.

The scene is at once corporate and deeply personal—individual pairs of feet washed, an intimate action as Christ works away at the particular grime of particular feet. There is no one-size-fits-all in the Kingdom of God. This is addressing individuals, and Peter cannot cope with being loved quite like that. On the other hand, the new commandment to love one another is addressed to all the disciples as a group. As Jesus commands them to love one another, he prays that love would be the hallmark of his friends, the family likeness of the Jesus movement. As this drama unfolds tonight, as Jesus now moves away from his disciples towards his betrayal and trial, it is love for one another as Christ has loved them, which will be the only trustworthy sign of the Christian. The only antidote to betrayal and denial, as Peter will learn over these next days, is a love which goes beyond the end and doesn’t quite let go. In this unfolding twilight scene of fear, blood and brutality, it is only this love that will hold, especially when it looks as if everything else might break.

The third command is what we think of as the institution of the Eucharist. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, Christ says. The phrase St Paul uses in the very early account we heard tonight from 1 Corinthians is important. This isn’t a simple wistful way of remembering a dead loved one—it’s the kind of remembrance that makes that memory present. It activates that memory. We are commanded to do this to proclaim Christ’s saving death and to feast on its fruits of grace and holiness until he comes to gather all things to himself.

So, our instructions for action—wash feet, love one another as Christ himself has loved, and know Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist. This will be the shape of the Christian life. By all means think about it, contemplate it, analyse it, critique it, wrestle with it—but first, do it. And do it all. Again and again.

We do it here in a particular way. I’m not talking about the particularity of the Abbey, but rather the particularity of the liturgy. Why do we ritualise this washing, this loving, this eating? Well, in the words of one theologian, the point of liturgy is “doing the world the way the world was meant to be done.” Of course, all those mundane daily actions of washing, serving, loving, and eating matter, but we quite often miss them, and fail to recognise their deep value. These liturgical actions should be the habits of our hearts. Here, we learn them afresh, and tonight, we do so as we step into a drama which is the hinge of history. Here we learn how the world was meant to be done. These ‘doings’ are the distinctive Christian doings. Our service of the world, our love for one another, our communion with Christ’s death and resurrection in the Eucharist: these will shape us.

Over this last year, we have seen extraordinary levels of public service and care offered by people of all faiths and none. That builds up society in ways not dissimilar to how explicitly Christian service builds up the Church. Christ is present in every single act of kindness, gentleness, and care. As a society, we must harvest the fruits of these very many ‘doings.’ As we Christians engage with times of darkness and sorrow—either memories or current realities—we should be strengthened by the fact that the command to love one another was given at the moment when Jesus knew he was being betrayed, being handed-over. As it appears he is moving away from his friends, he is awakening in them the family likeness which will see them through every act in the drama that is to come. Through all these ‘doings’ we participate in God’s own life and Christ’s story becomes our own. I once read an account of a seriously ill man who needed a blood transfusion in order to save him. The closest match was his child sister. She was a willing donor, and as she prepared for the very simple procedure, she asked the doctor, “Will it hurt? Will it take long for me to die?” She had simply assumed, wrongly, that she would have to give her own life in order for him to live. Love one another. Serve one another. That is what God is like. By these ‘doings’ people will recognise us as those who participate in the life of Christ—a life betrayed, a life offered, a life which has swallowed up death for ever.