Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday 2022
It brought Jesus to his knees – a striking posture for God.
The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon Steward and Archdeacon of Westminster
Thursday, 14th April 2022 at 5.00 PM
The clock had been ticking since the previous Sunday with the highly visible entry into Jerusalem. The clock had started long before of course, but the arrival of Jesus and the enthusiasm of the crowd had caught attention. The military rulers were on edge. Even one of his own had been to the authorities offering to betray Jesus.
Amidst this backdrop of impending danger, what did Jesus choose to do? To flee, to prepare to fight? Jesus, the Jewish teacher, chose to gather his companions for a meal in Passover week, sharing cups of wine, singing hymns, praying to the God of Moses even as turmoil gathered around them and we are told, ‘Having loved his own…he loved them to the end’. He got up, knelt, and washed their feet.
Betrayal, arrest, false accusation, mockery, beating and denial, all await Jesus that night. At that moment he would have every right to be self-absorbed, frightened, despondent, angry or bitter but none of these preoccupied him. Instead, what was on his mind was…love.
And it brought him to his knees. To his knees – a striking posture for God.
This Maundy Thursday I invite us to notice the posture, movement, and gestures; the body language of God. Wes start right there – body language – for we are speaking of God incarnate, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.
God whose body, tired from the busyness of the day, needed sleep even in a boat amidst a storm. God whose body wept tears. God who stooped down to write with a finger on the ground when a group of men brought a woman before him, willing him to condemn her. God who straightened up to speak directly to her and to send her safely on her way. God whose touch of hand and spittle brought restoration. God who was sensitive to the woman in a crowd who longed to be well, her body story long and wretched renewed by her proximity to him.
Some of us here will understand the experience of complex body stories. Over the past two or so years many of us have been monitoring our bodies like never before; checking for symptoms, taking COVID tests, working on being as healthy as one can, working to recover from illness. Some of us are closely attuned to our bodies, others less so, but they are our home, glorious in their individuality for they carry our stories.
For some today their stories of oppression, abuse and disregard are written profoundly across their bodies; as in in former times the dehumanisation and brutality of slavery was imprinted physically on black and brown bodies and a number, not a name tattooed on a Jewish or Roma or queer bodies. Today we shudder as we hear stories from conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere which make it clear that the vicious brutality of war is waged across many settings, including the bodies of women. All this matters, so very deeply. Their bodies, our bodies matter. Alongside this let us place the body of God, whose body would be stripped, flogged, and pierced. God whose body would bleed and thirst upon the cross.
But before those things would happen, Jesus, who had already adopted the posture of humility, who had already descended to abide with us, chose to descend yet further.
Even before the clamouring hands of the soldiers strip him, Jesus disrobes himself. Laying aside his outer robe, as he had laid aside his privilege and power, Jesus takes up the towel and kneels.
Let’s not hurry by this; God chooses to kneel before humanity.
God lifts and bathes dirty feet. This is the body language of love. It is also the language of congruency, of integrity. It is understood that whilst our words are significant, our gestures, our posture, our actions, also convey strong messages. The interface between them speak to our congruency and our integrity of being.
Imagine your co-worker comes hurriedly into the office. She’s red-faced and tight-lipped. Throwing her briefcase onto the desk she slams into her chair and glares out of the window. When you tentatively ask ‘Are you all right?’ She snaps back ‘I’m fine!’ Which are you to believe, her words, or her body language? Or imagine the friend who always promises to help out but who, when trouble comes, always seems to vanish. Which are you to believe, the words or the actions?
All that will follow will test the congruency of Christ’s words and actions like never before.
Jesus has spoken of love, including loving one’s enemies. As he kneels to wash their feet, one pair would belong to the person who would shortly betray him, another pair to the one who would soon deny him. The mutual act of foot washing involves proximity, vulnerability and a choice. A choice whether or not to accept and to be accepted. A choice whether to live – and maybe to die - congruently, by one’s words and values?
Jesus’ action in washing their feet was an act of profound, congruent and personal love. One by one, and one to one. Each could look back and say ‘on that night he knelt before me; he took my feet into his hands’. This thoroughly personal act was also thoroughly communal for as Jesus explained he was setting them an example.
‘If I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
Radically challenging the prevailing hierarchies of power, then and now, Jesus was drawing his followers into one body.
One body of people who might individually be rich or poor, broken or strong, white, black, brown, those who have stayed by him, those who have let him and themselves down.
One body, his body, who are learning to mirror his body language, that we might be congruent, as he is. Who, being loved by him, washed and renewed by him, might wash one another’s feet and embody his commandment of love.
It is therefore both comforting and disruptive this loving and being loved to the end.
That night God took bread and wine and offered it saying ‘my body, my blood given for you’.
That night God, kneeling, loving to the end, overturned our pride, our dis-ease with our bodies, our self-loathing and our judgments about who and what might be deemed worthy of love.
In a few hours more, his body having breathed its last, would be taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb. Over these next days we will follow with him to that end – only we know that nothing, not even death, could stifle his ever-living language of love. For in a day or two more, in a village a few miles from where all this took place, two disciples would find themselves at the table with an apparent stranger, whom they recognised only as he, once again, took bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them. Was there something in that familiar gesture which awakened them to his presence?
That same evening, as they were trying to piece together the fragments of hope,
Jesus, we are told, came among the disciples. After greeting them with peace,
what did he do but show them his body, his hands and feet.
Now we, with feet still invigorated from the water, soothed by touch
are called to live as his congruent body, agents of his love.