Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2020
9th Apr 2020
Let us also go (with him), that we may die with him. John 11.16.
On this Maundy Thursday night we experience the final events of Jesus’ life in the raw. The Last Supper, which we celebrate this evening at first looks like an ordinary domestic scene, but it is fraught with tension. It foretells an ending; a death; Jesus’ death, but not yet. It foretells the betrayal by Judas. It takes place in a room that has, Luke mysteriously tells us, already been prepared. The supper itself is preceded by foot washing, a call to serve by example and then come the words of Jesus over the bread and wine ‘This is my body’; ‘This is my blood’. Jesus’ words and gestures point to a future for which the disciples are as yet unprepared, for they, despite Peter’s pleas, are to desert Jesus in his greatest hour of need. Jesus’ words are also foreboding, because they speak of things which will never be the same again. Everything in this Gospel reading is both as it should be and yet it unsettles. The Maundy Thursday liturgy conveys this same sense of disorientation and then a re-orientation as we partake in the celebration (yes, celebration) of the Holy Eucharist. The altar hangings are of white and they surpass the purpled hues of Lent and the red of Passiontide. For even in the midst of his own harrowing Passion, Christ gives us the inestimable gift of himself, his body and blood. This evening’s liturgy conveys a mixture of dire prophecy and of thanksgiving. The Eucharist of the Last Supper is followed by the stripping of the Church and the putting out of lights, and this speaks to us speaks to us of Christ’s final self-emptying with our own accompanying sense of loss and a dereliction.
The liturgy of Maundy Thursday will move us on and take us from the temporary safety of the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus sweats blood and suffers the agony of his destiny, the falling away of the disciples and his betrayal by Judas Iscariot. The sharing of the supper, with its foot-washing and eating, is soon overshadowed as Jesus prepares to accept his own death in the agony of the Garden and a renewed trust in the Father’s love. He will accept the cup of suffering and it will not pass from his lips. He will, as we say, ‘go the distance’.
There is in John’s Passion Gospel the confident expression that all these ominous signs form one single and whole Gospel narrative. The Passion Gospel is hopeful only in and through our understanding of the nature of the Father and the outworking of the divine purpose. For John, The Father “had given all things into Jesus’ hands, Jesus had come from God and was going (back) to God’ (John 13.3a). We are bidden to witness these things and to be still – to watch and wait through the hours ‘til midnight when the church is plunged into total darkness as we enter upon Good Friday.
How can it be possible for us to reconcile the terribleness and randomness of human fate, and our fate in particular, with God the Father, who knows it all before it comes to be? How can it be possible that the love of God in Jesus Christ reveals itself as simply and as intimately as in the washing of feet? Can we bear to allow God to get that close to us? Can we bear to accept that God loves us at such close range and so intimately? The washing of the feet is done as Jesus comes to heal the neglected, the shameful, the barricaded and the lost parts of our nature. Just as the suffering servant Jesus humbles himself and is ready to serve us, so we are to learn to serve one another. Jesus pours the cleansing waters of his healing over those parts of our human nature that may have become ingrown and hardened and fatalistic or cynical. Tonight he beckons you and me into his necessary Passion, which will be for our soul’s salvation.
All things, on this Maundy Thursday evening, orientate us towards both the cost and the purpose of Christ’s sacrificial love. But equally, they invite us to accept the awkward fact that Jesus wishes to serve us and our needs before ever we rush to serve him. In this we may find our soul’s true rest. At the heart of human confusion, the love of God remains, immoveable, unshakeable, purposeful and everlasting. This is what makes sense of Maundy Thursday.
But for now, all is on hold. We are being asked by the Church to witness these things, to watch and to wait, as if passively for our salvation to be revealed to us over three days. To watch and to wait, to wait and to see, to see and to believe…