Sermon: Maundy Thursday – 2nd April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7.45 pm

Tobias Wolf, an American novelist, wrote a book called Old School, and in it he describes a boy who wins a prize for a short story that he has not written himself: he took it from a magazine. Eventually he is found out and disgraced: yet as you read the book you are left with the impression that he has in fact done nothing dishonourable. And this is because the story is so exactly his story: the story is the one story that makes sense of his life: it is precisely the story he has been yearning to write and to live: this is the story of all that he is and longs to be, the story that he has to, of course, claim as his own.

The story that we tell, from this Thursday evening through to Sunday morning- the story we tell every year at this time- is of course the story of Jesus….but we tell it, again and again, because we have sensed, albeit tentatively, that this is our story as well: because we have been touched by the fact that this story throws light on our stories, that this story makes sense and provides meaning for our lives: that this story enlarges our horizons and brings us both the courage and the hope to become more fully alive and more fully human.

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

 On this bitter-sweet night, this young Kingdom-prophet , who has been grasped by a vocation to speak directly into the very heart of Israel, to speak a word of love: to an Israel who, according to Jesus had lost its way, who had failed to live up to its vocation, who had sought its identity through exclusion and vlolence, and who , through corruption and injustice, had collaborated with Roman imperial control: this prophet of the reign of God now offers Israel another, alternative agenda, another story, an interpretation of a tradition that challenged entrenched attitudes, that looked outward rather than inward, that championed a universal way of being human over a particular way of being religious, that would include rather than exclude, and called Israel into a new vocation to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

So on this night Jesus called his twelve disciples to Supper, and whilethey were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”.

 On this night: the story that had sustained them until now collapses: Judas is to betray Jesus: Peter is on the brink of denial: and the other disciples will flee in fear. The community of followers, which Jesus has nurtured along the way, falters in the face of what threatens, and is about to disintegrate. And what those two disciples said on the road to Emmaus, after the resurrection: “We had hoped….” pretty much says it all for us too: for just like them, some of us still search for ways through, or out: through compromise, bargaining and negotiation: some of us still think the answer lies in being religious in a particular way, simply saying our prayers and not getting caught up in the dirty business of politics and social justice; and some of us think revolution and even violence is the only answer.

But Jesus “loves us to the end”: he takes a loaf of bread, and anticipates through ritual and symbol the way forward, by moving from action to passion, by handing himself over, and disarming his betrayers: frustrating them, in the sense that “their job is done for them by their victim”. It’s not that he passively accepts or resigns himself: he transforms this moment, this moment of betrayal, denial and desertion, into a moment of grace: “you will hand me over’, he says, but “I will grasp this infidelity and make it my gift to you”.

His imaginative vision was of a new, reconstituted Israel, forgiven and freed, where exile was forever ended: here Jesus offers himself as the new Temple, a new community centred on him. His subversive agenda was a call to follow him, and become his companions in the alternative kingdom-story he was now enacting, defeating evil by absorbing it and not passing it on, letting it do its worst in him. He would be the centre of an entirely new story: he would be the reality to which the whole now outdated sacrificial system had pointed.

So into this place where the old story had collapsed: where the community had disintegrated, Jesus plays out in ritual and with symbol…. a community where the worst betrayal or denial can never again be the last word: where meaning is still possible, where the power of truth triumphs, and where hope comes to birth: the lived truth, the conviction, that even when things don’t turn out well, or as we expected, this self-giving love alone makes sense, this alone endures.

And all this spells freedom, the forgiveness that tells us that we are still, and always invited as guests at this meal in spite of our failures and weakness, betrayals and denials. This is our new story, which we can begin to learn to live from the inside out, just as he did. He relinquished power in the face of impending violence, desertion and denial: he hands himself over and at the same time transforms the evil we inflict on each other, and forever turns betrayal into gift, and betrayers into guests: and in all this he shows us the way, not of certainty but possibility, not of clinging but yearning, not of defensiveness, but of freedom.

So on the verge of our own story collapsing, our sense of meaning and community disintegrating, Jesus anticipates our loss: as he took bread he said: “This is my body given for you” – drawing us inwards, into a new community, “you in me, and I you”. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us: “Do not forget, but remember: when you do this, even in the worst of times, I will be with you, in the closest of all possible ways: you in me, and I in you”. Here Jesus turns the Jewish understanding of holiness upside down: this man who let himself be touched by women, who kissed a leper, who ate with prostitutes and sinners: offers us a completely new way of being human, crossing boundaries, transcending our split mentality of what is pure and impure, the boundaries between male and female, Jew and Gentile, and offering a new way forward, where we can give up what separates and divides, and discover a larger vocation, an inclusive community, a universal way of being human. “This is my body given for you”.

Then – when the cup is poured out for many – you will be called and drawn outwards, outwards towards the other, whoever and wherever she is. In John’s gospel, this meal is characterized by the foot washing: overturning the fantasy that God’s power is just like ours. Our sense of who we are is built on division, between them and us: built on rivalry and fear and exclusion: “but it will not be so with you”: for “if you want to be first of all, you must be the slave of all, for the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve”. “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet”. Here our eyes are opened: all is gift. The other is not an obstacle to our coming-to-be, but the very means for our coming-to-be. Here, as we break bread together, and share a cup of wine, our vocation is realized: we are already home, we are already one and in communion, and at the same time, called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. In his famous parable about the sheep and the goats, Jesus suggests that judgement will be determined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma, but only in terms of our relationship towards victims: to those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick or imprisoned.

On this night, Jesus anticipates the worst that will happen, not only to him, but to his followers: and at the same time, opens up the transformative power of self-giving, self-emptying love. By handing himself over, by moving from action to passion, Jesus offers us a new story: his story, is to be our story: his handing over, our handing over: his death, our death: his life, our life. He invites us to live his story: to live it from the inside and make it our own: and to live it knowing that nothing can ever stop his gracious hospitality, his eternal gift to us. This bread, which is his body, his life, is the promise of his presence with us always: this bread, which is the bread of the kingdom, energizing and galvanizing us to be, in our own way, bread for the world.

Reverend Philip Carter