A sermon preached on the Feast of the Lord's Supper by Rev Aaron Kennedy
Exodus 12:1-4;1 Corinthians 11:23-34; John 13:1-17
If our journey through Lent to Holy Week and Easter
could be described as climbing a mountain,
this wouldn’t be too far from the actual geographical reality
that Jesus lived through.
Jerusalem sits on a mountain plateau
and Jesus’ journey to get there,
and to the Hill of Golgotha where he was crucified,
would have been largely uphill all the way.
In Holy Week, we are now out of the foothills of Lent
and beginning to ascend the steep, craggy sides of the mountain.
The ground is rough and unforgiving,
and perhaps we are beginning to feel sore, and weary,
longing for some answer to prayer,
or a hope that we have carrying these many days.
Wherever we are on our journey in faith,
as we have genuinely tried to reach for God this Lent,
as we have been willing to sit in the middle of our doubts, uncertainties, fears,
protecting the small flame of faith and hope,
as we have done this,
God has begun to smile upon,
and his heart has been stirred by our devotion.
Even now he has begun to draw near to the warmth of that little flame,
to cup it tenderly in his own hand and coax it into greater life.
So let’s be open to what he wants to give us.
As Jesus got up from the table and tied a towel around his waste
to wash his disciples’ feet,
we are told that his reason for doing so,
was for love of his disciples,
and that he had loved them to the end.
A better translation of this phrase – he loved them to the end,
would be something like:
now he showed how utterly he loved them.
Indeed, the phrase his own – those whom he loved to the end,
is a poor translation of a term of a special endearment
reserved for close, dear relatives.
The sentence, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Could more aptly read:
“Having loved his dear ones who were in the world,
now he showed them how utterly he loved them.”
And so he stood, took off his outer robe,
tied a towel around his waist
and began to wash their feet.
There is something transcendently wonderful and challenging about image.
The disciples – who had been with him so long,
had seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, turn water into wine.
They knew now that he had come from God and was going to God.
However dimly, they knew he was the King of the Universe.
And yet here He, the great majesty of the cosmos,
stoops in love and humility to do the most menial job their society knew.
The closest thing would be to try imagining
our dear elderly monarch, Elizabeth,
– God save her –
arriving in Battersea, swinging on the back of a bin lorry;
or perhaps as a care worker,
scraping by on minimum wage,
shuttling busily between clients
to tenderly bathe, clothe and feed
those who are largely out of sight and out of mind in our society.
(For what it’s worth, I don’t believe she would object to the analogy,
for she worships the same Lord as we.)
Well, we can easily feel sympathy with Peter,
who, far from being the least spiritually minded among the disciples,
may in fact have been the one who saw most clearly
the perplexing, upside down role that Jesus had just assumed.
So, of course he is thrown into turmoil.
Nonetheless, Peter is a student,
and a follower of a great teacher,
someone he has learned to call the Messiah of God,
and still, something within Peter is getting in the way.
He is humble enough to see the incongruity of what Jesus was doing,
yet proud enough to dictate to his master.
No way Jose, he seems to say.
And even when Jesus makes it clear that he must,
if wants to be his disciple, submit to this act of service,
Peter still wants to dictate to Jesus,
and have not only his feet but also his head and hands washed.
Jesus’ patience is something to behold!
This was not a one off for Peter.
This is just the sort of person he was.
A fairly ordinary man with very real character flaws.
But the Lord doesn’t grumble and moan in frustration;
he shows Peter that this is a symbolic act
– with a much, much greater meaning than hygiene.
Indeed, feet were not ordinarily washed during supper at all,
but as one entered the home of the host.
In coming among us, in dying and being raised,
the Great King, the Lord of the Universe,
shows us how utterly he loves us, his dear, dear ones.
What, in you, I wonder,
would stand in the way of receiving this act of service?
Because until we receive his love,
we can have no part with him.
Until we consent to let him wash us,
we cannot know how utterly he loves us.
It is interesting I think,
to note how reluctant we have been,
not just here but in churches up and down the country,
to volunteer to have our feet washed during this service.
Ironically, we would, no doubt, be more glad to wash our Lord’s feet.
We would take the menial, humble role much more readily.
But that is not the Lord’s desire.
He insists on washing our feet,
and on us … washing our neighbours’.
Now we are getting to the heart of Maundy Thursday.
The word Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, for commandment.
And so, the service is named for the new commandment given at the Last Supper.
I give you a new commandment, 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.”
This how the whole world will come to enter God’s eternal life.
This is God’s strategy for publicising the salvation of the world.
And it’s unlike anything we would ever conceive.
It doesn’t involve social media, viral videos, GIFs or memes.
It doesn’t involve flash mobs, billboards, or crowdfunding.
Neither is it a bureaucratic or militaristic campaign,
such as we see unfolding in Ukraine at this moment.
No, his strategy if it is appropriate to call it that,
is simply, profoundly, love.
But not soppy, warm fuzzy love.
Concrete practices of service to others.
Carried out by us, his apprentices,
in imitation of himself, our master and teacher.
This is not easy, quick or sexy.
In fact, it is hard to see how it is even possible,
if you’re anything like me you start off with the best of intentions,
which fall by the wayside as soon the going gets tough.
But this is his command, his challenge to us today.
If we who follow Jesus want to know his blessing on our lives,
want to understand what it was he was really talking about,
what it is that is truly transforming about Jesus’ way,
we not only must receive in humility the service of our master,
but we must heed his command to go and do likewise.
This is going to require more than what you might call a technical fix
because it is not something we download an app for,
or pay some money towards,
or lobby for a change in government policy to support.
No, this is what philosophers have called an adaptive challenge.
It is going to require a deep level of character change in us,
and that we go on a journey of transformation
– one that may look alarmingly like
the one Jesus took in Holy Week.
I was busy trying to write sermons earlier this week,
when we had to make a trip to the hospital for Clem, who has been poorly.
I brought my laptop hoping to find somewhere to sit and write
while Grace took Clem inside.
But rather unsurprisingly I couldn’t find a parking space at all,
and so hit on the idea of calling a local church
to ask if I could use their carpark.
I found one nearby willing to help me,
and when I arrived the vicar came to meet me.
I was slightly taken aback
because I had been clear that my need was for writing time,
and there was some resistance in heart.
But I allowed her to take me into the church,
which was beautiful and cool on what was a warm day,
and my stomach began to unclench a little.
She offered me a desk and wifi and quiet to work,
but again I resisted, and said no, no, the car was just fine.
Another moment later she offered me a cup of coffee,
and for whatever reason, I relented, and gratefully accepted.
I felt my stomach relax entirely,
as she herself went off for the few minutes it took
to brew some fresh coffee.
I was surprisingly refreshed by this impromptu visit
– an interruption, technically, to this vicar’s day;
but she treated me as anything but that.
She “washed my feet”,
she took time to treat me as if I were the Lord himself,
she loved me with something very akin to the love of Christ.
But there was that undeniable resistance in me.
Something that preferred not to be in her debt;
and it was only when I let her take care of me
that I received the blessing and refreshment I needed.
That God knew I needed.
On these the final craggy slopes of the mountain of his passion,
we remember our Lord’s last supper with his friends,
and watch a while through the night with him.
And as he once did to his disciples,
so now he would do for us, if we let him.
He comes now to show us, his dear ones, how utterly he loves us.
And like a parent who falls to their knees
to gather up their onrushing toddler into the arms,
so he stoops to take us up in his arms.
But will we let him love us?
Or will we be too proud and abashed
to receive the humble service
of the King of the Universe?
The invitation this Holy Week is,
to relent whatever resistance is in us,
and receive the Lord’s transcendent yet humble love,
and begin, at least, to seek to do unto others as he has done unto us.
This will quickly take us to the very end of our resources,
because we cannot love as he loves,
without first taking up our cross,
and following after him
wherever he will lead.
But …. if you know these things,
you are blessed if you do them.
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