Thursday, April 02, 2015

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2015 at Coventry Cathedral

Do you know what I have done to you
A question posed over supper almost 2000 years ago.
Let's imagine some of the responses among the twelve.

It's such a strange question.
Why on earth ask that?
Of course we know.
Jesus has washed our feet.
Got down from the table before we'd even said the blessings...and washed our feet.
As if he were our servant, not our teacher.
Washed our feet.
We don't know WHY...but we do know what.
We're his disciples, here to learn but we're not at all sure what today's lesson is.

Fast forward to 2015 and things look a bit different.
Today, Maundy Thursday, is the day of new commandments – for Maundy, of course, comes from the Latin “Mandatum”...the origin of our word “mandate” what Jesus has done to us is simply to issue another commandment...founded on love and obedience, obedience and love.

Love and obedience...played out for all time in a living parable through everything that Jesus does in these great holy days.

Tomorrow we will stand speechless as God's love for the world is revealed in Christ's shocking, scandalous obedience to the death of the obedience that proves to broken humanity, men and women ground down by the pain of living that, despite the evidence of the world, they – WE – are both loveable and beloved. On Good Friday Christ crucified opens his arms of love for us
How much do I love you?......THIS much........”
But the night before, the night in which this story belongs, he shows us this love in simpler ways – ways that even we can aspire to...and invites our obedience.
You also ought to wash one another's feet”
Love one another – as I have loved you”

This is our mandate – to do as Christ has done.

For the past 10 years or so I've spent much of Passiontide sharing a programme “Experience Easter” with several hundred school children. They come into churches across the country to explore the events of the 1st Holy Week through a series of interactive stations that help them both to learn about what happened then, and to consider what that might mean here and now. As you'd expect, the events of the Last Supper figure largely in their experience and they are hugely intrigued and often puzzled by the moment when Jesus gets down from the table and washes the feet of his friends.
Their response to his question
Do you know what I have done to you?” would, I think, be an unequivocal “No” - and you can't obey if you don't know, don't understand the commandment.

So – we unpack the about setting an example...decide in the end that Jesus does not actually expect us all to rush up to our friends and pull off their socks...Together we reach a conclusion...that what Jesus is really showing us is that Nobody is too big, too important to do simple things to care for others...

You also ought to wash one another's feet”

Christ's mandate for us – a model of unselfconscious love – which seems straightforward until you actually try to live it out

Many read of washing the disciples feet who think themselves above cleaning another's boots wrote Herbert Kelly, who founded the Society of the Sacred Mission – and sometimes I'm afraid he's right. We do our acts of service self consciously, - perhaps thinking privately “Aren't I doing well” when of course as long as we're focussed on ourselves, there's no point to the action at all.

What Jesus asks us to do is to forget ourselves entirely, as we offer loving service to one another -...for to love as he loves us means emptying ourselves completely, just as he emptied himself in loving obedience. Stripping off his robe as he got down from the table, Jesus was showing his friends a microcosmic close-up of what he had done in setting aside his majesty.

Do you know what I have done...?”
Here's Jesus's own answer.
I've set aside everything to enable you to become part of me...and you can practice here and now by following my example.

How we struggle with this...
We may not much want to wash someone else's feet – but even that is easier, it seems, than allowing someone to wash OUR feet. That's just too much.
Such vulnerability is altogether beyond us – even when it is Jesus who invites us to receive loving service FROM HIM.
I wonder why.
Of course it's risky...allowing someone else to come so very close...another human being...or God.
Intimacy can be dangerous. Better hold back.
Perhaps we're too proud, too self sufficient...
After even the briefest spell as an invalid, I know how hard it was to accept care from my family, to allow them to do the things that I would normally do for myself. I found that I prized my independence more than I would have dreamed possible.

I wanted to wash my own feet, thank you very hang on to my dignity as tightly as possible.
Does that sound at all familiar?
Perhaps we feel too grubby, - unworthy to receive this service from anyone – least of all Jesus.
Perhaps we worry that taking off our shoes and revealing the corns, callouses and peeling nail varnish we may accidentally reveal other equally unsavoury aspects of ourselves....that the God we find unexpectedly kneeling at our feet may see us in all our vulnerability and muddle.
MAY see us?
Of course he does...He sees us, as he knows us, through and through...and as he sees us, he loves us.
As I took groups of children round the Experience Easter stations last year, the children reflected on the title "Servant King", which belongs with the footwashing station, pondering how such contradictions might be joined in the person of Jesus. One small boy changed my understanding forever as he said
Jesus understands exactly how it is to be doesn't matter how different they  are,  what  they look like to other people...Jesus knows how it is because he has been there - from servant to king. He understands children and teachers and even bullies too".
There is no point in trying to hide.We have to risk intimacy, for we are created for relationship.
We need one another, we need to be vulnerable, removing both the protection of our shoes and the protective distance that separates us from our brothers and sisters – and from God
In God's family, gathered around his table, there are no senior reserved reserve at all.
We are all called to give and to receive loving service – and as we do só we find ourselves grafted into the body of Christ (unless I wash you, you have no part of me)

If we find this challenging, we're not alone. Since the dawn of time, human beings have always striven for independence, wanted to go their own way, though we're called to accept the healing touch of God.
Think of Peter – unable to get his head around it at all...resisting at first...but suddenly realising what is being offered and wanting to immerse himself completely in the love that kneels before him.
Not just my feet but my hands and my head”
More connection.
More love given and received
Truly, this risk of vulnerability is one worth taking.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if foot washing, rather than the breaking of bread, had become the defining sacrament of the Church. I wonder if we would have found it easier to model authentic community if we were expected, week by week, to experience afresh this process of self-forgetful, radical love. Because we only practice it visibly once a year, we are embarrassed, uncomfortable, still searching for our own answer to Christ's question
Do you know what I have done to you?”

What HAS he done, and how should we respond?

Here is the core of the parable. Jesus, in one action,  gives us not just a model for Christian life, but a glimpse of the heart of the God who knows us all inside out and loves us just the same....

Let's not be afraid to let Jesus come close.

See, he is holding nothing back, kneeling at our feet, inviting us to share in his radical, extravagant love.

Love one another as I have loved you”

Do you know what I have done to you?
Of course not, really.
To grasp the reality of a love so boundless is beyond us -
but we do know that this is an example given to us so that each one of us can learn the lesson of love and live our lives according to the model of Christ, the servant king.

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