So we are back here again this evening. Not quite a year on from when we gathered on Maundy Thursday last year, because of the way that Easter meanders in our calendar from year to year, but almost a year on. Back here again with these great symbols – the oil, the book, the water and bowls, the bread and wine. This evening it is Jesus himself who is our host for all of this.
It is the Lord Jesus Christ who welcomes us to celebrate the ministries that flow from these oils, ministry to the sick and dying, ministry to those who are to be baptised, ministry to those who are moving further in their discipleship with him. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who welcomes us to feast at the table of his Word, to hear again these great sacrificial acts that he calls us to imitate in our own time, in his name. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who welcomes us to follow in his way as his servants, to have our feet washed even by him, that we might never again think that any task of service is beneath us, and is to be left for others who are less important than we are. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who welcomes us to feast together on him at his altar of love; and it is we who respond by waiting with him in the garden, keeping watch with him in his agony.
So this is no normal gathering of the Church. Of course there are elements that are familiar, our washing of feet is a more symbolic expression of the work of our emergency relief team in the ministry centre this morning; our gathering at the altar is the same gathering that takes place here day by day. But together, this is something that is altogether momentous.
The circumstances are strange, a little disturbing: there are threats and rumours all around. We are in an odd place: the Lord of all has nowhere of his own, nowhere to lay his head, but a room has been found; preparations have been made. Can we tonight suspend all else that is going on for us, and come as the Lord’s guests to his supper? Can we enter the room with our feet dusty from the road to find the Lord offering –insisting – to wash our feet? Can we one last time rest with him, conversing as old friends, allies against the surrounding enemies, putting out of our minds what he has warned us so often is likely to follow? Can we hear as for the first time the Lord’s mystifying words over the bread and the cup, ‘This is my body, broken for you’; ‘This is the cup of my blood poured out for you’?
We are bidden afresh tonight to the Lord’s Supper, so let us try to come with fresh eyes. Look around. We find ourselves in a large upper room. What can we see?
First, and most obviously, we see our companions, those sitting at table with us. We are a motley crew: the fishermen, the tax collector, the reformed terrorist, the rest mostly write-offs. We are vague at the very least about what Jesus is saying most of the time. When we do have a grasp of his meaning, we usually misinterpret it. Our patron saint, Peter’s sudden flash of inspiration at Caesarea Philippi was followed by Jesus’ quick rebuke. On the way to Jerusalem, James and John were jockeying for position in the new kingdom as if Jesus had been talking about earthly power. And they were the three leaders, those closest to Jesus. If they got it wrong, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The only reason we stay together, when so many have deserted Jesus, is that we have nowhere else to go. We cling to Jesus in a world gone mad. It is only the presence of Jesus himself that keeps us together. Without Jesus we are indeed lost, hopeless: bereft, even Peter denies he ever knew him. The rest of us run away for sheer terror and hide, that is, apart from Judas, who has his filthy work to do.
If we really wish to imagine ourselves there, literally with Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem on the night that he was to be betrayed, our best hope is to attach ourselves in heart and mind to one of the characters at the table. Who will it be: Peter, who was three times to deny that he ever knew Jesus – before the cock crew; or James and John who longed for earthly power; or Simon the Zealot who still perhaps longed for revolution; or Judas who only had money on his mind? We must of course find our own fit; no one will match us very well. But just as I know my best moments, I also know my worst: my own betrayals and denials, my moments of greed for money and power, my half-hearted attempts to understand, my laziness to follow Jesus whole-heartedly, and indeed my times of hardness of heart. All of the worst moments of the disciples are caught up in my worst moments as well.
Self-deception will not do tonight, it will not work. We cannot hide from the reality that the disciples failings are our failings too. Look around, who do you see in this upper room, who fits your experience of life with Jesus. Perhaps the best fit is the shadowy figure in Saint John’s Gospel, often thought to be Saint John himself, the nominal or actual author of the Gospel, but in fact unnamed. Perhaps the evangelist means us to think of this disciple as the ideal disciple, the one with whom the hearer or reader can identify. He is said to have leant on Jesus’ breast at supper, to have longed above all to be close to his master and Lord. He is the beloved disciple, the disciple Jesus loved. We are not to think of this disciple as the perfect one, ideal in that sense; rather surely the evangelist means us to know that, whatever our failures, however smeared and soiled we are by sin and selfishness, we can lean on Jesus’ breast, we can be close to him, we are loved by him. We can rest in his presence.
We are not called to love others without first knowing that our primary identity, the really real bit of us, is summed up in the gift to us, that we are adopted children of God, loved unconditionally by the one into whose life we have been baptised. Just as it was only the presence of Jesus that kept his disciples together on the road to Jerusalem and before his betrayal and arrest, so it is only the presence of Jesus that can keep us faithful on our spiritual pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.
In a few moments we will have our feet washed by the Saviour of the world. That is the action at the heart of this Maundy Thursday liturgy. Served by him, that we might serve others for him. In a little while tonight, we shall take bread and wine, just as Jesus did at the Last Supper. Using the words of Jesus himself, we shall give thanks for them and we shall offer them, together with ourselves, our souls and bodies, our praise and thanksgiving, to God. As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we shall receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the fullness of his life in our lives, renewing us, transforming us, uniting us with God himself. We shall rest in his presence, and then we shall go with him. Out of this Upper Room and across the Kidron Brook to the Garden of Gethsemane, following Jesus, really present in the Blessed Sacrament. When all else has been stripped away, we will be there – us and him.
There we shall watch with him; there we shall struggle to keep awake as he prays in an agony of bloody sweat, ‘Abba, Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’; there we shall see him betrayed into the hands of sinful humanity.
But all of this is not mere imagination. This evening, as it is every time the Eucharist is celebrated, there is a more profound and, if we can only see it like this, startling truth: that, under the sacramental sign of bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ himself, Son of God and Son of Mary, the Incarnate Word of God, will in this Holy Eucharist be really present, God with us. And, if we are one with him, then we are one with all his faithful disciples, wherever they may be in time and space.
In these acts, whatever our differences, we are united together, with each other, with Christians around the world, with Christians down through the centuries. Strangers brought together by Jesus, and for Jesus. In these acts we see God looking at us, loving us through Jesus, and calling us to love each other. In these acts earth and heaven are united.