Words for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday @St Mary’s Whitkirk
“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father”
Jesus gathers his disciples for one last time – he has one last chance to get his message across…his grand finale, so to speak. If we didn’t already know the story – wouldn’t we expect some final decisive sign of Jesus’ identity? Something to top even water into wine or raising the dead?
But Jesus leaves his disciples and us with the most basic acts of human life – washing and feeding.
His disciples were perhaps hoping for some of his miraculous powers to be transferred to them – but they were offered a towel and a cup.
In a short while we will share those most intimate acts – washing and feeding – as we try to enter the mystery of Jesus’ final night. Tomorrow we come and kneel at the foot of the cross.
This can be a time when we meet Christ as nowhere else. When perhaps for a moment we hold together what we state every week in our creeds…that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man…and why that matters. When we understand that in the end it is all about love – but also glimpse what love really is.
Foot washing, that evening, would have been about as basic as it gets. Feet, calloused from much walking, sweaty and dirty from the road, needed washing on entering a house. It was an unpleasant job, a job for a slave.
Life’s different for us. Our feet don’t get filthy every time we go out. Foot washing is now just something we do for ourselves. But that makes it far more intimate. We’re not used to people getting that close.
Having washed his friends’ feet – Jesus shared a meal with them. Something humans have done as long as they’ve existed. I’m guessing there was other food on offer – but what everyone remembered afterwards was Jesus handing them bread and wine. He didn’t just eat with them – he fed them.
Thinking afresh about the story this year – it’s these most human of acts, washing and feeding, which have stayed with me. For much of our lives, we wash and feed ourselves but when we are at our most vulnerably human, we need others to do it for us. Then our humanity is exposed, all barriers and cloaks removed.
Before we had children I looked forward to the complex task of parenting. But in the first few weeks with Andrew, it seemed to consist merely of trying to keep him clean and fed. He was (perhaps unsurprisingly) a very skinny baby – which meant two things: he was always hungry, and nappies didn’t seal properly around his legs. Feeding and washing – I don’t remember much else.
We focus on washing and feeding again when we are incapacitated by illness or old age. Towards the end of my Mum’s life, my sister and I gave her a shower. She had to sit on a stool holding onto one of us, whilst the other gently washed her. It’s not a good memory. It was horrible doing such an intimate act for someone who had been so capable. But we did it because we loved her, and washing somehow said that, however diminished by illness, she was still a precious human, still Mum.
My final memory of her, in the hospice, is of my Dad gently giving her a cup of tea – from a baby’s feeding cup…beautiful, heartbreaking – utterly human.
Usually, in our parish Eucharist, we follow the sermon with the creed…where we recognise Jesus as true God, and incarnate – made man.
Tonight, instead we follow it with foot washing – where, I believe, Jesus gave us a glimpse of the true nature of God, and how being ‘made man’ is part of that.
We call it incarnation – God, incomprehensibly, coming to earth to live with us. Tonight shows just what incarnation means. Not God coming to earth to rule. Not God coming to earth disguised as a man, but God as truly human: God as part of all our stories; not just the ‘doing the right thing’, ‘being religious’, ‘Sunday’ parts of our stories; but the most basic, human, washing and feeding, parts of our stories.
Christianity makes sense to me because Jesus was truly human. In our world, where we so easily lose sight of what really matters, where we are bombarded with the message that to be human is to be successful, beautiful, rich; where we put up barriers and hide our real selves…by being human, Jesus shows us how to be truly human.
His last instructions were not about being successful, or even about preaching or healing…but washing and feeding.
God, not only human, but on his knees washing our feet, feeding us bread and wine – shows us surely that above all the true nature of God is love. Jesus gave us the command ‘love one another’ – not as an abstract idea, but just after he had shown us what love looks like.
Tonight calls us into the mystery that we are most truly human when we love those around us enough to notice their most basic needs, and take care of them…
…the mystery that when we allow others to do those intimate and basic tasks for us, we allow them to be truly human…
…the mystery that Christ offers to wash us, and feed us in the Eucharist, and this is the most precious gift we can ever have, because it is Christ in our human story.
And if that all seems a little too comforting for Holy Week, our challenge is the presence of Judas. Jesus knew Judas had betrayed him – but he still knelt to wash Judas’ feet, he still offered the bread and the cup. This is what real love looks like. We are called, by our God made man, to recognise all as human, to wash the feet of all, and welcome all to his table.
“We adore you, O Christ and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
Yesterday we considered the mystery of God made man, washing our feet and feeding us. Today we witness the scandal of God dying the most sordid, ordinary human death. A death reserved for common criminals, on the site of a rubbish heap.
Jesus of Nazareth revealed what it means to be truly human. He lived a life of radical love; love that was ultimately rejected, leading to a painful, humiliating death on the cross; love that apparently had no answer to hatred – no ‘save yourself and come down from the cross’.
And yet we say, “We adore you, O Christ and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
Last week Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame of the French police took the place of other hostages held by a gunman – surely knowing he would probably be shot and killed. A death that saved lives, a death that will have immense significance for those he saved, and for those who knew him…but not perhaps a death to change our lives, other than to hope that if we were ever in that situation we would have his courage.
If what we witness today was just the death of a good man at the hands of evil people 2000 years ago – what would that mean for us now? For me this is the day above all to remember that Jesus was not just truly man, but truly God.
Jesus crucified is God crucified.
So the very human Jesus who in Mark’s gospel cried from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” is the same Jesus who in John’s gospel said, “I and the Father are one”.
This matters to me, because it means there are no depths of despair I can experience that God has not experienced. “I and the Father are one” if those words reflect an absolute ‘oneness’ with God that Jesus knew, then it’s hard to comprehend his feeling of desolation. Not only have his friends deserted him but God, who has been so close, suddenly seems totally absent.
Jesus alone in Gethsemane, sweating blood, desperately asking God to find another way, is the same Jesus who, riding into Jerusalem to cheers and hosannas, somehow knew that if the authorities quietened the people – the very stones would cheer him.
This matters to me, because when my faith wavers, or being a Christian seems lonely, or too difficult to explain, or just too difficult – I know that, incredibly, God has been there before me.
It matters to me that Christ was truly God because it shows the depth of God’s love for us. God who is love, experienced the total absence of that love as he hung on the cross.
But most of all, God on the cross matters to me because somehow it means not only that God understands every situation, but that God can redeem every situation.
Jesus’ whole life, of prayer, teaching, healing, laughter, weeping, righteous anger was the embodiment of God’s love. Love that in our ignoring, misunderstanding, ridiculing, betraying, beating and finally crucifying, we rejected.
But God’s response to this rejection is to go on loving. Jesus’ death demonstrates that God’s love never comes to a point where it can take no more. God, as human victim on the cross, offered only forgiveness.
Which means that nothing we do will stop God loving us – even if, like Peter, we claim we do not know him, even if we nail him to a cross.
That it was God on the cross matters because when we look at situations around the world where love seems useless and human forgiveness impossible, God is there, suffering, loving, forgiving.
Christ is relevant in the suburbs of Syria, in refugee camps, at the funeral of a child, not because he takes the suffering away – but because he is in the suffering.
God on the cross does not give us answers, but at least enables us to pray for Syria, Congo, the Holy Lands – and other places of despair.
But Jesus as truly God should also make us think about our response to radical love, to love that makes us uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit with how the world usually is.
It forces us to recognise ourselves in the betrayer…in the one who denied ever knowing Jesus…in the crowd – swept along by fear of the different, by lust for power – shouting “crucify him”.
And if we see God in the midst of suffering – then we are called to be in the midst of suffering too, not passing by or looking the other way, not offering answers but suffering alongside.
Yesterday we saw God made man becoming part of our human stories. Today we are promised that even the worst of our stories are somehow part of God’s greater story of love. So that whatever terror, sadness, grief is there – there is also hope.
But although, with hope, we pray “We adore you, O Christ and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
It is also right that – as Matthew suggested on Tuesday – we stay by the cross, we live for a while with the discomfort…because if it is God on the cross, we cannot remain unchanged. As we will sing shortly
“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”