Sermon for Maundy Thursday preached at the Last Supper, Washing of the Feet and Vigil at Sherborne Abbey, on Thursday 7 April 2023 by The Reverend Lesley McCreadie.
It has become quite fashionable in some church circles to celebrate a Seder meal on Maundy Thursday. To re-enact the kind of meal Jesus would have shared with his disciples at Passover. I have done this on many occasions with school children going through the ritual and introducing them to the food which would have been eaten. The Passover is of course the greatest of the Jewish Festivals because it remembers the great delivery from slavery that the Hebrews were experiencing in Egypt. The glory days of Joseph had long since been forgotten. Today, Jews celebrate the seder by eating food which symbolize the escape from Egypt. Roast lamb, charoseth, a mixture of apple nuts and cinnamon, bitter herbs, a roasted egg, salt water, unleavened bread and of course wine. Questions are asked by the youngest family member about why this night is different from all other nights and so the story of the first Passover is retold in this way. The door is always left open, and a glass of wine left untouched in the belief that Elijah would come again and so herald in the time of the Messiah. The Exodus from Egypt shaped the whole of the Jewish faith and cemented their special relationship with God.
It was to this meal Jesus had invited his disciples, but Jesus had something very different to share with them. The Passover was symbolic of the Covenant God had made with his people, on this special night Jesus would speak of a New Covenant, a covenant first hinted at by Jeremiah but now, Jesus through the actions of The Last Supper would initiate the covenant of love which would bring all people into a new relationship with God.
If we look around the table in the upper room, they are a ragged collection of people – sinners, betrayers, the power-hungry, the fragile, the lost, the lonely. They are like all of us; on a journey but not always knowing or understanding the way. In a very graphic way Jesus shows them the way.
He begins with the first extraordinary act of the evening. Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and washes their feet. Was this so extraordinary? Yes it was. This was the job of the lowliest servant or of a woman. It was not the role of the master of the house and certainly not that of someone who had been called a rabbi. Everyone’s feet are washed. No feet are excluded from His love. There are no feet unworthy of being washed. I am always moved when I recall that Jesus washed the disciple’s feet before Judas Iscariot left the room, not only that he broke bread with him, and I am left wondering if this was another chance Jesus gave Judas, another chance to reflect on what he was going to do, another chance to act differently.
The wonderful account in John’s gospel we have just listened to, is about love and it is about service, something we are all called to do.
One of my favourite hymns and one we often sing at St James begins with the words:
Brother sister let me serve you
Let me be as Christ for you
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant too
The hymn summarises the servant hood of Christ but also of each of us as we are called to weep with those who weep, to laugh with those who laugh, to journey with those who are seeking, and to hold the hand of those who are troubled. Just as Jesus washed the feet of his friends we are called to wash the feet of those we come into contact with. This morning in the Chrism Mass in the cathedral Bishop Stephen called upon us to ‘Make Jesus Known’. We need to seek out the dark and suffering corners of our world and be as Christ for those we come into contact with. I doubt it will be to wash their feet but it will be to show that same deep, all-embracing love and forgiveness which Jesus showed when he washed his disciples feet.
The second part of Jesus showing his disciples the way was by instituting a new covenant between God and his people. He used the Seder meal to bring in a new perfect form of nourishment for his followers. The new covenant Jesus had come to establish was based on the love of God for his people and nowhere is this love more profound than in The Eucharist. Some might even call it an agape meal or a love feast. At every Eucharist we come together around the table as friends whether that is in a home, a small church or here in the splendour of the Abbey, the essence is the same; simply put, it is friends being together as they gather with their best friend Jesus. Hospitality is often at the very heart of friendship and nowhere is this more obvious than in the command of Jesus to ‘come and eat’. Breaking bread and sharing wine is so simple, so ordinary; it is the essence of living with one another and with our community. The Eucharist is the most human and yet also the most divine gesture; and here of course is the truth of Jesus; so familiar and yet so mysterious. In the Eucharist Jesus gives all to us, nothing is held back. It is what true friendship is all about, it is what Jesus offers you this evening and every time you come to his table, every time you receive his body and his blood, however you believe that to be. He is saying, ‘Come be my friend’.
As we begin the wonderful three days of the Easter liturgy with the sorrow of tomorrow, the quietness of Saturday and the glory of Sunday, will you be his friend? Will you commit to walking with Christ throughout the rest of your life and to Make Jesus known to those you meet? As you receive the sacrament tonight make that commitment, renew your relationship with him and allow your life to be placed in his hands. Amen.