Sermon for Maundy Thursday: Novum Mandatum – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Thursday 14 April 2022 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.
What we have in our readings, and what we celebrate and commemorate today, may seem strangely paradoxical. Here is the Master stooping to servility; and here is the Word of God himself – the universal creative force “in the beginning” – saying of broken bread, “This is my body;” and, of wine outpoured, “This is my blood.”
These two paradoxes are, however, at the very heart of the Christian faith. Let us consider Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. It is, he says, only in humbling himself and serving others that “the Son of Man [can be] glorified, and God …. glorified in him.” What is more, this humility, this looking out for others, is to be shared, and it is costly. Let us be clear, Jesus is definitely not saying that to be his disciple is to be a doormat, a pushover. “By this”, he asserts, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That means standing up for other people, being counted, staying firm for what is right and good. It cost several of the Apostles their lives. It is Jesus’ “new commandment”.
Peter, as so often, doesn’t get it – not at first. He doesn’t want his revered teacher and Lord abasing himself, performing a task that should be left to the menials. Yet what does Jesus reply? “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me, no part in me.” At which point Peter does an abrupt about-turn – in fact he rather overdoes it.
For this is what Holy Communion is all about – having a part or share in Jesus. Much has been written, argued over and opined upon over the centuries about what is happening at the Eucharist. But almost all would agree that, when we receive the bread and the wine, Jesus is in some sense made real to us; we are partaking of him and thus drawing close to God. It follows on in this story from Jesus’ cleansing his friends, sharing his last supper with them, showing them his love – as any human might. Yet he is also the divine creative force, and in the Communion, whose origin we celebrate today, he cleanses us from sin, makes us his body and – wonderfully – shares with us his divine nature. So he brings us to God our Father.
Now there is mystery in our relationship with God, which we need not – indeed cannot – explain in too literal terms. And the mystery of the Eucharist is at its heart. Indeed, wonder and mystery are all around us. As David Self has said, “Clearly, scripture contains many hard facts, but the reduction of all matters of faith to matters of fact has a debilitating effect. For example, science teaches us that a rainbow is a colour-effect visible to an observer who has his or her back to the sun, and who sees the refraction and reflection of sunlight in minute water droplets in the air. But that factual definition leaves little room for awe – or indeed worship.” We do not have to explain the mystery of the Eucharist. It is enough to share in its wonder.
Nor do we have to occupy the moral high ground. All this is offered to us right here and now in our ambiguous, anxious, often disordered, lives. This is where he comes to meet us, in bread and wine.
We may, like Christina Rosetti in her sonnet “St Peter”, feel unworthy, even unwilling, to receive our Communion with Christ; but, as we hear in the poem’s last six lines, in his love he never gives up on us.
St. Peter once: “Lord, dost Thou wash my feet?”—
Much more I say: Lord, dost Thou stand and knock
At my closed heart more rugged than a rock,
Bolted and barred, for Thy soft touch unmeet,
Nor garnished nor in any wise made sweet?
Owls roost within and dancing satyrs mock.
Lord, I have heard the crowing of the cock
And have not wept: ah, Lord, Thou knowest it.
Yet still I hear Thee knocking, still I hear:
“Open to Me, look on Me eye to eye,
That I may wring thy heart and make it whole;
And teach thee love because I hold thee dear,
And sup with thee in gladness soul with soul,
And sup with thee in glory by and by.”