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A Sermon from Sherborne
Being a friend of God
A sermon preached at The Eucharist on the evening of Maundy Thursday, 18 April 2019, by the Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar
We talk about the three great days of Easter and I hope you will be here, or in another church, as much you can for the next three great days as we once again walk the way of the cross to the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning.
It seems to me that as some might see tonight as the beginning of those three days that our liturgy tonight can also be found in three parts. Firstly there is the ritual of the washing of feet; the wonderful reversal of the status quo. Secondly we have the institution of the Eucharist, as Jesus and his closest friends shared in their final meal together, although John’s Gospel does not record it as such in our reading. Finally ‘the Watch’; a time of watching and waiting; of sitting with our Lord in the garden of repose; a period of solitude and silence.
Jesus washing the disciples’ feet does much to feed the human need for physical ritual. We may refer to such acts as Sacraments. Before the age of literacy started to spread in Europe in the sixteenth century, things like pilgrimage, prayer beads, body prostrations, bows and genuflections, “blessing oneself” with the sign of the cross, statues, sprinkling things with holy water, theatrical plays and liturgies, incense and candles all allowed human beings to express something of their faith. They almost acted as a mirror of what might be thought and felt internally. As human beings it fulfils our need to experience our faith as well as intellectualising it. The resurgence of Anglo-Catholic rituals in the Church of England often had their beginnings in some of the poorest of parishes, where the ritual gave colour and otherness into what otherwise might be hard and colourless lives. Tonight though, we re-enact this most moving of religious experiences when Jesus took the servants’ towel and got down on his hands and knees in front of his disciples and washed their feet. I am sure the experience remained with them for ever because it marked a profound change in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. Later on in John’s gospel Jesus tells them that they are his friends now because of all Jesus had shared with them.
Deep human friendship is a wonderful gift which enriches our lives. It is where we can be most fully ourselves because in a deep relationship we are accepted warts and all. It is a relationship which stimulates and empowers us as well as comforts. It is a relationship where silence can be shared without feeling uncomfortable. It is such a friendship that God offers to us through his son; it was such a friendship that Jesus displayed to his disciples when he washed their feet because what Jesus modelled in that sacramental act was love.
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’.
We should not forget that it is a sacrificial meal; a meal with its origins in the Jewish festival of Passover where the lamb sacrificed in the Temple holds centre stage. Jesus becomes our paschal lamb, giving his life for his friends, making the sacrifice that will bring to his friends the gift of eternal life. Remember that our God is a passionate God, an intimate God and nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the meal we will share together tonight.
Whether a church should hold a ‘watch’ or not is for me a no brainer. It is important that the mood of those of us who have been part of the foot washing and the Eucharist should have the opportunity to change ready for the devotions of tomorrow Good Friday. Symbolically at the end of this service the sanctuary is stripped of all its trimmings – it is laid waste and the choir sing Psalm 22 and the Deacon will read the Gethsemane Gospel from Mark at the end of the reading the book will be slammed shut and we will leave silently, in darkness.
In the Lady Chapel the Blessed Sacrament is put on the altar among the candles; the green plants there to signify the Garden of Gethsemane. To sit in silence in the presence of the sacrament, and for me this means to be in the presence of Christ, is always for me a profound experience. If we cast our minds back to the garden story we find Jesus asking his friends to watch with him as he wrestled with what he knew was to come, but they could not stay awake. The challenge then for us is can we watch with him for half an hour, an hour? Can we keep our Lord company through his anguish? It is the final request of a friend to a friend; can you be with me through my torment? Can you be with me on this final part of my journey? I hope you can, either here, or when you get home. The best of friends know how to keep the same silences so in silence sit with your Lord, wait with Him through this most difficult part of the night; pray for Him and for yourself. As the hymn writer Samuel Crossman so beautifully writes..
This is my friend
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend