1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13: 1-17, 31-35
Do you remember those days of yore, when we were time-poor, constantly rushing to get through all that we had to do? They seem so long ago, now. But tonight, we have an awful lot to get through. We start with a reworked Passover meal. Then we move to a meditation on humility and taking the slave’s place. Then there is a new commandment, and then the devastation of the Garden of Gethsemane.
So, to begin at the beginning, as Dylan Thomas so neatly wrote in the opening lines of Under Milk Wood, we start with a meal, a meal that Jesus and his disciples knew and loved so well, meal full of story-telling and ritual – “why do we do this, each year?” – at least four shared cups of wine, endless matzeh broken and shared, with Jesus as host and chief storyteller. All is going well until Jesus breaks the spell, and stops the meal’s progress. He takes a towel, wraps it round his waist and proceeds to wash the feet of each person at the table. This is not the host’s task – that should be done by the door slave, as people arrived off the street. But this was entirely predictable, as John the Baptist had said of Jesus when he met him by the River Jordan, “I am not worthy to untie the clasp of his sandal” – not even worthy to be a door slave to Jesus, but here Jesus takes on just that role, just that position within a household, the lowest of the low. Peter can’t cope with this. He can see exactly what Jesus is doing, and it is just not right. His Messiah cannot behave in such a way.
Jesus is gentle with him. He delicately teaches Peter that this slave way, this example of taking the lowest place, is essential to understanding what is coming next. It is through this meal that we “have a part” in Christ, but Christ the host washes the guests’ feet. Peter must understand this example of service, so that he can then go on to comprehend fully what is going to happen next – the command to love, the obedience of Christ in the face of suffering and death, the resurrection – all of that has to be understood in terms of service, of taking the lowest place. The Apostle Paul understood this, so he could write to the Church at Philipi – as we read last Sunday –
Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross!
This hard, hard lesson is taught during the middle of the institution of communion, so that it has to apply there, when we take communion, that Christ is our slave, washing our feet as we seek his forgiveness (for we have been washed clean all over in baptism) and offering us food and drink in the new covenant of grace. Too swiftly communion became a hierarchical event, surrounded by mystery and locked away from most people by clergy privilege and fear. Even to this day, many practices around communion can be exclusive and excluding, when that is the very last thing that communion should ever be! And in these days of absence, of locked churches, of worship alone, at home, that inclusiveness of communion must be maintained. Others may livestream themselves receiving communion in their study, but I will not, however much people may like the idea, as communion has at its heart the service of others, and I would only be serving myself.
It really ought not to be a surprise that the new commandment, to love one another as Christ loves us, should come at this moment. Christ the slave, having instituted communion as a way of permanently remembering him, adds love to the already heady mix. A slave had no choice in the roles they performed within the house. This slave, this God-slave, takes on the lowliest function out of love, and commands us to love like him. How can we do that? How can we possibly behave like that? Does it not take divine grace? But we have that divine grace, in bread and wine, in our hands and on our lips. We take divine love into ourselves as we share the bread and wine, so it ought to be possible – but it is so, so hard!
We will continue so far through the service, and then stop, a little earlier than we normally would on Maundy Thursday, as usually we would share communion and then draw the liturgy to a close. But in these extraordinary times, we will stop before communion, as we cannot share in it together. In these extraordinary times, we will enter Gethsemane alone, and watch and wonder. In these extraordinary times, we will seek out divine love and the slave’s way by ourselves, and trust that God will bring us with all his people to the joy of resurrection.
Rev Peter Hart