Sermon for Holy Communion at St Andrew’s on Maundy Thursday, 28th March 2013
John 13:1-17, 31-35 – I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.

Maundy Thursday. ‘Maundy’ is supposed to be derived from the Latin word ‘mandatum’, meaning ‘commandment’. I have to say, that seems to be in the good tradition of calling Bordeaux wine ‘claret’, and other non-obvious pieces of English etymology and pronunciation: Mr Cholmondely-Warner comes to mind!

Be that as it may, the idea is that the name of the day is meant to commemorate Jesus’ great commandment, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, that you also love each other’ [My translation]. The mandate, the Maundy, came as the disciples sat down with Jesus to eat their Passover meal, so beginning the three great days of Easter, the Triduum in Latin, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter Sunday.

This is all very familiar. If you read the account in St John’s gospel carefully, you will see that it is packed full of things which emphasise who Jesus was: that he was the son of God, and the nature of his leadership, his kingship: that he was the servant king, the suffering servant. If you compare the story of the Last Supper in St John’s gospel with the account which appears in the other gospels, you might worry that St John’s account may not be reliable, because he has got the date of the Last Supper wrong. John has it on the eve of the Passover, whereas the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, put it during the festival. Prof. Sir Colin Humphreys of Cambridge has resolved the apparent discrepancy by showing that the Synoptics used the old Jewish calendar, whereas John used the lunar calendar which we now use. It was the same day: the supper took place, he calculated, on 1st April, 33AD. However it was a Wednesday. So St John’s gospel is no less truthful or historical than the Synoptics, than Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In a minute, Renos is going to offer to wash your feet. It will be a symbolic re-enactment of what St John said Jesus did, before the Last Supper. It’s a story that only appears in St John’s gospel, and it’s clearly something which is rich in symbolic importance.

We’re told that, if you went to a posh dinner, in Biblical times, your host would have one of his slaves wash your feet when you arrived. So Jesus was doing something that a leader would never normally do. It emphasised his humility, and also the counter-cyclical nature of Jesus’ kingship. ‘The first shall be last, and the last shall be first’ (Matt. 19, 20; Mark 10).

The whole business of water, and of washing, has symbolic importance. St Peter, characteristically, gets the wrong end of the stick: he doesn’t want to have Jesus, his leader, his king, washing his feet, because it’s infra dig.; but when he realises what it’s all about, he wants Jesus to bath him from top to toe.

That’s all about baptism, ritual cleanliness, purification, rites of purification which go back to the law of Moses (Numbers 19, Luke 2:22). If you sit down with a Bible commentary you will find many more things in this passage which illustrate the point that Jesus is the son of God.

Last week I was talking to somebody in our congregation, and I asked them whether they would be coming along to have their feet washed tonight. They said, ‘I don’t really go for this feet-washing business. It must be a bit of a trial for Renos, having to cope with all those smelly socks and bunions and things.’ Perhaps my friend was thinking along the same lines as Jesus when he was coping with St Peter being rather over-the-top. Jesus’ point was that, once you had had the ritual bath, the purification – which, for Christians, is being baptised – that’s enough. It is a sign that you are a believer, that you are one of the saved. You don’t need to keep on having ritual baths.

Indeed, Jesus also taught that it was not what was on the outside of a person, it wasn’t whether they were physically dirty, that defiled them, but what was inside, their unworthy thoughts and evil deeds (Mark 7:1). So what is the point of it?

On Tuesday, some of us attended our Spiritual Cinema and saw the film ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. We romped through the last bit of Jesus’ life to a soundtrack of 70s rock music in a Holy Land populated by flower children of the late 60s and early 70s, with 15 inch bell-bottom trousers and an awful lot of hair. That too, in the same way as the Bible story, was a sort of commemoration. It was supposed to be a dramatic presentation of Jesus’ teaching and passion.

A few years ago, in the same way, this time actually here in church, we watched the Mel Gibson film, altogether darker and more horrifying, called ‘The Passion of the Christ’. It was not in any way intended to be entertainment: it was nothing like as upbeat as Jesus Christ Superstar’, but it was a truly horrific quasi-documentary showing exactly what happened to poor Jesus.

What was it like, really to have been there? Were Jesus and his disciples like a terrorist cell, a group of zealots setting out to revolutionise the world, meeting in secret and planning revolutionary rallies, at which Jesus, the superstar orator, whipped up the crowd’s enthusiasm against the government of the day?

That was certainly the way that Pontius Pilate saw it. Everyone says that his main motivation in caving in to the mob’s demands for Jesus to be crucified, was a desire to avoid civil unrest, to avoid terrorism.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Maybe Jesus was the greatest freedom fighter of them all. But is that it? A horror story; a rock opera; the gospel, a history of a movement. None of that would explain why we’re here tonight.

That brings me back to what we are doing. We’re not acting out a play. ‘Commemorating’ is rather an inadequate way to describe it. It implies that we are digging something out of our memory – but it isn’t anything that we have experienced. Even if we imagine ourselves back into the world of The Passion of the Christ – and that’s why the film is so good, because it really helps you to imagine what it was like – we are still missing something.

The Passion is not just a story of injustice and brutality ending in a man’s death. It was far more than that, because of who Jesus was. It was, in a sense, God’s death. The human race had killed their creator. Just as the Jews called the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple the ‘abomination of desolation’ in the book of Daniel – and Jesus quoted the passage (Matt. 24, Mark 13) as an indication of the end of the world – so here, there is a sense in which Jesus’ passion and death show the triumph of sin, of the utter and complete alienation of the human race from God.

That is stupendous. It is too much for any of us to take in. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve studied. But what we can do, in the face of this cataclysmic event, is to come to God in worship. Because He hasn’t been cut off from us. He isn’t permanently estranged, He isn’t denied to us. We know that on Easter Sunday we will commemorate – we will celebrate – the resurrection. As St Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, nothing can ‘separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:31-39). So when we commemorate His suffering, we are not just recalling a historic event – although it certainly was that. We are doing something sacramental – an ‘outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace’ (The Book of Common Prayer, a Catechism). The foot washing led to the Last Supper. We commemorate the Last Supper by sharing the bread and wine in Holy Communion. It isn’t just an empty show. It does something, it works in us. God works in us. In the words of the Prayer Book, the sacrament is the sign of ‘grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.’

It’s a sign that God has given us His grace, His free gift. What is the free gift? It is salvation. It is the knowledge that God cares for us. And the way we put ourselves in line to receive the free gift is to come to God in worship.

This is worship. This foot-washing is worship. It is coming into the presence of God. How can we be sure that we are fit to come to him? Are we pure enough? Are we? It’s doubtful. But Jesus has given us an instruction, a commandment. If we keep His commandments, we will not be separated from Him. That commandment is his Great Commandment of Love. Let us be washed, as a sign that we accept His commandment, that we believe.

So it is important, and it is significant, that we have our feet washed tonight. It means something. It is the beginning, the preparation, for a sacrament. We are approaching the divine. God is with us. So let us love one another.