2nd April 2024

Love bade me welcome

A sermon for Maundy Thursday 28 April 2024
Love bade me welcome
Preached by Jeremy Davies
Readings: Exodus 12 vv1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116 vv 9-16; 1 Corinthians vv 23-26; John 13 vv 1-17, 31b-35

The night is closing in: the enemies of goodness, some of them thinking they do the Lord’s work, are closing in as well. Even at the supper table there are those who are singing from a different hymn sheet; whose mind is set on betrayal. There are those indeed who will say one thing and do another; those who do not know what they will do until confronted by overwhelming force – when they will crumble, disappear into the crowd. In the poignant words of St Mark’s gospel, ‘They all forsook him and fled.’

We in this Holy Week are moving inexorably towards the climax of the story of the one who, though in the form of God, did not cling to equality with God but revealed his divine nature by emptying himself, and taking the form of a servant who was obedient to death even death on a cross. This self-emptying God (of whom St Paul wrote in the epistle to the Philippians) reveals his godliness and his god-likeness precisely at the point where he is bereft of all the appurtenances of divinity: where he is empty, humble and obedient. And he is never more empty, more humble or more obedient than at this moment when he took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet; never more empty, more humble or more obedient than when he took bread, thanked God for it, broke it and shared it – with those words never spoken before: ‘This is my body, given for you.’

The night is closing in, and the enemies of goodness are closing in as well.

I need hardly remind you that here in Salisbury between 1630 and 1633 our great English poet named George Herbert became priest of the nearby parish of Bemerton close to Salisbury, within easy walking distance of the cathedral. In the three short years before his death George Herbert wrote most of the poetry for which he is renowned today: some of the finest poetry in the English language.

Herbert knew something about self-emptying. He was an academic, a member of Parliament, and so well connected to the aristocracy, that a life at the royal court could have been his for the taking. And we know from his poetry that such secular possibilities at Court or at the university tempted him. But he turned his back on such preferment and became a priest in the newly established Church of England.

I often think that George Herbert prepared his sermons sitting in his parsonage house in Bemerton or beside the River Nadder that flowed at the end of his garden. He would take the text, ruminate over it, and by way of sketching out his sermon, and instead of making notes, a poem would emerge. His beautifully crafted poem Come my way my truth, my life, based on Jesus’s words ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ in John 13 is a perfect example of what I mean.

I wonder if it was on such a Thursday as this in Holy Week that George Herbert ruminated on the texts from scripture that we have heard this evening – St Paul’s articulation of the words and actions we are familiar with in every celebration of communion and which will be repeated here this evening. And John’s description of the self-emptying God who stoops to wash the feet of his friends. No – the self-emptying God goes further, for he stoops to wash the feet of his enemies. For it is only after the disciples’ feet are washed that Judas, with feet cleansed, but with mind troubled, and hands already bloody, goes out into the night with Jesus’ words ringing in his ears.

What you are going to do, do quickly.

The night is closing in, and the enemies of goodness are closing in as well.

George Herbert reflects on this scene and recaptures the mood of the Last Supper – the table is prepared, the lights are trimmed, the guests are at the door. In a moment of insight the poet sees that the host opening the door to bid his guests welcome has a name: his name is Love – love which empties itself in order that the guests might be filled.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve. You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.
Night is closing in, and the enemies of goodness are closing in as well.

Night closes in for all of us. At sometime or other we are confronted with our own emptiness, our own poverty, our pain or shame or grief. Sometimes we will lie or cheat or be insincere, or trample on the dreams of others. We are all unkind, gossipy and treacherous sometime or other. And often we don’t recognise these failings in ourselves, until something or someone brings us up short and we are revealed to ourselves as we truly are. Like Peter in the courtyard we do a shameful act and then, even as we try to disappear into the crowd we feel the eyes of the one we have betrayed upon us. The eyes see us, and see through us, and we see ourselves as we truly are. And like Peter we too go out and weep bitterly.

What George Herbert recognised was that the look of the betrayed which was turned upon the betrayer was a look of healing as well as of judgement. Yes, Jesus looked at Peter and revealed him as he was in all his moral emptiness. But Jesus who had emptied himself for Peter’s sake, healed him at precisely the moment he revealed him.

We are Peter in the courtyard – so George Herbert recognised. We are the guest welcomed, though we don’t deserve it, at Love’s feast. And there is that moral tussle between the guest who sees how degraded and degenerate he is, and the host who loves him and her, despite our degeneracy. ‘I’m unworthy; I can’t possibly; look what I’ve done.’

It is, of course, because we are unworthy to be there at the Feast that love stretches out his hand across the threshold to bring us in. This is why love has confronted the world’s evil, and emptied it of its power to enthral us, simply by emptying himself, in order to be beside us, where we are in all the degradation and degeneracy of our being human. And there in the pigsty of our despair he feeds us – not on the empty husks that pigs survive on but with himself.

He took bread, gave thanks to God for it, broke it and gave it to them saying: This is my body given for you. And then he took the cup of wine, gave thanks to God or it, and gave it to them saying: This is my blood shed for you: do this to remember me.

You must sit down says Love, and taste my meat; So I did sit and eat.
For it is none other than Love, better known to us as the Lord Jesus Christ, who bids us welcome: Let us sit and eat. Amen.