A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Exodus 12 v 1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11 v23-26; John 13 v1-11, 12-15
“Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Traditionally spoken by a child, those words open the Passover meal, the yearly celebration of Jewish liberty. St John, from whom we read every Maundy Thursday, is alone among the evangelists in asserting that Jesus’s Last Supper was a meal eaten in anticipation of the Passover rather than a Passover meal. Whichever it was: the disciples will have gathered in the upper room with the national feast on their minds.
Central to the Passover is the re-telling of the national story in spoken word, in song and in symbol. On the table foods are arranged which are replete with meaning. Bitter herbs represent the hardship which ancient Israel endured in slavery in Egypt. Unleavened bread symbolizes the simple faith which sustained the people in their long years in the wilderness. Cups of wine speak of the royal destiny of God’s chosen nation. And a bone stripped of flesh recalls diners to the destruction of the Temple and the consequent impossibility of offering the Passover sacrifices.
But, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Tonight the pulse of this Holy Week quickens, and its mood intensifies. We meet around the table to begin our recollection and (in some sense) our re-enactment of the foundational events of Christian history. That history has informed and shaped our national life, our national life which many are saying is in crisis. Tonight we are entitled – actually, I think we are compelled - to ask profound questions of ourselves and of one another.
So here is my question. Bitter herbs; unleavened bread; cups of wine; a bare bone. What would we place on the Passover table of the United Kingdom tonight? What would tell our national story?
Somehow 2012 seems an eternity ago, but at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics we made an attempt at this. Cast your minds back: think of the stadium as a table; think of the tableau that was unfolded upon it that night. It was set with the pastoral idyll of a green and pleasant land; it was then transformed by the noise and heat of a world-leading industrial revolution. The sharing of our new wealth was embodied in a joyful representation of the National Health Service; our achievements in science and culture were noted; and in a couple of unforgettable vignettes our ability to make each other laugh was celebrated.
It was a triumph. But as I said, it seems an eternity ago. What if we were to create an honest sequel, and place on the table that which characterizes our common life tonight?
It’s not difficult to imagine the scene in the upper room: dim lamplight, a hum of conversation, the easy familiarity bred by the years of sharing the journey. Yet the secure intimacy of the scene is encircled by a seething ocean of fierce anger. The waves of this anger will soon break upon the little company. It will find expression in the swords and clubs of those who come to make the arrest; in the deliberate lies of those who give evidence at the trial; in the ferocity of the flogging; in the quotidian brutality of the soldiers. There is anger in the air, and if we are being honest about our national life then we must start by placing upon the table the anger that grips our nation, the visceral anger of these days and weeks. We are an angry people, and our anger is finding expression in vicious online abuse, in a marked upsurge in overt racism, and in accusations and threats shouted aloud in the squares and streets around Parliament.
The anger that surrounds the upper room is directed at one man. His proclamation of a Kingdom of God threatens to undermine the kingdoms to which his opponents owe allegiance, on the one hand the might of Rome, and on the other the cult of the Temple. The imperial authorities and the city priests are angry with Jesus because they fear Jesus. Our anger has many targets but its unique focus has been our elected representatives. Bile and scorn are poured out onto our politicians. Their competence and their integrity are challenged and ridiculed daily. Yet they are elected by us, and they are elected from among us. They have failures and shortcomings: limited vision, inability to compromise, cowardice. But which of us does not? Rowan Williams led climate change protestors in prayer outside St Paul’s Cathedral on Palm Sunday. He asked them to use the response “We have forgotten who we are”. Caiaphas and Pilate fear, because Jesus is manifestly not like them. We fear, because our political leaders remind us all too clearly that we are manifestly like them. They remind us what we have become; they remind us what we are. And we fear it.
We have forgotten who we are. It’s a huge irony, because many of us have never felt quite so sure of who we are. We are leavers, or remainers; hard Brexiters, or soft Brexiters; dealers, or no-dealers. In the debate about our future relationship with Europe there are two boxes. We can only inhabit one of them; the other is simply unthinkable. “You will never wash my feet” says Peter. His anger and fear are tangible across the two millennia that separate this evening from that evening. He is outraged at Jesus’s offer; outraged and fearful. Accepting the offer will turn on its head the choice he has made to follow Jesus. For disciples follow, as surely as fishermen catch fish. Fishermen do not allow their scaly catch to snare them in their nets; disciples do not permit the ones they follow to kneel before them like slaves. If Jesus washes his feet then what will become of Peter? He has made a choice; he has given up one life for another. Now the new life is dissolving before him in a basin of grubby water. Peter believes he faces an existential crisis: he is a fisherman, according to his understanding; or he is a disciple, according to his understanding; or he is nothing. His choices; his understanding; his existential crisis.
So: what would we place on the Passover table of the United Kingdom tonight? What would tell our national story? Not the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; not the Spice Girls; not James Bond; not even Mr Bean. But perhaps the fragments of a shattered pot. Smashed to pieces in our violent anger; its jagged shards our piercing fear of what we are; its disparate remnants our conviction that our choices and our understanding irretrievably divide us from those who do not share them.
Into the wounded hands of our suffering Lord we place these broken remnants, and wait.