The Eucharist of the Last Supper
Thursday 1 April 2021, 19:30, Maundy Thursday
Preacher: The Right Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
Readings: Exodus 12.1-4,11-14; 1 Cor 11.23-26; John 13.1-15
Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon.
Over the next three days we will be dealing with some very big themes: friendship, love, betrayal, judgement, suffering, death, compassion, forgiveness, hope, what lasts for ever.... This is the stuff of everyone’s life but the question is whether any of us will turn up for such intensity. Maybe T S Eliot was right that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” and we prefer escapism, evasion and displacement activity. In the accounts of the Passion of Jesus Christ, we read that Peter denied he knew Jesus, Judas betrayed him, the disciples fled and the women looked at the crucifixion from a distance.
Stanley Hauerwas, an American Methodist Theologian, wrote a haunting essay about hospital chaplaincy in which he observed that it is costly to be present to someone who is chronically sick. The temptation is the classic fight or flight, but to stay and patiently be with the person is costly. They know they aren’t getting better. Our presence is the very thing they most want from us. In John’s Gospel the notion of abiding in God’s presence is deeply attractive, deeply present to God, one another and all creation. It’s a lot easier not to be evasive and not turn up, or to flee when the going gets tough, but it’s also empty of meaning and destructive of the human spirit. In these three days we are being offered a choice between life and death and paradoxically it’s the cross that is the way of life. Death is not the last word.
Over these three days we are consciously placing ourselves in the presence of God and allowing the events at the end of Jesus’ earthly life to work on us. Difficult, yes, but life giving, utterly. We are on the way of the cross and we’re on the way to glory.
Numbers are limited at services in the cathedral because of the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic. But numbers online are unlimited so if you couldn’t get in, or if you couldn't get in every time you wanted, you can come online. My colleague Bishop Andrew Rumsey suggested watching worship online is a bit like looking through a leper’s squint in our older churches. Looking from a distance, but really present to the event at the end of Holy Week.
Tonight we commemorate the Last Supper and keep the watch of the Passion in the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane through the hours until midnight. “Could you not stay awake with me one hour?”
There are two rather different accounts of the Last Supper. The Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - tell of a Passover meal in which Jesus took bread and wine, declared they were his body and blood and told his disciples to do this in memory of him. It’s the pattern St Paul knew when he told of the institution narrative in this evening’s epistle. This Eucharist is food for the journey on the way from slavery in Egypt to the freedom to the Promised Land and resurrection.
In John’s Gospel the meal is on the eve of Passover and Jesus is the Passover lamb sacrificed in that same story of the exodus, the forty year journey through the wilderness and entry to the Promised Land. In John, as we heard tonight, Jesus took a towel and wrapped it around himself and washed his disciples feet. “If I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
These two Dominical commands are at the heart of what Christians do as disciples in the way of Jesus Christ: worship and service. We do this in memory of him and we do it because it is at the heart of what it is to be human. In them we find our place with God and one another.
When the Dean invited me to give the addresses in Holy Week this year, he suggested I might reflect on my experience not just as Bishop of Salisbury but also as the Church of England’s lead bishop on the environment. So here is one more comment about a dominical command and it’s about us getting a right relationship with God, one another and all creation.
In the first creation story at the beginning of the Bible in the Book of Genesis, on the sixth day God made humankind, in God’s own image. And he gave us dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth...” This giving of dominion is hugely problematic as it suggests that everything has been created for us to rule over. It’s all for us.
At a time of environmental crisis and climate change due to our consumption of species and things this way of life is a disaster.
I have talked a lot with a Rabbi who is passionate about the environment and who has become a friend. His advice in relation to difficult texts in the Hebrew scriptures is to accept the difficulty and set the text in the context of the whole of scripture, our knowledge and experience. That is helpful but for Christians in relation to the problem of dominion is different. If we human beings were given dominion over creation, in Jesus Christ we have been given a pattern of what sort of dominion that must be. “You call me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am”, Jesus said, “So if I have washed your feet you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Here is a way of life that is not all about me or us. It is about sacrificial love and service in which we find our place with God, one another and all creation. Dominion is not to use and consume but to serve and conserve. Every farmer knows it and every Christian has had it confirmed in the pattern of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.
These three days are about the big themes. Whether online or here in the cathedral, we have turned up. We have come to do this in memory of him because here is God present among us, utterly demanding, completely life giving. As St John says, Abide in him.