Maundy Thursday sermon, Thursday 13th April 2017
When I was a school chaplain at Haberdashers Monmouth School for Girls, the format of the major annual school service (equivalent to a Founder’s Day service) was always the same. The service was called the Saint Catherine’s Day service and it happened in November – the month of Catherine’s saint day. Saint Catherine was allegedly the chosen patron saint because she was a mettlesome lass who disputed, successfully, with 50 philosophers and thus she became the patron saint of young girls and students and young girl students. I think that the Haberdashers conveniently forgot the part where she was tortured on a wheel (a Catherine wheel) and subsequently beheaded.
Now although St Catherine’s day was celebrated in November, as far from Holy Week as is possible, the set reading was always the Maundy Thursday reading – Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. The reading may have been chosen to tie in with the school’s motto “Serve and Obey”. It would be a sad thing however if all we took away from this gospel passage was 1) the message that we should serve one another and 2) obey the commandments to love one another, although both these messages are, in and of themselves, valuable life lessons.
Surely the point of this extraordinary scene, a scene in which the Lord of the Universe washes the feet of his disciples is not to teach two separate messages - one about service and another about love – but to show that these two things are one thing. Love is expressed in service; that serving others is loving them. The disciples call Jesus teacher and Lord, titles which emphasize his sovereignty and status, but here is that same Lord taking on himself the most lowly and shameful task – physically kneeling at their feet and insisting that his washing them expresses that they are part of him and he of them.
Peter expresses his discomfort with what Jesus is doing. It is a reversal of the proper order of things – high status people have their feet washed and low status people do the washing. Jesus’ answer, enacted in the washing, is that status is an artificial ‘this world’ concept. In the kingdom of heaven there are no divisions; there is only love and love is expressed in service. Rachel Remen in A Time for Listening and Caring has this to say about service:
“Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak, when you fix, you see the world as broken but when you serve you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego and service the work of the soul.”
A commentator on this passage says if Jesus was focussed on serving and modelling how to serve perhaps he was saying to his disciples: you are not weak, you are not broken, we are all whole and have to serve one another.
It is difficult to grasp the notion of setting aside our sense of status altogether. Mostly I feel that we are prepared to be kind to others because they are worthy of our kindness or to smugly congratulate ourselves for being kind to undeserving people. In both these cases we have not truly given up our sense of status. We have not followed Jesus’ example of serving others because they are part of us, because they are part of God, because we are all one.
Rowan Williams in his wonderful book Being Disciples (which has been my Lent book this year) has this useful insight: “There are two principles of Christian faith and discipleship: we are each of equal value to God and we are all dependent on each other.” Later in the same chapter he speaks of the way in which discipleship should work.
“The New Testament describes what happens when human beings are brought into relationship with Jesus Christ by faith as a community in which everyone's gifts are set free for the service of others. The community that most perfectly represents what God wants to see in the human world is one where the resources of each person are offered for every other, whether those resources are financial or spiritual or intellectual or administrative. This is the pattern of the Body of Christ as St Paul defines it. It is not only that the least or apparently most useless has the dignity of possessing a gift and a purpose; it’s also that everyone is able to give to others, to have the dignity of being a giver, being important to someone else. And instead of being a static picture of everyone having dignity, the Christian vision is dynamic - everyone is engaged in building up everyone else’s human life and dignity.”
I am reminded of the old story of a man who had a vision of Hell in which there was plenty of food but nobody could eat as the spoons strapped to their hands were far too long to manipulate the food into their mouths. He was then shown a vision of heaven in which the circumstances were identical but in this case the people were feeding each other. We should serve each other because we love them and we love them because they are part of us and part of God; we are all part of God and made in his image. We recognise our wholeness, our oneness. Malcolm Guite in his words for Maundy Thursday describes how all the elements are part of one whole and where the servers and the served become one:
Here is the source of every sacrament,
The all-transforming presence of the Lord,
Replenishing our every element,
Remaking us in his creative Word.
For here on earth herself gives bread and wine,
The air delights to bear his Spirit’s speech,
The fire dances where the candles shine,
The waters cleanse us with his gentle touch,
And here he shows the full extent of love,
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray him, though it is the night.
He meets us here and loves us into light.
Maundy Thursday Malcolm Guite
Revd Saskia Barnden