Maundy Thursday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Jesus answered Peter: ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

Last Saturday evening I was privileged to attend the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. A packed Cathedral sat spellbound as Bach’s re-telling and meditation on the Passion played out before us; the varying emotions captured so beautifully. On Sunday morning, after the entry into Jerusalem accompanied by waving palms, we participated in a simple and direct telling of the Passion, with music by Victoria. And on Sunday afternoon, our choir performed another telling of, and reflection upon, the Passion story – this time the Victorian masterpiece that is Stainer’s Crucifixion. All very different, reflecting different times and theologies, yet all engaging with, and engaging us in, the Passion.

And of course, this Holy Week is the week of the passion: our daily readings, telling of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his confrontations and provocations of authority there, ratcheting up the tension as we approach the events of this night and tomorrow. And through all this, and awfully, we have a sense of the passion being played out in Ukraine: in unimaginable and needless suffering; in yet more evidence of the cruelty and violence of which we are capable, that is our tragedy.

And tonight we reach the Upper Room, as Jesus celebrates the Feast of the Passover with his disciples and friends.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

That series of Passions, performed, read, experienced, all too real; those passions have revealed yet again the depths, the many dimensions of this story, of this walk to the cross. Those depths are not just in the figure of Christ, as he negotiates that rising tension and cauldron – I realize that ‘negotiates’ is the wrong verb here; inadequate to the task of describing his implacable, defiant, steadfast walk in faith toward cross and death; it is a walk that reveals depths to the man. But the depths are not just of his humanity, but are seen in the varied response of the disciples too: Judas’ betrayal – from misplaced, disappointed idealism perhaps?; Peter’s violent defiance at Jesus’ arrest, giving way to his heart-breaking denial that he has ever known the man; the other disciples’ desertion in the night; the faithful, powerless wait of the women who will stand at the foot of the cross, and watch. And so the Passion catches us up in that human drama once again; we find ourselves revealed there, as well as hearing the echoes with what happens elsewhere in our world.

And in the midst of that Passion we reach tonight the Upper Room, and sit down to a meal with Jesus and his disciples.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

In the midst of this broiling drama, Jesus offers two acts which will shape our response to these events.

First, Jesus offers himself in bread and wine. Just as he will shortly and forcibly be given into the hands of others, to be broken, so he first, freely, gives himself over into the hands of the disciples in broken bread and poured out wine, his body and his blood.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

And in John’s account of that Last Supper which we just heard, Jesus also gets up from the table and washes his disciples’ feet, the actions of a servant, the prelude to hospitality, the moment that welcomes and creates a guest. ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’ he tells Peter and the others. Just as in bread and wine he hands himself over to the disciples, so that they might be the body and blood of Christ, so in washing their feet, he incarnates what that becoming Christ looks like, that we might have a share in him.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

It is this moment, the memory of this Last Supper, that the disciples will return to, when after Sunday’s resurrection they realize that this week is not just a story of human extremes, of the depths of human passion, love, betrayal, denial and forgiveness. It is all that, but it is also the divine story, of God coming to share our human suffering and love, and in the midst of it, to offer God’s self.

In Christ your Son our life and yours are brought together in a wonderful exchange. He made his home among us that we might for ever dwell in you.

This Last Supper, the giving by Christ of himself into the hands of the disciples, is what creates the church, what creates us; it is the moment that we return to, re-member, week by week, to be re-made as Christ’s body. For it is how the divine coming, the divine arc of redemption at the heart of this most holy week, continues on. The passion we inhabit this week does not merely reflect the heights and depths of our humanity; through it, the divine evokes a response, to re-create us and our world anew.

And so alongside the bread and wine we receive as Christ’s body; tonight we re-member the footwashing, perform it amongst us as a window onto the way that God would have us be: an icon of the creation of hospitality and service which incarnates Christ’s way, and gives us a share in that divine life. We are called to do likewise; and not just us, but the whole world – for here, in these acts of hospitality, love and service, we find our humanity and therefore our freedom.

In a world of rampant egos; where anything is permissible to justify the ascent to highest office or position of power; where brute force is said to determine what matters, to bend history to its will; in a world where humans are swept aside in unimaginable suffering; in the midst of the Passion, God offers another way that re-creates a new humanity, the church, us: a story of service and footwashing, of hospitality and love. And in that way, that divine life, is our freedom and our life.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’


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