David Walker - Maundy Thursday
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we go through life we arrive at lots of turning points, changes, marked by new starts and significant endings, endings that might mean saying goodbye for now, forever, or until we meet again. Sometimes the endings creep up on us. We don’t recognise them as such until after they’ve happened. And it may be long, long after they have happened that we realise that it was an ending. But other endings are planned and deliberate, inevitable conclusions to a segment of our life or the lives of those around us.
When I left my first job, at Durham County Hall, now over forty years ago I remember the upper room, a meal, drinks being passed around, pledges made, remembrances promised. The upper room? Well, that was in the Big Jug (in Durham), the meal was of pork pies and sausage rolls, and the drink was John Smiths. All I remember now, after this passage of years, is that it went so well that we did it all over again the following week – two leaving dos for the price of one(well, not quite it all had to paid for again) – different times!
But it was planned, it did the job, and it was memorable for a few months (or weeks?). And it marked a change point in my life as I moved onwards in my career. But something does remain – a memory of comradeship and friendship that can still warm me, even looking back over such a period of time. And distilled from the smoke and the beer and the noise, and all the time spent working together, that’s all that’s left, a feeling and young faces of people who, apart from that are long since forgotten.
Contrast that to a hospital bedroom 6th November 2005. My wife, my daughter and I sat around the bed as my mother lay there dying. We, sitting quietly, patiently waiting for the end. Her, breathing ever more shallowly, as she slept in peaceful pain, slipping in and out of awareness of our presence. I left the room, as I had left rooms she had occupied a thousand times before, and when I returned she had gone. The women with her, one a priest, the other a nurse, had seen her go, but she had waited, waited for me to take leave of her. What is my memory, my image when I think about that day? I can only see the love in her eyes and the smile that she had for me whenever I came through a door. What I see now is what I felt in my heart but could not see with my eyes. The pain of separation and mourning for loss has gone and what is left is love.
And then there are the times when we do something for the last time, but we don’t know it’s the last time. It’s only when we look back that we realise that something has ended, will never happen to us again. Meeting an old friend, someone we took for granted, and they are gone.
Or a relationship that has ended. We may have felt it would go on forever. But then it just stopped. We cling to the remnants, the bits and pieces that flit in and out of our minds.
And endings can also be beginnings, halt signs that are also signposts; significance and the remembrance of things that will stay with us, become part of us, even become part of who we are. Long after we are left with memory, images that remain after the substance has faded, often more real in image and in imagination than the reality itself. Sometimes it is only then that the true meaning and significance of events can be fully known. What is left is that Cheshire cat grin when everything else has dissolved into the mists of time.
Endings and goodbyes, the stuff of life (and death). They happen to us all, all through our lives. And here we have Jesus making an ending. And a goodbye. And a beginning?
But this is much more than this. Jesus has at times struggled through his short ministry, struggled to come to terms with what he has to do. We mustn’t forget that Jesus, God incarnate, is fully a human being, as human as you or I. He eats, sleeps, walks, talks and thinks like us. And he feels pain like us. He has emotions like us. He laughs, he cries. He weeps at the death of a friend. And he fears death and the pain of death. But he also knows things that we would not perhaps want to know. He knows the time of his death, the manner of his death, and he knows of the pain he must bear.
All he has to sustain him – all he has – is love, the love of God, and he knows this because he is God. So he is struggling.
He is also struggling because his disciples, this carefully selected group who have followed him, given everything up for him and are still with him – this group, no matter how hard they have tried, and they have indeed tried, still do not really understand what it’s all about, what he’s all about, who he really is.
And we can understand why.
He is Jesus, the man they have come to love, the man they have pledged to follow, the man in whom all their hope is centred. But a man nevertheless. How can they understand that he is God?
What can Jesus do? Time is running out. He is to be betrayed. He has to be betrayed because that is how it will work, how it has to work. Without the betrayal, the arrest, the torture, the pain and the death there can be no redemption, no resurrection, no saving act of love.
So he must try again to tell them, tell them what is to happen, show them why and how it will happen, and above all try to show them who he is and what he requires of them.
He has got to do something remarkable, memorable, exciting, repeatable – something shocking in its radical newness but also something so ordinary and mundane that it can be done and repeated over and over again for as long as humanity continues to seek God.
Here, in John’s Gospel, we have the radical, the washing of the feet, the inversion of roles, the unexpected, the reveal. This is who Jesus is, who God is. ‘Having loved them he loved them to the end’. And here he shows his love in action, in service.
What does Jesus want to leave for his disciples? What does he want them to remember about him? As God in man Jesus could have chosen this moment to reveal enormous power. He could have torn the house down, he could have summoned a great storm, he could have turned the wine into water, the bread into dust.
They would have remembered his power, his Godness, his other-worldly remoteness. But that’s not what they, we, remember. We remember Jesus as one of us, as God sent to serve us, and to cleanse us.
To serve him they had to serve. But it is also about being clean, being cleansed, and being ready to cleanse others. When Peter doubts’ Jesus intention to wash his feet, Jesus tells him that he must be washed because he must be fully clean, that ‘one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean’. And Jesus has washed them, bathed them through his words, his presence, his blessing. And he will wash them again, as he washes us all, in his ‘most precious blood’.
He is leaving them, but he is leaving them clean, cleansed from their sin (apart of course from Judas). He has completed this task by washing their feet, and they will know that whenever their feet are dirtied through their mission in this world, Jesus has provided for them through his saving sacrifice on the cross.
In the other Gospels we also have a means of remembrance, the last supper, the last meal together, the everyday, the miracle of mundanity. We sit and eat every day, at the table, in front of the television, at a restaurant, by ourselves, with friends and family. Jesus takes this, the simple act of eating and drinking and he dramatises it, makes it special, makes it a memorial act, and act that we cannot partake in without we remember him again. And we do remember him, Sunday after Sunday, as we share a meal with him, as we enter once again into his presence.
Jesus wanted to make sure that the disciples knew who he was, that they would remember who he was, and that they would pass on that memory and in that memory pass on the love of God for his world and for his people. For God has more than enough love for all of us, more than enough. It is not rationed, it is boundless. As the writer of our Gospel says, elsewhere ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’.
Tonight, as we have eaten and drank together we remember this. And shortly we will remember this again as we eat and drink of the supper which the Lord himself gifted to us, a meal of grace and love, of promise and hope, and of the knowledge that only the presence of Jesus in our lives can bring.
When we walk back to our pews from the communion rail we will have the image of Jesus planted in us once again, his presence once again filling our lives. And we will remember that we have been fed by him, served by him, loved by him, cleansed by him and redeemed by him.
In the name of the God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.