Maundy Thursday 2023. Vicar’s sermon

Are we about to perform an act of ‘cultural appropriation’? Had you ever heard of that until about 10 years ago? Perhaps not, but in recent years anguished discussions have taken place as to whether it is appropriate for white people to braid their hair with corn rows, or to wear particular clothes or apply henna to their hands in the way that is common in India or Pakistan. Jamie Oliver got into trouble for interfering with a traditional Italian recipe and adding his own ‘twist’ to it: ‘who do you think you are?’ seemed to be the accusation from irate Italian chefs. And whilst the examples I give might seem trivial the underlying question they raise is important. Cultural appreciation is one thing, cultural appropriation is another: using another person’s culture inappropriately, robbing another person’s culture of its symbols without being mindful of their primary meaning.

Needless to say, I think not: No, we are not in the business of cultural appropriation.  For all that there is a sense of ‘Passover’ freedom in the air this evening neither the meal that we have just shared in the Parish Hall, or this Holy Communion in church have been (or are) Passover meals. Rather, they are meals that recall the night that Jesus was betrayed and which focus particularly on his words to his friends. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. Eat this bread, drink this wine and remember me. Bread and wine, not lamb and mixed herbs. And, quoting St Paul ( a Jew and a pharisee) in some of our communion prayers it is the taking of the bread and wine that marks us out as Christians, that he saw as being of ‘first importance’ for Jesus’ followers. We told to remember Him when we gather. We’re not told to keep Passover every year.

But…having said that, the night when he was betrayed fell at the time of Passover. The meal he shared may well have been the Passover meal: the resonances of that time, that meal feed into our own celebration and have provided our Old Testament reading this evening. What do we hear in it? What might we learn from our Jewish heritage?

What struck me from Moses’ instructions to the people of God in the Book of Exodus?

Firstly: the Passover meal was a communal event. Everyone was to share in it, no one was to be exempt or excluded. The family unit comes into its own as a lamb is bought for slaughter and for the meal. But one lamb feeds how many? – quite a lot! So negotiation and conversation is required. Neighbours who might prefer to keep themselves to themselves would have to meet, prepare, discuss how they were to observe the Passover command together and then share the cost of this meal. This is a meal that stretches beyond our nuclear families, and which binds Judaism together as a community. Building community is a messy and difficult business. Money is involved here: that’s always hard (just you try being the person who has to arrange a work’s party or a Christmas meal). Who decides how Passover is to be kept? The lamb is to be the best that can be bought…but is not to cost the earth. Why do I say this? Because it’s a male lamb, not a female one that will help preserve and grow the flock into the future. So ‘proper celebration’ without ‘wild extravagance’ seems the order of the day (so much wisdom here for western societies at Christmas!).

As a church community (let alone as a wider society) we can learn from this. We are easily tempted to fall into ‘observer’ mode when it comes to ‘church’ and from there to slip into being  ‘consumers’ rather than participants in community. The danger is that church is something beyond us that we watch, observe, support, applaud or criticise…but Passover and Holy Communion expect us to be participants, to be fully involved. Community is something to which we belong whether we like it or not. Our engagement is assumed. And worship is not something we watch but something we do. And what we do shapes who we are.

I suppose that’s my second observation from the instructions for the Passover. What we do shapes who we are. Any teacher will tell you the importance of establishing patterns of behaviour early in a classroom. This meal is a lesson that is to be embodied, learned through the eating of it rather than by reading about it.  Detailed instructions as to how the meal is to be eaten are given. The people are to eat as if they are about to rush out of the door and begin their journey out of Egypt. They are actually told to eat this meal ‘hurriedly’ – all those tellings off ‘not to gobble your food’ go out of the window. They have their sandals on (unusual in a shoes off culture); their staff is in their hand and their loins are girded (which means their flowing robes are hitched up ready for the off)….it’s as if their bags are packed and they have got their coats on. So this is an uncomfortable meal. This isn’t the night to kick back and fall asleep in your chair: you have to be ready to go.

Judaism has learned this again and again hasn’t it? Horrifically driven out of any number of lands. Not welcome.  No home to call its own. …and yet still here. Christians too experience persecution. (We forget that don’t we, here in the UK?) The lesson for God’s people seems to be ‘don’t get too comfortable’. It’s a reminder that we are a pilgrim people, meant to be on the move, meant to be able to manage with very little and able to cope with change because our trust is in the Living God not in the structures through which we protect ourselves….a hard lesson to hear when we seem to have been given so much to carry through our history, our buildings, our many traditions and so on. What are the essentials? Could we take just these and drop the rest if God asked us to move?

And if Passover is a lesson embodied, so too is this service of Holy Communion. I like the fact that our church here is ‘cross shaped’: our lives are to be shaped by the cross. So too, our worship shapes us in ways we may not even realise: as we gather round the gospel in the centre of the church, as we take to ourself the sign of the cross (its forgiveness and blessing) , as we reach out to one another with Christ’s peace, as we (Christ’s body) eat and drink Christ’s body in bread and wine with the prayer that He might mould us more into His likeness; as we leave church and ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’. This service shapes ‘how’ we are to go, ‘how’ we are to act, the attitudes of heart and mind that most fully express our following the one who ‘thought equality with God was not something to be grasped but humbled himself… even to death on a cross.’ It’s not just what we do that matters but how we do it that speaks of Jesus.

So we break bread and we drink wine. We have read our scriptures and we have learned from those who were the first to hear God’s word. Build community. Do the hard work that this involves, cope with the relationships and the disagreements and the arguments but stay together. And embody your faith in the things that you do and the way that you are for (as Jesus said on Maundy Thursday) by this, all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.


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