Vicar’s sermon Maundy Thursday 2024

It’s not even a week since four terrorists entered the Crocus City Concert Hall in Krasnogorsk, Moscow and started shooting. In just a few minutes they had killed 137 people and wounded a further 180, setting fire to the building before fleeing.
By Monday morning four citizens of Tajikistan had been brought to court. Hold the images of their faces in your minds eye as we begin to contemplate the fate about to fall Jesus. One man was brought to court in a wheelchair, one had a bandage over his ear which had been torn during his arrest, one had lost an eye – they had all been beaten to within an inch of their lives. They all pleaded guilty. They will be judged…but along the way members of both the FSB security services and the Russian police had taken their chance to execute their own judgement upon these men.
For all that it seems the US had passed on to the Russians information about a possible terrorist attack being planned, nothing happened. But when it did, the state moved quickly.
On this night in Holy Week we remember Jesus’ Last Supper, his command to his disciples to ‘love one another’…and then, as darkness falls we recall that a decision was made, orders given and Jesus was arrested, dragged into court and then brutalised. He, of course, had committed no crime. ‘What evil has he done?’ asks Pilate on Good Friday. But, as far as the chief priests and leaders of the people were concerned he was a clear and present danger: a danger to the people who might be led astray by his interpretation of God’s Law. He could not be allowed to live.
That decision made, everything moves quickly. ‘To hang’ with procedure. Scholars discuss the various hearings that Jesus has before the Sanhedrin, the chief priests, before Herod and Pilate. There will be witnesses …discredited (in the eyes of the gospel writers)…but whose words were still heard and carried weight as the Council wanted to get everything over and out of the way as quickly as possible. Nothing like justice is on offer here but Jesus would not be released on a technicality!
Thousands of years before this night the people of Israel were told to hurry, to move quickly. When you bake your bread don’t hang around to prove it: leave it unleavened, there’s no time. Slaughter a lamb at sundown and eat it ‘hurriedly’, with your sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand and be ready to move – to go out of your front door and not come back. What is this meal like? An equivalence might come from war time Ukraine: a snatch bag by the front door to be grabbed as the family head to an air raid shelter. Or another extreme situation: a woman living with abuse- a bag packed against the moment when she can close the front door, seek sanctuary and be free.
Passover was a communal celebration of unexpected freedom. Freedom from slavery but also deliverance from judgement. It was a celebration of God’s protection as He ‘passed over’ the houses of the Hebrews and executed judgment upon the people of Egypt who had held them captive – the initial meaning of the word Passover (though it would also be used of their crossing the Red Sea). In trying to imagine that first Passover I sense that the air was filled with the smell of blood – so many lambs all killed at the same time. That would then give way to the smell of burning as fires were lit, the animals skinned and prepared, the meal made ready and (remember) every part of the animal consumed or burned. I have absolutely no doubt that 21st century Jews are far removed from this ancient visceral, communal slaughter of sheep and goats but (post October 7th) Israeli Jews still live on their nerves – not knowing what lies ahead or whether they will be safe in their homes tomorrow.
Jesus himself made the connection between his death and this unusually hurried meal: this is my body, this is my blood, (the bread and the wine). But others saw in Him both the ‘lamb of God’ who would take away the sin of the world but also this Passover Lamb, someone who (like a lamb to the slaughter) would be silent as he was led to his death. Within 24 hours (less really!) he would be out of the picture. Figuratively, as with the lamb at Passover, everything gone: stripped from him. Betrayed, abandoned, humiliated, bloodied, naked, bound (unable to move), tired, confused, hungry, thirsty, in pain: his faith stretched to its limits and beyond as he contemplates God having abandoned Him.
They moved quickly to get rid of Him: but so do we. God can come too close: we don’t feel good enough, we feel uncomfortable and push him away. Talk about ‘the church’, yes. Talk about Jesus, ‘no thanks, change the subject, move on’. But this awful death is somehow transformed into a means of protection for those who gather near it and claim it for themselves. This offering becomes a means of sustenance for those who ‘take, eat and remember’.
Sustenance for what? I suppose we forget that there is a day after. A day after the first Passover when Israel must move quickly, must leave one way of life behind and grow into another- that pattern of death and new life beginning to establish itself in our spiritual inheritance. Jesus offers us Himself every time we break bread and drink wine: not just as a present source of comfort and reassurance but also as strength for the journey, whatever that journey might be.
What we have in common with our predecessors in the faith (Jewish and Christian) is this movement out from death to life, from darkness to light, from captivity to freedom. These things can be encapsulated in a single moment or (more likely) worked out over a lifetime: our experiences differ but this one death somehow enables many to live. This death will inspire and encourage and guide those who seek shelter under the mark that speaks of Jesus and His sacrifice: the cross. We do not know what tomorrow will bring or where he will lead us but we do know that He gives everything for us. We do know He wills our protection. We do know that there is a journey to be made which will enable us to be more fully who we are meant to be: God’s beloved children, bought with the price of His life given for us all.

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