4 Maundy Thursday Having given all things into his hands…
Exodus 12, 1 Corinthians 11, John 13
1. Upper Room
The readings for today, Maundy Thursday, are from Exodus 12, the Passover, 1 Corinthians 11, the Lord’s instruction to break read in his name until he comes, and from John 13. On Maundy Thursday the clergy of the diocese gather with the bishop to receive the oil of chrism that they will use for the coming year.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. John 13
Jesus Christ is free, for God is free. He is so free, he is free even to do the things that we most associate with loss of freedom. Our Lord did not regard divinity as something that has to be clung on to, but taking the inconspicuous form of a servant, made himself nothing (Philippians 2).
This servant-status, this priestly deaconate, is for those who in Christ have had ‘all things given into their hands’. This weight of glory is yours. It releases you. Now you do not need to busy yourself first with your own affairs before turning with whatever energy you have left, to help others. You do not need to look for glory or confirmation, for you have it, and need never concern yourself about it again. You have been released from concern about your own identity.
You have been forgiven. Just as your life is no longer yours to live alone, so your problems and your sin is not your own any longer. You are free to seek more and more of that forgiveness, and to do so with greater and great abandon, more and more publicly. You are free to confess your sins and to lead the rest of us in letting go of our own sins. You may be the most care-free of people.
This means that you are free – for others. You are servants, deacons, waiters-at-table, fetchers and carriers. You will wait at hospital beds, anoint the dying, find words of comfort for the frightened and anguished. You will baptize and teach, you will hear confession, you will marry and bury. You will explain the inexplicable to the baffled, the bored and resentful.
You are free to bear the sins of others, free to put up with the bafflement and misrepresentations. By sins, we do not of course mean simply fault and guilt, but the whole weight of promises not kept, expectations unmet, projections imposed, and all the unfinished business which we have created for ourselves or which other people have left us with, and which we have wrongly or rightly taken as our own load. The circumstances we inherit have a history that precedes us, and one aspect of sin is its ambiguity, which means that it is often impossible to attribute responsibility. We all share such feelings – anguish, bafflement, resentment, and are tempted to say that we do not receive enough support and want to blame those further up the hierarchy, and we who are the hierarchy must take this blame.
We have learn how to be so available and open to others that we can take on more weight and grow into this priestly service to which we have been called. Some of us here will be carrying sins that must not be carried – and are covering up. Don’t. Get shot of such sins. Get shot of your sins, even if it costs you your whole vocation as priest. As long as you delay, the ministry of all the rest of us to our city is weakened. Every eucharist is a judgment, and we do indeed eat and drink judgment on ourselves, whether it is for condemnation, or for our forgiveness and comfort.
Tomorrow, Good Friday, we will see our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the most lonely place, rejected and pit against the whole world. Wherever we are in the bible or the Church year, this garden is never very far away. Jesus very frequently leaves the disciples behind and goes off to pray alone with God. In Gethsemane our Lord does what he always does – pray. His dialogue with the Father is unbreakable. And this is the dialogue that we repeat by singing all the psalms of desolation.
Our Lord goes off into the wilderness, where the gloves are off, and the same powers that speak in mediated form to us in the marketplace, are rough and raw. This prayer takes place against resistance of the whole world. It involves wrestling to stay obedient solely to God and to turn away from every other voice that offers premature comfort. We follow our Lord by going off to pray. We too must ignore all the other voices that would take us off course. By praying we mean intercede, to speak up for, be advocates. We make requests and petitions for those who unable to speak or to pray for themselves. We may speak to God for them. I do this for you. And it is my prayer that you do this for me, and that you do so faithfully, day after day, the year round, and with all confidence.
It is the responsibility, and the freedom, of the Christian to pray. It is our extraordinary privilege to be able to speak back to God who has called. He who has called into being intends to hear from us, and we may reply and say ‘Here Lord, your servant heareth’ (1 Samuel 3.10). It is the first duty of the priest to enable all other Christians to do so, by praying publicly and so leading the congregation in this.
Everything seems to conspire to take us away from this duty of praying and reading the Scripture. We are always being asked to justify what we are doing, which will mean to justify it in terms that do not belong to Christian discipleship. We must resist. Prayer leaves no paper trail which can be audited, nothing that assure you or your congregation that this was time well spent, but the Church cannot live without it. Prayer is always accompanied by reading the Scripture set by the Church for the season.
All meditation and contemplation is a long slow excogitation of Scriptures, a cud-chewing, that lets them sink into us. We never read the Scriptures alone. We read them with all our predecessors, and with the advantage of their experience. All the sanctified teachers of the church who have read these Scriptures before us are available to help us in this. We can seek their advice, and discover from them how the Church has read these Scriptures before us. If we do not go to the Fathers, from Augustine to Bonhoeffer, we will be reading Scripture through the untaught and sneering eyes of our contemporaries. Only the Church that perseveres in this long apprenticeship can read Scripture. What we hear and read there can never be turned into ethical lessons that can be abstracted from this community of the Church. Our whole job is to ‘recognise the body of the Lord’
There are many resources by which we can learn to love the Scriptures and to speak from them. I am determined that we should gain a greater taste for them and give ourselves the intellectual resources to discover their riches. We must let our minds be filled by the voices of the good company of the spiritual teachers and writers who have prepared this Church for its service of this country. When we do not have a rich a balanced diet from the Scriptures, our congregations, and the spiritual lives of every Christian in this city, suffer as a result. When we do not browse continuously on Scripture and the tradition our people are left with an unfocussed idea of spirituality which they will fill out in any way they can from other sources.
Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves…. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged (1 Corinthians 1127-32).
If you don’t pass them this bread, someone else will feed them something else, and we will be guilty of sinning against the body of the Lord.
But by prayer we also mean the whole pattern of eucharistic worship in which we gathered with all God’s people. So going to pray is not a going off to be alone. Though Christ leaves the world for a while, he is always surrounded by the whole heavenly company that sings in worship to God. Christian prayer and worship means leaving the world and going off to be with God’s people, who are the people of our own congregations.
We are intercessors. In every service we lead, we must pray. When we pray, and are lost in these prayers, our people will pray with us too. Do not hurry through the service, and never wonder what the congregation is doing or thinking – pray, and they will follow you.
2. The communion of saints
The Church is this fellowship and this act of witness. The Church is the whole company of heaven, making itself felt here and now for us. This company are our servants, and together they make up the service of Christ to us. This company is also in disguise, so it is not obvious that this is what is going on in Church. Because it is not obvious, it has to be taught and learned. All year round we teach, and we are able to do so only as we learn.
Christ serves us. It is the sole job of the Church to say this. He serves all men, but he serves his body especially in that he reveals this fact to us. The distinction between the Church and the world is an earnest of the resurrection. It is our job to keep that distinction clear. The Church does not serve society by making out that there is no difference between Church and society.
The laity are secular, for they are out ‘in the world’. We, their clergy, serve them by freeing them for service of the world. The clergy serve the household of faith, the body of Christ. We are the servants of our congregations. We serve them by telling them who they are, and letting them discover the depths of this new identity through all the practices of discipleship. We are like those attendants in expensive health clubs that hand you your towel as you emerge from the pool. As our people come into church, through the cleansing water that flows from the font, we help them as they confess and dump all the accumulated detritus of the week, or possibly of years. We hand them whatever they need in order to let go to the sin that has stuck to them, which they believe has become so deeply part of them that it couldn’t be separated from them. All week long they are in the world, out and about. When they gather again on Sunday morning, we mop their brows, and like a wrestler’s seconds, we tell them that they are doing well. We tell them that Christ has overcome the world. We celebrate that God has extricated us from all worldly powers – the resurrection life is being brought out of Egypt, out of bondage and death. We tell them that they are holy and distinct. We tell them that they are the servants of the world and that it is our privilege to be their servants. we simply pass on to them what we have received and we say to them
Beloved, I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you (1 Corinthians 11.23).
That service is Christ’s liturgy. It is service because it is Christ’s service – his ‘liturgy’ and because it is his service of the world. The clergy are not to replace the laity in their mission, for the laity are the real servers, of the world. We clergy are their servants and we bring them the resources by which they can give that witness, and withstand the world.
So the clergy should not try to be more secular than the laity. We should not suggest that the real work does not take place in the Sunday eucharist but on Monday morning in schools or wherever. It is not so. The real work of the Church is worship and this worship spills out across all the days of the week, without becoming any less public worship. This sabbath is work and rest, both at once.
3. Two liturgies
There are of course always two liturgies going on all around us. There is the heavenly liturgy, which is relayed to us in the worship of the Church. We are privileged to overhear and listen in, and more than that even to sing along. This gives us to true song of the earth, the world and so we could call it the true secular liturgy, for Christ is the true voice of the world. This means that all our talk must be doxological, literally a giving-thanks. All our preaching takes the form ‘thanks be to God who has made us the people who may praise, who may serve, sing, lament, hope, love…’. We must never berate our congregation, or intimate that they are inadequate, and must always be careful how we use humour: it is no substitute for gentleness and directness. Cultivate the art of direct understatement and doxology.
The other liturgy, going on all around us, is the liturgy of ‘this world’, which is the world that lives in ignorance or refusal of the divine liturgy. This liturgy is given by the news and market reports. Sky, Reuters and Bloomberg give us a readout of the emotional and moral weather that determines what the next financial period will bring. The pulse of the market is stronger or weaker, the new reports and the keening of pundits in TV studios is shriller. This worldly liturgy tells us to keep our spending up, warns us rising indebtedness, falling share prices. But we cannot hang on their chatter.
We reply, ‘Come buy what has no price’ – what is good is not these goods or commodities or ‘values’. What is good is man, all man. Only the Christian gospel says, through thick and thin, without hesitation that man is good, that man is the creature of God, is called and that when we say man we mean all men, for their are all the creatures of God and the gifts that God has given to us. The proper product of the economy is Man – he is being formed and brought to maturity, and each of us is being brought into relationship with all others.
Every year we must ask ourselves what impact the worldly liturgy has had on the Church, which is to ask how far we have allowed our public witness to segue into the secular liturgy, and so whether we have domesticated Christ and so betrayed him.
There are two things we must be quite clear about here: if we don’t sing along with the first liturgy, that of Christ, it is because we are humming along to the second, that of the world that aims to get along without Christ. And secondly, we must say that this second, secular, liturgy is entirely dependent on the divine liturgy. The world that wants to puts as much distance as itself and Christ as it can, can do so because Christ sustains its freedom to do so. Christ is the guarantor of the secular sphere, and of the freedom of man to do without him for as long as he can.
The secular sphere
So it is for the Church to be both positive about the secular liturgy and to be clear about its source and its limits. Some in the public square are attempting to push the teaching of the Church into the private sphere, into the discourse of ‘values’ or ‘communities’, sure that they have nothing to learn from us. They are afraid that we represent constraints on that square, and they are right. For we insist that the freedom of man is given by God, and the society that understands freedom only in terms of flight from service is in trouble, while the society that hears the Church and receives its service will remain healthy. They patrol the public sphere to keep us out, the more impoverished our society will become, because in the long term freedom cannot mean freedom from service, but only freedom with service. The new more ideologically secular sphere is in hock to the idol of ‘freedom’ conceived as freedom from other people, freedom without communion, without love, suffering or mutual subordination.
Our public political discourse is all about freeing us from the past, and starting again. The secular liturgy has got stuck in this trope – they want to free us from the past. They don’t want our society to be supplied from the old source but from new sources.
The secular ‘theology’ that animates our society promotes activism over worship. It divides Christ from the Holy Spirit who exalts him. It sees Christ as the old and the past, and the Spirit as the new and the future. It assumes that we always have to move on to whatever is ‘new’, by which it means give up on the past, and abandon all human history and life as a failed experiment. But the past and the future are held together by the Spirit and cannot be divided and set against one another like this. If we separate the future from the present we make the present of no account, just as though it were all a vast mistake and a huge waste. But God’s effort and our history will not turn out to be waste. It will be redeemed. The present will be raised and the present and the future will be aspects of the life and communion of God – so we are indeed finally present to another, always open and future to one another.
The Passover supper in the upper room we celebrate today prepares us for our departure from captivity in Egypt. In today’s reading from Exodus, Israel is torn out of Egypt, the House of Death. As we proclaim this salvation, we have to say what it is not. We are saved from death, but we are not saved from the past. We are not saved from our parents or from any or all previous generations which we may imagine bore us or hold us back. It is not other people that we are being torn away from.
This secular account of freedom from represents a false Exodus from Egypt. Our history, and specifically our Christian history, is not our enemy. The Church that attempts to re-invent itself by slicing away large parts of its own tradition in the hope of finding some new and more acceptable point of contact with this increasing gnostic society, will betray society utterly. We may not attempt to cut short our trek around the wilderness, or we will re-enter Egypt. Only when we are content to be led by God around the wilderness without limit, forever, will the wilderness start to give way to the promised land, and this will be because we have changed. When we are holy, every wilderness will be the garden of God to us. We are saved for the service that is perfect freedom. There is no freedom without love and communion, and the secular belief that we can have one without the other is a new form of bondage.
It is the Church that makes this distinction between church and secular in the first place. It does not divide us from the world, but indicates Christ has made himself the servant of the whole world, and in him we may participate in this service. This is the point of the distinction between liturgy and secularity, between ordained and lay, and between Sunday and the days of the week. This worship and liturgy generates all our public activity. All our activity is just a particular expression of the liturgy of Christ. The liturgy is Christ’s and cannot be separated from him. Our activism is not ours, but his, and ours only in the Holy Spirit. All our outreach is the work of the Holy Spirit who hides and glorifies Christ, and in him, hides and reveals us. He alone knows who we are and therefore what the end of all our activity is. Our activism flows out of that cup: this cup is bottomless. The Church does not understand the secular week to be not Sunday. It understands that all the days of the week are just ways in which the fullness of Sunday spells itself out to us. Sunday is too much to take all at once, so this day of resurrection spells itself out to us slowly, as Monday and Tuesday, the days in which we encounter – and in which we learn to encounter the world through saints. Only let us be faithful to the saints whom have been entrusted to us.
Thanks be to God for his surpassing mercy to us.