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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday 1 April 2010

1 April 2010 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

This evening the Lord Jesus Christ welcomes us to a meal, to supper with him and his closest friends. The occasion is unusual; this will be no ordinary supper. The circumstances are strange, a little disturbing: there are threats and rumours all around. We are in an odd place: the Lord of all has nowhere of his own, nowhere to lay his head, but a room has been found; preparations have been made.

Can we tonight suspend disbelief and imagine ourselves coming as the Lord’s guests to his supper? Can we enter the room with our feet dusty from the road to find the Lord offering to wash our feet, nay insisting? Can we one last time rest with him, conversing as old friends, allies against the surrounding enemies, putting out of our minds what he has warned us so often is likely to follow?

Can we hear as for the first time the Lord’s mystifying words over the bread and the cup, ‘This is my body, broken for you’; ‘This is the cup of my blood poured out for you’?

We are bidden afresh tonight to the Lord’s Supper, so let us try to come with fresh eyes. Look around. We find ourselves in a large upper room furnished. What can we see? First, and most obviously, we see our companions, those sitting at table with us. We are a motley crew: the fishermen, the tax collector, the reformed terrorist, the rest mostly write-offs. We are vague at the very least about what Jesus is saying most of the time. When we do have a grasp of his meaning, we usually misinterpret it. Peter’s sudden flash of inspiration at Caesarea Philippi was followed by Jesus’ quick rebuke. On the way to Jerusalem, James and John were jockeying for position in the new kingdom as if Jesus had been talking about earthly power. And they were the three leaders, those closest to Jesus. If they got it wrong, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The only reason we stay together, when so many have deserted Jesus, is that we have nowhere else to go. We cling to Jesus in a world gone mad. It is only the presence of Jesus himself that keeps us together. Without Jesus we are indeed lost, hopeless: bereft, even Peter denies he ever knew him. The rest of us run away for sheer terror and hide, that is, apart from Judas, who has his filthy work to do.

If we really wish to imagine ourselves there, literally with Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem on the night he was to be betrayed, our best hope is to attach ourselves in heart and mind to one of the characters at the table. Who will it be: Peter, who was three times to deny that he ever knew Jesus – before the cock crew; or James and John who longed for earthly power; or Simon the Zealot who still perhaps longed for revolution; or Judas who only had money on his mind?

We must of course find our own fit; no one will match us very well. But we know our own betrayals and denials, our greed for money and power, our half-hearted attempts to understand, our laziness and hardness of heart. In our better moments, if only we can admit it to ourselves, we know about our self-deception.

Perhaps the best fit is the shadowy figure in St John’s Gospel, often thought to be St John himself, the nominal or actual author of the Gospel, but in fact unnamed. Perhaps the evangelist means us to think of this disciple as the ideal disciple, the one with whom the hearer or reader can identify. He is said to have leant on Jesus’ breast at supper, to have longed above all to be close to his Master and Lord. He is just the beloved disciple, the disciple Jesus loved.

We are not to think of this disciple as the perfect one, ideal in that sense; rather surely the evangelist means us to know that, whatever our failures, however smeared and soiled we are by sin and selfishness, we can lean on Jesus’ breast, we can be close to him, we are loved by him. We can rest in his presence.

And, just as it was only the presence of Jesus that kept his disciples together on the road to Jerusalem and before his betrayal and arrest, so it is only the presence of Jesus that can keep us faithful on our spiritual pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.

In a little while tonight, we shall take bread and wine, just as Jesus did at the Last Supper. Using the words of Jesus himself, we shall give thanks for them and we shall offer them, together with ourselves, our souls and bodies, our praise and thanksgiving, to God. As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we shall receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the fullness of his life in our lives, renewing us, transforming us, uniting us with God himself. We shall rest in his presence.

Then our imaginative exercise will come into its own, as we leave this Abbey Church and move to St Margaret’s Church next door, following Jesus, really present in the Blessed Sacrament, as it were out of the upper room, out of the city itself, across the brook Kidron, to the Garden of Gethsemane. There we shall watch with him; there we shall struggle to keep awake as he prays in an agony of bloody sweat, ‘Abba, Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’; there we shall see him betrayed into the hands of sinful men.

However valuable the imaginative exercise I have suggested we undertake, this evening, as every time the Eucharist is celebrated, there is a more profound and, if we can only see it like this, startling truth: that, under the sacramental sign of bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ himself, Son of God and Son of Mary, the Incarnate Word of God, will in this Holy Eucharist be really present, God with us. And, if we are one with him, then we are one with all his faithful disciples, wherever they may be in time and space: earth will be united with heaven.

Thee we adore, O hidden Saviour, thee,
Who in thy sacrament art pleased to be;
Both flesh and spirit in thy presence fail,
Yet here thy presence we devoutly hail.

O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see,
May what we thirst for soon our portion be,
To gaze on thee unveiled, and see thy face,
The vision of thy glory and thy grace.

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