Sermon given at Sung Eucharist with the Washing of the Feet, Maundy Thursday 2013
28 March 2013 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The king was unwell. In fact he was dying. And he was afraid. He was taken ill in church. They took him into a room just off the nave, a room built during the reign of his cousin, whom he had deposed. As he lay dying in that room, he looked up at the ceiling and saw the cipher of his predecessor, the man whose crown and throne he had usurped, the man whose death, probably by starvation, he had arranged.
The dying king was King Henry IV. The events I have described happened here in this very place 600 years ago last week. Richard II, who loved this Abbey, had been arrested and deposed by his first cousin Henry Bolingbroke on 29th September 1399. He had died in prison on 14th February 1400. Now, on 20th March 1413, Henry IV met his death.
Shakespeare in a play imagines how he felt as he died. The guilt of his predecessor’s blood and the uncertainty and turmoil of his thirteen year reign had worn him down. His son had wasted his youth with people of little worth and his fealty had been compromised. He had seen his crown soiled by his sins and crimes. His death was far from peaceful. He was afraid.
Perhaps it is hard for many of us to imagine the treachery. But we know something of the turmoil, with so many aspects of life a little out of joint. And it takes only a stretch of the imagination to set ourselves amongst people who have seen their livelihoods and homes at risk, or amongst people who are homeless or dispossessed, refugees fleeing from terror and destruction, or in a country at war. Do we somehow imagine that people who have never known the advantages most of us enjoy feel the pain of loss and deprivation less than we would when they are dispossessed and see their loved ones die? If so, we have missed the opportunities created recently by reports from inside war-torn Syria. Sadly the political and public debates in this country and in many developed and settled countries are too often marked by a failure to make that imaginative leap.
And perhaps many of us harbour some elements of guilt and fear, a sense that our sins, our weaknesses and wilfulness, or the sins of others against us, even though they are nothing to be compared with the great crime of deposing and murdering a cousin, let alone a king, are a burden weighing us down, threatening our peace and ease, causing us to be afraid. Pope Francis said recently that we should not be afraid to confess our sins to God. It is only pride that prevents us. God longs to forgive us our sins.
The events we are here above all to remember tonight took place not this year or last year, or 600 years ago, but almost 2,000 years ago in a city, Jerusalem, that was suffering just as much agony of turmoil and violence, of political disorder and treachery, of dispossession and oppression, as we could see in our mind’s eye with the greatest possible leap of imagination. The political masters were cruel and careless, ruling in the interests of the Roman Empire and of oppression, not for the benefit of the people of the land. The king was a vassal, maintaining elements of power and influence only by bending to the will of the governor. The religious authorities had no answer to the turmoil and oppression and pursued an uneasy compact with the rulers to maintain their position. Treachery abounded: spies and secret police reported conversations and invented stories to do down their enemies. Rebellion was frequently fomented and the rebels were treated viciously, enslaved and exhibited, or condemned to life as a gladiator and death in the circus, or stripped and hung on crosses where they died slowly of thirst and starvation, the loss of blood and exposure. Fear was everywhere.
The little band that Jesus had gathered around him, who had stayed with him on his journey from Galilee, from the days of a popular teacher and healer, to Jerusalem, to these days of a fallen hero: this tiny band of twelve men and a few faithful women was little more than a rag-bag of confusion and chaos, of hopelessness and self-obsession.
Walking to Jerusalem, doggedly determined to face his fate, Jesus has tried to help them understand what is to happen. ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ [Mark 14] But it is all beyond them. They still think he is going to be a king. Two of his best disciples, James and John, come up to him on the road and ask for a position of power in his coming glory. ‘You do not know what you are asking’, says Jesus. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’
Now, this very moment that we re-enact tonight, a few days after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a crucial few days in which he has fallen, as they say, from hero to zero, Jesus faces arrest and trial, mockery and flogging, carrying his cross, being nailed to a cross. He faces an agonising death. He has to do all he can to prepare his little band for what is to come. One of you will betray me. One of you will deny me. I, not I, Lord. Look, this is what it’s all about: to show them that ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’, Jesus washes their feet, the work of the humblest slave. Still they fail to grasp it. Peter, before he denies he ever knew Jesus, tries at his arrest to put up a defence, striking off the high priest’s servant’s ear. Oh, brother.
After supper, he takes them across the brook Kidron to a place called Gethsemane. Now we see Jesus distressed and agitated. He throws himself on the ground and prays not to face what is to come. ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me.’ He is in an agony. Great drops of bloody sweat fall to the ground. Jesus is facing death and he is afraid. Any idea we might have that Jesus, being divine as well as human, is somehow protected from the full force of human emotion and faces death with the serene knowledge that it will all turn out right in the end, is simply wildly mistaken. Jesus is afraid. He is going to suffer. He is going to die an agonising death on a cross. Of course he is afraid. But he also knows he must face it, must suffer what comes. So his prayer to his Father in heaven goes on, ‘Yet, not what I want, but what you want.’
Tonight people face fear and uncertainty, turmoil and treachery, hatred and agony. People face the effects of their own sin and the sin of others against them. Many will tonight die enslaved and abused, homeless and dispossessed, unjustly accused and imprisoned, at the hands of wicked men. The world, so beautiful and plentiful, is ravaged by greed and sin, by man’s inhumanity to man.
It’s easy to say, Do not be afraid. Much harder to dismiss fear when we are at risk or threatened. And in any case the suffering is real and can be terrible. But to know that it is shared is a strength. And our suffering, whatever its cause, is shared in Christ by the God who knows what we suffer, who has experienced our suffering and who loves us.
‘For 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.’ [John 3]