Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday 2014
17 April 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
According to Thy gracious word,
In meek humility,
This will I do, my dying Lord,
I will remember Thee.
Thy body, broken for my sake,
My bread from Heaven shall be;
The testamental cup I take,
And thus remember Thee.
Such are the first two verses of a hymn sung often in the church where I worshipped during my childhood and youth but which I hear less often these days. It was written almost two hundred years ago. ‘I will remember thee’, just as you instructed, gracious Lord. Your body will be my heavenly bread; the cup of wine will be the cup of the new testament, the new covenant in your blood. ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ I will remember thee.
This evening of all evenings, we remember. Above all we remember our Lord Jesus Christ sharing the bread and wine at the Last Supper as he said ‘This is my Body’ and ‘This is my Blood.’ And we remember the events St John describes, when Jesus gave his disciples the new mandatum, the new mandate, the new instruction or commandment, to love one another, and showed what that meant by doing for them the most menial task, the work of the youngest, the least of the servants, washing their feet.
We could see this evening’s service as a re-enactment of those events. In a few moments I shall wash the feet of twelve of our Lord’s disciples, people from the Abbey community, people like you and me, seeking faithfully to follow the way of Christ, trying and trying and trying again. And then, later in the service, we shall take bread and wine. As Jesus did, we shall give thanks for the holy gifts, blessing God for his great goodness and using over the bread and wine the words Jesus used, ‘This is my Body’ and ‘This is my Blood’. We shall then break the bread and distribute the blessed and consecrated bread and wine to the congregation, to you, saying, ‘The Body of Christ’ and ‘The Blood of Christ.’
I said we could see this as a re-enactment. But all this is more than a re-enactment. It is not simply an historical account that somehow we bring to mind, of an event in the past on which we reflect with warm and comforting memories. These things that we do this evening are an act of remembrance. We bring into the present the events remembered; we put them back together again; we bring the scattered members, the limbs and organs of the past events, and we re-unite them, re-member them, and then we breathe new life into them. ‘Prophesy to the breath: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these, that they may live.’ The story of the first Maundy Thursday that we remember today, we bring into the present. The events of that evening we relive; they are our story.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was present with his disciples in a large upper room furnished in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago, is, through the power of his Holy Spirit, present with us this evening. Indeed we could say he is more than simply present. Christ is the head of his Body the Church and, if we are members of his Church, we are individually and corporately members of his Body; we are his limbs and organs; we are incorporated into Christ. It was St Paul who spoke of the Christian community, the Church in his age and in every age, as the Body of Christ. Writing to the Corinthians, St Paul said, ‘Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’
This is astonishing language if only we could hear it afresh. If it fails to strike us with the force it deserves, it is because, although it is the ancient language of the Church, it has been so influential and has been so taken up by the world that it is scarcely seen as metaphorical but is taken to have literal meaning: members, the body, incorporation, a corporation sole. This is another example of the hidden, half acknowledged influence of the Christian faith on our national life and familiar understanding. If we see it afresh we understand its extraordinary power: we are the Body of Christ. The Holy Communion is when Christ himself renews our membership of his Body, refreshes in us our incorporation into his very life.
So this is more than a re-enactment; it is an act of remembrance, when the events of the first Maundy Thursday are made truly present and exercise their potent force in this moment and in this holy place where they have been re-enacted year after year for a thousand years.
Later in this evening’s drama, we shall all move with Christ in his Blessed Sacrament; we shall leave the Upper Room, represented in this Abbey Church, and cross to St Margaret’s Church next door, which we shall suppose to be the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus waited in an agony of bloody sweat for the moment of his arrest and trial. Like the Twelve, the apostles, we shall be invited to watch with our Lord in silence for some time. ‘Then Jesus came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?’ We shall ‘stay awake and pray that [we] may not come into the time of trial.’
Take it one step further and imagine that you are actually there, with Jesus in the garden, in Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. Who do you most resemble? Who is most like you? The temple police are drawing near with the high priest, the religious leader, to arrest Jesus. Judas is the betrayer. He was keen but has lost faith. He will kiss the face of Jesus and the police will seize him. Peter will try to protect Jesus with his sword, cutting off a servant’s ear. He blows hot and cold and, to save his skin, will deny ever having known Jesus. Another disciple creeps about but follows Jesus in secret hoping not to be seen. The rest just run away for fear.
Which of these paragons of virtue best matches us? The religious leader? The temple police? The betrayer? The denier? The creep? The fugitive? God forgive us. We must know in our heart of hearts – and if we don’t we really should – that we are no better. On our own, in our own power, relying on ourselves, we really can do nothing; what little we might achieve would turn back on us in destructive pride.
We need a Saviour. We need his Body and his Blood to feed and sustain us. We need his life in ours.
Gethsemane can I forget?
Or there Thy conflict see,
Thine agony and bloody sweat,
And not remember Thee?
When to the cross I turn mine eyes
And rest on Calvary,
O Lamb of God, my sacrifice,
I must remember Thee.