Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday 2016
Start Date 24th Mar 2016 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Dr Johnson, the great 18th century lexicographer and thinker, who is buried in the south transept of this Abbey church, wrote, 'It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity. The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation.'

>Do we find, I wonder, 'consolations in futurity'? Can we honestly with confidence look forward to a better future for ourselves, for the world? In the week of suicide bombings in Brussels and with millions of displaced people around the world and hundreds of thousands of migrants stranded on the edge of Europe, it is hard to believe so.

Dr Johnson said that we are forced to supply the deficiencies of the present by recollection or anticipation. Perhaps he was thinking more of personal recollection or anticipation, memories of our own time past or contemplation of our own future. It is probably true that we fly from the present, or at least that the present flies too readily from us. Much of our private thinking is about the past. We probably look back with a degree of remorse or sorrow, for many of us more perhaps than with thanksgiving and joy. Some of our thinking is about the future, probably tinged with anxiety, sometimes no doubt with hope. We should really find a way to live more fully in the present. We should make time to experience and relish what we are doing, thinking, saying, feeling in the moment in which it is happening, to know the now.

But we must know our historic, collective past, if we are to avoid the mistakes of earlier generations. Fifty years ago this year, Westminster Abbey was looking back 900 years to the time when the second church building on this site had been consecrated in 1065. That church was built by St Edward, king of England and confessor. That act of delving into the distant past had the deliberate intent of shaping the future. The year 1966 was observed as the year of One People. A series of special services for organisations and groups of people from all walks of life in the United Kingdom of those days were part of a valiant attempt to bring together the disparate and in some ways divided people of that era into One People. The latter half of the 1960s was a time of rapid change as young people threw off the constraints of earlier generations and society struggled both to face and manage technological change and to respond positively to the increasing diversity of the population. It was a valiant attempt, but too narrow; the impact was limited.

But the idea of One People, bringing disparate and divided people together into harmony, if not into unity, continues to drive us and inform much of the Abbey's mission. Here we can be encouraged by the past.

Think of the curious little group of people with whom Jesus ate the Last Supper, a motley crew, perhaps something of a rabble, as they lounged round the table in the Upper Room, but people he had chosen as his closest followers. Jesus tried to prepare them for what they would face as he gave himself to suffering and to death. But few if any of them grasped what it was he was saying.

One of them in any case had determined to betray him, possibly for no more than the reward of thirty pieces of silver, perhaps hoping to initiate a revolution. Another was probably a freedom fighter too, or at least had been, and might have wished to be again.

>By contrast, others were simple fishermen, plucked from the shores of Lake Galilee, at this time lacking in courage and almost completely devoid of understanding. Two of them, brothers, the sons of Zebedee, had so misunderstood their Master's project that, on the way to Jerusalem, they had begged him, to the fury of their fellows, to give them places of honour in his future kingdom. They were certainly thinking of an earthly kingdom, a throne room in a palace, surrounded by hierarchies of flunkies and soldiers.

Another, the one whom Jesus had described as his rock, was so out of touch with his Master's project that he would soon attack the high priest's servant with a sword and later, for fear of the consequences for himself, deny that he had ever known Jesus. Three times he would say, 'I know not the man.' But when he heard the cock crow, as Jesus had predicted, he would go out and weep bitter tears of remorse.

This reflection on the historic past gives us hope for the present and the future. The motley crew, the rabble, Jesus' disciples, bar the one who had betrayed him and hanged himself, would become the apostles, would take courage by the power of the Holy Spirit and would preach fearlessly the good news of Jesus, crucified and risen. This little band of eleven, would form the basis of the worldwide Church, the body of Christ, would advance the mission of Christ, the mission of God's love, in the world. We and the millions of our fellow Christians throughout the world are their beneficiaries. 'God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.' That gives us hope in our weakness. As the apostles and their fellow disciples rose to the challenge and the opportunity and fulfilled their mission to the point where they lost their fear of persecution and death and gave their lives, so in the power of Christ and by the grace of the Holy Spirit may we. That must be our hope and our prayer.

The historic past of our Christian community informs us. Our Lord Jesus Christ's gift of forgiveness through the Church his Body, is able to free us from remorse and sorrow as we contemplate our personal past. Then we can live strongly and confidently in the present with thanksgiving. That strengthens us and enables us to commit to creating a better future. Past, present and future come together towards the building of One People, united in diversity, joyful in harmony.

Our historic past informs us. That is not a profound but a fairly obvious truth, though too often forgotten or ignored. But a deeper and more wonderful truth, visible only to the eyes of faith, is that our historic past is present in our current reality. The moment of our Lord's Last Supper in that Upper Room in Jerusalem is made present by the gift of the Spirit here this evening. The events of our Lord's passion, death and resurrection break down the barrier between time and eternity. They stand at the central moment, the core, of history, around which the whole of time revolves. In our hearing of the Word of God and our sacramental re-enactment of our Lord's words and actions, we are with the Lord and he with us.

It is he, our Lord Jesus Christ, who washes our feet. It is he who feeds us with his life. It is he who blesses us and incorporates us and unites us in himself and thus with all those who have gone before us and all those who worship with us here and throughout the world. Past, present and future united; One People united in Christ.
On this holy night, our Lord Jesus Christ prayed, 'I ask … on behalf of those who will believe in me … that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.'

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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