Friday, 18 April 2014

Maundy Thursday : Imagine there was no Holy Communion, no St. Paul and no Synoptic Gospels...

I want to play a game of imagination with you.  I want you to imagine that we live in a different world from this one, but not spectacularly different.  This is instead a world where, 2,000 years ago, there was a lower degree of literacy in the Middle East.  This is also a world in which St. Paul had never been converted.

And in this universe, because fewer people could read and write, and because St. Paul never wrote his letters, our New testament looks rather different.  The young man, Mark, had never learned to read and write and so he had never written his Gospel.  That meant that Matthew and Luke didn’t have his Gospel to work from.

Instead the main story of Jesus had been written by John, and Matthew and Luke had written commentaries and letters about John’s Gospel.  How would that have changed things for us in the church today and how would our Sunday services be different? 

Probably the biggest change would be in terms of our sacrament of belonging together.  At the moment we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, instituted on this night.  But John didn’t write about the bread and wine of communion.  The closest he gets to it is when Jesus says, earlier in the Gospel, ‘I am the Bread of Life.’

That suggests, then, that if we met here on a Sunday for a Choral service of the divine sacrament, the most likely scenario in this alternative universe is that at some point, after a lengthy prayer, we would all take our shoes and socks off and wash each other’s feet.

Why?  Because just as Jesus commanded the Apostles to break bread and drink wine in memory of his sacrifice in the synoptic Gospels, so here, in verse 15, Jesus says, ‘For I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.’

There’s the command, and it’s just as strong as the command to remember him through Holy Communion in the synoptic Gospels.  We could just as easily have had the washing of feet as our weekly sacrament, and it would be as much a part of our worship as the bread and wine are in the real world. 

If this alternative universe were the one in which we lived,  would be anything radically different about us as a church?  Well if I’m honest I think there may be.  You see the taking of bread and wine can become so formulaic that it is possible to divorce ourselves entirely from each other when we do it.

We queue up, kneel down if we still can, have a wafer and a little sip, and go back to our seats.  Sometimes it is a very profound moment, and I have had many of my closest encounters with God in communion.  However it is very personal; it’s about me and God.

But my feeling is that it is also meant to be about communing with God altogether.  When I was in training we would quite often have the bread and the wine started at the front of the chapel, and then passed around so that we would each serve each other.  It became more about receiving together as a community.

Let’s go back to our alternative universe where we have no bread and wine because I want to suggest to you that if we had to wash each other’s feet, then the intimacy of that could potentially make a real change to who we are.  And that’s what a sacrament is about. 
It is an outward and visible sign of an inward grace, but also it makes happen what it symbolises, and that’s why the washing of feet is actually sacramental.  To my mind, even in this real world the washing of feet is as sacramental as receiving the bread and the wine.

Let me explain.
There is a rather lovely tradition in the diocese of St. Albans that we don’t have here.  For many generations, on Easter Monday the young and not so young make a pilgrimage on foot from their churches to the Mother Church, to the Abbey and Cathedral at St. Albans.  I can remember doing it as a young teenager when we would walk the nine miles from Welwyn Garden City.

However, it was all change when I became the Curate at St. Andrew’s in Bedford.  You see that church was actually thirty six miles from St. Albans, and that’s far too far to walk in a day.  So we decided to walk it over two days.  We had our Easter Celebration at nine o clock on Easter Sunday morning, and then the church would send us, a group of about twenty five, on our way straight after the service.

On Sunday we would walk from Bedford to Luton and stay in a Guide Hut.  Then very early on Easter Monday we would emerge rather blearily and set off at about seven am for St. Albans.  If we timed it right we would arrive with about an hour to spare to eat our lunch before going in to join the hundreds and hundreds of other pilgrims for a communion service led by the three bishops.

I can remember arriving back in Bedford on the Monday early evening one year, and my feet were in a terrible state.  The previous year we had actually driven the first ten miles in order to cut the journey down, but that year we walked the whole way, from the door of the church in Bedford to the door of the Mother Church in St. Albans.  That evening I arrived back, tired, and smelly and limping.

Our good friend Suzanne had come to stay with Ali the night I was away and the two of them greeted me with open arms.  I’ve known Suzanne for almost thirty years and in that time she has become a wonderful friend to both Ali and I, and so, whilst Ali cooked for us, Suzanne peeled me out of my walking boots and socks and set about trying to massage some life back into my feet.  She worked tirelessly for a long time, gently rubbing some feeling back in to my feet and the my calf muscles.

She was working on the outside, but I felt so honoured and loved by the depths of her friendship that it did wonders for me on the inside too.  I no longer felt exhausted, just wonderfully warm and tired.  Suzanne did something on the outside that made a real effect on the inside, and that, I believe, is the point about the story.

Now some of you might be thinking, ‘Isn’t it a bit odd that our vicar has a relationship with another woman that is so close that she massages his feet?’  Let me remind you that Jesus wasn’t the first person to wash feet in John’s Gospel.  He, too, had received the tender help to his tired feet of a woman after a long journey, and I would venture that that incident may have been his inspiration.

Remember again how we define a sacrament.  It is the outward and visible sign of an inward grace from God, AND a sacrament effects what it symbolises.  In other words if you do an action on the outside, then it will have an effect on the inside.  Suzanne’s actions of massaging my feet didn’t just bring me relief, it also strengthened the friendship between us.

Now let me make the point I’ve been building up to.  We cannot divorce the servant caring heart of footwashing from the Eucharist.  The same mind should be applied to both.  The care and love I received from Suzanne is exactly the kind of care and love that should be present in us for each other when we come to receive communion together.

In fact if we don’t feel like that for each other, if we would not be willing to massage the life back into the feet of each other, then we are not fit to receive communion together, and that, I think, was the point John was trying to make.

John’s Gospel is a later piece of writing than Mark’s Gospel, so John would have known all about Mark’s account, which may be why he didn’t include it.  I think John was trying to communicate to his readers that when we come to celebrate the last supper together that we should be coming as if we were about to wash each other’s feet.

Or to put it another way, if we do not serve each other, in love and genuine compassion, then our taking of the bread and wine is utterly empty and pointless.

So we’re not going to do any literal footwashing in this service, but I do want you to think about how you treat each other.  Do we take care of each other’s needs?  I know that there are some astonishing acts of kindness taking place amongst us, but such acts shouldn’t be the preserve of the saintly few; they are duty and care of us all. 

That, then, is why foot washing is so important.  When we serve each other with that kind of act of practical loving and friendship, then we grow as the Body of Christ in this place, and we give true meaning to the sacrament of the Eucharist.  If we don’t serve in reality, then the Eucharist will be for us an empty meal.  Amen.

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