Maundy Thursday sermon

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A child plays in the ruins of Kobani, the Syrian town recently liberated from Isis. Copyright: Yasin Akgul/Getty

Exodus 12:1-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-7, John 13:31-35

My imagination likes to travel back to places and events and try and see and feel what it might have been like to have been there. So come with me just for a little while and let us first visit the home of Naomi. She and her family live in a house under Egyptian rule at the time we now know as the Passover. She is a pleasant girl, that’s what her name means, about seven or eight year old. She’s playing on the floor, maybe she has a doll or a ball, there isn’t much in the Bible to tell us what the Israelite children played with but we think they did have toys as such.

She looks up as her father takes some blood of the lamb they have killed and sprinkles it on the doorposts and lintel. She is excited and kind of frightened at the same time. Something is about to happen that has never happened before. Moses has passed word around that tomorrow they are all leaving! Naomi smiles to herself as she remembers all of the frogs everywhere – some of the other things were not nice, but tonight scary things are about to happen and the blood is there to protect the baby boy in her mother’s arms. God is going to pass over her little house and if it wasn’t for that lamb’s blood he would be very, very dead in the morning. Death happens often enough in this land, but when God was angry she knew you listened very carefully. Instead they were all about to escape the horrid slave masters that were making life harder and harder for the Israelites. They were going to be free! At least they all hoped that it was true even if they could not quite believe it, but hope with God had proven to be a good place to be.

It’s funny what people will do to gain or protect their freedom. Well, actually it is not at all funny. We have a world of wars behind us that show us the price of freedom. We have people around this world today who are dying in their fight for freedom, losing all freedom like in North Korea, and leaving, like the Israelites, their homes, their country and often all of their possession and worse still some of their family. All to escape persecution, slavery, oppression, injustice and bondage. And the price? The price is sadly often paid in blood.

They ate well that night, Naomi’s family and their next door neighbours, because they cared about neighbours, and the whole lamb had to be eaten that night. But it was not chops shrink-wrapped and pink with chemicals. Naomi was used to seeing slaughter. It was not a pet lamb, it was food and life to them all and it tasted good!

And then, next morning they almost ran for their lives.

Let’s take our imaginations forward, some fifteen hundred years to an upper room where Jesus’ disciples are looking forward to their own Passover meal. It seems ironic that here they planned to celebrate freedom when they are again oppressed and under rule, this time by the Roman Empire. But Jesus had been teaching them about a new kind of freedom and what it would cost him. Despite that they seemed oblivious to what was about to happen next.

A new covenant is about to replace the old one. It is a covenant that gives freedom from the death penalty of sin, richly provides forgiveness for us all, shows us mercy we don’t deserve, and a provides a new way to live in a new kingdom that Jesus brought down to earth when he was born.

Was there another child playing on the floor in that upper room? There is nothing to tell use there wasn’t, so just imagine she is there and she and her family witness what happens next, little expecting that Jesus would be their lamb of God as foretold by the prophets.

Jesus gets up from the table and starts to wash his disciples feet. Who did Jesus start with? What were they thinking? It looks like they mutely sat there while he did it. It was normally the responsibility of slaves to wash a guest’s feet and then usually only if they were guests. Was Jesus treating them as honoured guests and why? It is not until we get to Peter that we get some kind of reaction. Good old Peter. He may get some things horribly wrong like wanting to stop Jesus fulfilling his mission, or he may get them exactly right, like when he declared that Jesus is the Christ. He loves Jesus so much that he really wants to protect him and save himself from any embarrassment. He just doesn’t get it. What is Jesus doing washing his feet? And he still doesn’t get it when Jesus tells him why. He tells Peter that otherwise he will have no part ‘with’ him. The washing is a spiritual washing that will be ultimately by blood, without that washing there would be no continuing fellowship with Jesus, and if we won’t allow ourselves to be washed in that blood also then we have no part with Jesus either.

So when Jesus washes Peter’s feet, Peter, in his pride and wanting to seem the one who has it all together asks for a complete bath. But Jesus has something different in mind, cleanliness is not the only matter in hand, but an example for them and for us. We are all called to be servants, but first of all we need to take on the same attitude as Jesus, it was his attitude that made him get up and perform this service as an example to his disciples. The same servant mind leads us into service, not duty, not any other compulsion, except love. Pauls reminds us of this in Phillipians 2:5-8

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

But also consider this: sometimes, like with Peter, it is hardest thing, letting go of our pride and letting someone serve us. Many years ago I was struggling with some bolts in the back of our car to fit a baby seat. I was really angry with those bolts! Barbara suggested I ask a neighbour for help but I was having none of it and the fight went on. Oh foolish pride! Finally when I asked him, our friend and neighbour, Paul, also struggled with the bolts but, like Jesus, his strength was greater than mine and we both had a blessing.

Now lets us come forward in time to today. I saw this picture in the Times of a little girl playing among the ruins of her home town in Syria, we don’t know her name but she is real. She is just one of many, some of whom have fled their home and country, just like Naomi and her family had to. I don’t know what that is like, not to have a home, not even to have a country anymore. What is worse is that there is blood on the stones and some will no longer have their loved ones around them as they flee.

You might like to remember these things when you vote at the next General Election, discuss them and make your own decisions. The recent letter from the House of Bishops to the people of this country does not tell you how to vote, but asks, in the lead up to the election, this question, “who is my neighbour?” It says:

In the gospel, the question “who is my neighbour?” led Jesus to recount the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus makes two subtle points, first calling people to follow the example of the Samaritan, the foreigner who went to the aid of the wounded traveller; and secondly, answering the question by suggesting that neighbourliness may mean receiving care from a member of a despised social group. Neighbourliness, then, is not just about what we do for others. It is also about what we are willing to receive from those we fear, ignore or despise

So, what should we say to refugees and others when meet them in the street, in our places of work, in our hospitals, in our churches. Of course many of us can say “this is my country.” It is what we say after that.

“Yes, this is my country.  And you are welcome here, you are welcome to stay and make it your country also.” and then be happy to hug them.   And why would we do that? Because of what we are about to do here, remember one who is God, who stepped down into our pitiless world and brought with him a wonderful country, his country: the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus ushered in his country and because of what he did on the cross we have freedom in it. Freedom from the guilt, the sin and shame that make us refugees in our own hearts where we no longer feel at home with the knowledge of our own failings and insecurities, our bad thoughts and desires, our pride and arrogance.

Jesus gave us this commandment: to love one another so we could be recognised as his. It is a badge of who we are, but it is not the limit of love. It is a commandment, but it goes alongside loving our neighbour as ourselves and also loving our enemies. It is impossible unless we do it freely as good servants ought. It may rob us of our dignity, take our possessions, for Jesus it cost his life.

Jesus says to us at the table, this is my Kingdom and you are welcome to make it your home as well. He wants to hugs us deep within, by his Spirit, serve us a hunk of forgiveness, and send us out to serve others in the same way he served us, sacrificially, knowing full well the cost and willingly paying the price.