The events commemorated at tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, and over the next few days, are best described as mysterious and disconcerting. For some time now Jesus has told His Disciples that He must suffer and die, but tonight He will make His Sacrifice real for them, before He dies. When St Paul wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians it was about twenty years after the Death and Resurrection of Christ. There were still plenty of the Apostles alive, who had been there on this very night, sharing a final meal with Jesus. Paul’s letter is the earliest example of an institution narrative for the Eucharist. It predates the Gospel accounts, but is in complete agreement with them. For almost two thousand years the Church has followed Jesus’ commandment and has done this in remembrance of Him. We partake in the Eucharist because Christ told us to do so. As disciples of Jesus, we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we might become what we eat and drink.
St Paul is keen to stress how he has passed on to the church in Corinth all that he has received from God. This is tradition: handing on what has been handed to you. So the Church has maintained the tradition of the Eucharistthrough the ages. We gather to do the same things that Christians have always done, and will continue to do, until Christ comes again.
Yet St John’s Gospel does not mention Jesus’ Institution of the Eucharist. The omission seems strange, and somewhat perplexing. This is a Eucharistic Gospel which starts with John the Baptist greeting Jesus as the Lamb of God, and shows Jesus turning water into wine, at the Wedding at Cana in Galilee. There is an extended passage of Eucharistic teaching just after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, at the time of Passover, called the Bread of Life discourse (John 6). Unlike St Paul and the other three Gospels, St John takes a different approach and weaves eucharistic teaching throughout his Gospel.
If you were to visit a Jewish house in the Holy Land in the time of Our Lord, upon your arrival you would have your feet washed. People wore sandals, and their feet got dirty in this hot, dusty environment. Normally foot washing was something done by servants. To have your feet washed by the host, the master of the house, was a special honour, a sign of a guest’s importance. Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet is one of humility, intimacy, and loving service. To speak personally for a moment, tonight in this service I feel very close to the Lord. I do what He did: I wash people’s feet and celebrate the Eucharist. This service is one of those moments when it all feels very real. I am a priest insofar as I have some small share in Christ’s Priesthood, but as I celebrate this evening, I am drawn into a mystery, the mystery of God’s Love made manifest to save humanity. Over the next few days we will relive Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. The journey starts here, as it did two thousand years ago, washing feet, and taking bread and wine, to demonstrate that God’s love is real. This is a love which brings the entirety of the human race: past, present, and future into a relationship with a generous God, through Christ’s sacrifice of Himself upon the Cross and through His bursting from the Tomb.
In this evening’s Gospel we have the wonderful example of Peter, the enthusiastic leader of the Apostles being very ‘Peter’. He begins by refusing to have his feet washed, and then he wants his head and hands washed as well. As ever, Peter doesn’t completely understand what is going on — which is something of an encouragement to us! While he may not fully comprehend what is happening, he loves Jesus, and that is enough. God does not call us to understand, but rather to experience the mystery of His saving love, so that it might transform us. This is why the Gospel ends with Jesus teaching:
‘When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”’ (Jn 13: 12-15)
Jesus inverts the social order, acting as a servant rather than a Master, to show His disciples that loving service is the core of who He is. Jesus expects them to follow His example. All Christians, including those called to serve the Church as deacons, priests, and bishops, should understand who we are, and what we do, as grounded in the service of each other. It is how we put Christian love into practice, living it out in the world, so that it can transform people. This is our witness to the world, inspired by Christ’s example, and nourished with the Eucharist, transformed to change the world.
Each and every one of us, through our baptism, have been born again. We share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and are called to bear witness in our lives. We are called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world, so that all may know true love, true healing, and true forgiveness, joining in the song of the angels in giving praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.