I WOULD LIKE to begin this evening by sharing something with you from my own experience: In February 2012 I was fortunate to have undertaken a pilgrimage to Rome with other pilgrims from Leicester, Nottingham and the Midlands. The journeys both to and from the Eternal City were not entirely unproblematic. Due to the first snowfall in Rome in twenty-five years both our arrival and departure were somewhat delayed. Our flight home was finally cancelled on the Saturday afternoon, and we had spent several hours waiting in the airport to try and find out what was going on. Tired and confused, we got back on a bus and returned to the Hotel where we had been staying.
As part of our pilgrimage we had celebrated the Eucharist in a variety of local churches — a generous gesture, but one which had been planned long in advance. It was now Sunday, and nothing had been arranged — we had all expected to be back at home, what could we do? We couldn’t simply walk into a church, so we went to one of the larger rooms on the first floor and rearranged the furniture. Priests had vestments with them, some wine was bought, and we had some bread and water with us already, a couple of wineglasses and a plate. Forty or so of us squeezed into this upper room, some stood, some reclined on the beds, or sat. We had gathered on the outskirts of the city as the first Christians, to whom the Apostle Paul wrote his letter did, on that the day of the Lord’s Resurrection we had gathered in a way not unlike Our Lord and the Disciples did on this very night. It all felt very real, we were aware that despite the strange, slightly cobbled-together nature of things, God was very close indeed; we were doing just what Christians have done ever since our Lord and Saviour commanded us to do it in memory of him.
That is why the church celebrates this evening the fact that before Jesus was arrested, on the night before He suffered and died for us, He took bread and wine, gave thanks to God for them, and gave them to His disciples, and told them to DO THIS in remembrance of Him. For nearly two thousand years, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, the church has continued to obey Christ’s command. And we will continue so to do until the end of time.
Yet this year it feels profoundly different: I am not able to celebrate the Institution of the Eucharist in church with you, the people of God. Instead, in isolation, at home using a sideboard in the dining room, I will begin to enter the three holiest days of the Church’s Year, by doing what the Church has always done. We are united in spirit even if we cannot be together physically, for our own safety and health, and that of others, especially the most vulnerable. The domestic setting of this evening’s liturgy mirrors its origins in an upper room in Jerusalem, and at one level it does not matter WHERE it is done, but that it is done. That it is done in isolation is painful, for me and for you, but our pain and isolation gives us a window into the pain and isolation which Our Lord Jesus Christ felt in His Passion and Death. We are being invited this year to share in Christ’s sufferings, so that we may be transformed by them. As Christians we follow Christ and enter into His Passion, so that we may also share the joy of His Resurrection. That’s the point: there is HOPE. Now as then, death is not the end. Despite the pain, the betrayal, the fear, the anger of the crowd, they do not have the last word.
Christianity is a joyful religion, which celebrates the fact that God loves us, was born as one of us, lived and died and rose again, for us. At the end of this evening’s Gospel Reading Jesus speaks to his disciples thus, ‘For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.’ (John 13:15 ESV) Christ gives His disciples an example of service to remind them that is particularly relevant to those of us who are ordained, and called to fashion our lives after the example of Our Lord, following HIS example and living it out in our lives. This is a most wonderful and humbling task which can fill us with both joy and fear and I would humbly ask that you continue to pray for me as I continue to serve God and you, His people. It is loving service for our Lord to feed his disciples with His own Body and Blood. Tonight, Christ institutes the Eucharist, taking bread and wine that they might become His Body and Blood, which will soon suffer and die for US. The Church exists to carry on the offering of the Son to the Father, to make it present across space and time.
On this night Christ institutes the priesthood and sets His disciples apart to carry on His saving work in the world. We who follow in their footsteps are shown in the clearest possible way that to love Him, to care for His people, is to serve them. We are to imitate the mysteries which we celebrate: offering our lives in His service and the service of His church. It is truly extraordinary that we should have such a responsibility placed on our shoulders. We are all of us, if the truth be told, utterly incapable of such a task if we were acting solely in our own strength and our own abilities. But through the grace of God, and with the help of the prayers of you His people, it is our hope that we may conform ourselves ever more closely to Christ, our great High Priest.
As Mother Theresa said, ‘Prayer in action is love, love in action is service’. Christ shows us that and asks us to imitate Him, in His Passion and Death, suffering as He suffered, being generous and humble as He is, in our love and service.
God shows us what true love, true glory, and true service are. The world cannot fully understand this: it goes against everything people are told about putting themselves and their lives first, to judge their importance or worth by what they own, rather than how they live their lives. In its selfish searching, what it truly wants and needs is to be healed, to be embraced by a loving God. That is why it tomorrow on the Cross our Lord’s Arms will be flung wide open to embrace the world with God’s love.
Let us be strengthened by Him, to fashion our lives after His. Let us prepare to go to Calvary with Him, laying down our lives in His service, picking up our Cross and following Him, to death and beyond, to the new life of Easter. Let us live His risen life, and share our joy with others, that the world may come to believe and trust in 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.