Maundy Thursday is when Anglican clergy and lay people join the bishop in the cathedral to re-affirm their ordination and baptismal vows. On the day when Jesus sat with his friends and shared (what he knew would be) a final meal, we poignantly address the reality of our life, discipleship and ministry – conscious of our failings and the need to re-commit ourselves. This morning we met in Bradford Cathedral – my first time for this service in this diocese. What follows is, for better or for worse, the text of my sermon to the assembled Christian disciples and ministers. (It’s a bit long, but I haven’t got time to abridge it…)
When I was a teenager, growing up in a Baptist church in Anfield, Liverpool, I discovered Christian books. I had very little money, but even then invested some of it in books – some of which I still have on my shelves. The content of some of them is deeply suspect, but they are part of my history, part of what has shaped me as a person and as a Christian. In fact, growing the confidence to judge for myself that some of them are nonsense was part of that story.
One book I bought back then was a rather narky rant about the difference between the church of our theological dreaming and the reality we often experience: it was called With a Church Like This, Who Needs Satan?
You will guess from this that the author was a bit fed up. Even as a Baptist he wanted the church to behave better, to live out its vocation in and for a world that needed evidence of reconciliation and not just words. With a church like this, who needs Satan?
This morning we meet as Christians conscious of – and soon to be reminded of – our fundamental vocation as disciples together of Jesus Christ. Yet, perhaps at this service more than any other, we are fully aware of how we fail the Lord who has called us, misunderstand the command he has given us, and fail to live up to the standards we set ourselves. Why? Because we see before us a vision of a Jesus who kneels at the feet of friends who squabble with each other, get the wrong end of the theological stick he hands them, and let themselves down whilst discovering that they aren’t all they thought they were cracked up to be. Within hours friendship will be challenged by betrayal, denial and, ultimately, abandonment.
So, why does John write in chapter 13 verse 1, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end?” Why did he not simply give up on them? Or work some magic and force the theological or ecclesiological penny to drop in their rather limited imaginations? How did he manage to love ‘his own’ when we find it so difficult to love ‘our own’? Or, perhaps the question is as simple and brutal as ‘why do we find it so hard to love?’
Well, let’s first look at what the love of Jesus really looks like.
Jesus has collected around him an odd group of friends. As we read the gospel narratives we find personality clashes (James and John versus all the others), differences in priorities (try Judas versus all the others in relation to money and poor people), varied misapprehensions of what Jesus was actually about (the disciples versus Jesus’s own mother and siblings in relation to his mental state). And, as we see in John 13, Jesus neither ignored, nor derided the contradictions and limitations of his all-too-human friends. He took them as they were, he walked with them as they somewhat blindly walked with him, and he lived with the frustration of knowing their limitations at the same time as recognising that understanding cannot be forced and love cannot be compelled by threats.
In the 1989 French-Canadian film Jesus of Montreal the bizarre nature of Jesus’s companions is portrayed beautifully. An out-of-work actor is asked to revise and refresh the passion play written by a prominent Roman Catholic priest thirty years before. Unfortunately, he takes his research a bit too far and produces a passion play that takes Jesus – in part, at least – a little too seriously. He gathers around him a company of actors who quickly begin to resemble the rag-tag oddities we see in the real disciples themselves. Moral ambiguities are not avoided and people with half-baked commitments to the project are not sent away. Instead, they come together to form a company of very human actors whose life together begins to reflect the play they perform under the night sky above Montreal each evening.
What Denys Arcand does in this film is to remove the halo from behind the heads of these disciples and show them to be the human beings we read about in the gospels: ambiguous, limited, enthusiastic, conflicted, ignorant, passionate… but, also, brought together – despite the incongruity of it all – by a Jesus who entertained no fantasies or illusions about them and was not surprised by what they got up to behind his back.
This is, I believe, important to us even today. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he does just that: he calls. He gives to none of us a veto over who else he might call and he does not enter into negotiation over the journey ahead together or the nature of our common life. He calls; we follow. And our obedience to that call is found nowhere other than in our following Jesus – together, despite and because of our differences, and regardless of our personal preferences. No vetoes. No negotiations. No exemptions. No compensations. No mitigations.
And here we come, I think, to the heart of Christian discipleship, once we have stripped away some of the million things we find with which to complicate it all. The nature of Christian witness is not to be found in our unanimity, but in our unity. That is to say, we are together whether we like it or not, whether we like each other or not, whether we agree with each other or not, and whether we find it comfortable or not. We simply cannot walk away from each other any more than we can walk away from Jesus.
Now, as if this thinking isn’t hard enough for people who find it hard to love, Jesus goes on to make it worse. He strips off his outer robe, takes a towel, kneels at the feet of his friends – including Judas the betrayer, Peter the denier, Thomas the doubter, and all the others who will soon run for cover when the going gets unexpectedly tough. He washes their feet and, acknowledging how hard it is to get their heads round his understanding of God and lordship and power and love, he backs up words with embarrassing action, thus leaving his friends with an active and embodied vision of God’s way of seeing and being.
No wonder, then, that, when he had finished washing their feet, Jesus sat down again and asked them what appears to be a simple question: “Do you know what I have done to you?” According to the text, this was a rhetorical question – Jesus doesn’t appear to wait for an answer. He spells it out in case none of them has understood what they have just experienced: this, he says, is how you are to see yourselves (not special and claimers of status) and this is how you are to behave with one another (kneeling at the feet of your friends, your betrayer, your denier, your doubter and all the others and washing their feet. No ifs, no buts. No qualifications or amendments. If this is how Jesus addresses status, power and authority – that is, the Teacher and Master of their language of address – then this is what must be lived and seen in the behaviour of those who claim his name – that is, those who claim to share his nature and character.
The church never stands still. If I had ten pounds for every time I hear that the Christian church is in crisis, I would be a very rich man. But, I would also be a deceived man. Every generation thinks its challenges are the ultimate challenges – its conflicts the worst and most intractable ever. But, when we read our church history – or any history, for that matter – we discover that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes discovered, there is nothing new under the sun. (I think it was GK Chesterton who observed that “when they say the church is going to the dogs, I note that it is the dogs that keep dying”.) Challenges have to be faced and the consequences of choices have to be lived with; seemingly intractable problems have to be solved or waited upon; conflicts have to be acknowledged and differences explored. But, none of this exempts any of us from witnessing the kneeling of Jesus before his friends – including Judas and Peter and Thomas – or hearing Jesus’s unambiguous words: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. This is how everbody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other.”
So, what does this mean today and for us? I think we need to strip back the complexities of our lives – our church lives and ministries – and recover this core gift and challenge: do we love one another as Christ has loved us? Do we demonstrate that love in the way we serve, build up and talk up one another and Christ’s church? Do we build ourselves up by knocking other people – or Christ’s church – down… like children in a primary school playground or politicians in the arena of international rhetoric? Do we cut through some of the nonsense and clutter and build communities – in our parishes and deanery chapters and synods and so on – of love and service and generosity… for the sake of Christ’s church and our witness to a sceptical world that hears us preach words of reconciliation without necessarily seeing evidence of it in our common lives or priorities? Walking away from each other is not an option.
In the year since I joined you here as bishop I have done my best to get around the diocese and meet as many people as possible. I have discovered clergy and people who have deeply impressed me by their service, ingenuity and commitment. I could tell many stories of loving and living that, although not broadcast around the world, are evidence of the living presence of that Christ who gave himself and called his friends to do the same. There is much encouragement… not least in this cathedral and in and through the ministry of our departing dean, Dr David Ison. (David has served this diocese and this city with unusual skill and humility, leading the restoration of the cathedral in both diocese and city. We owe him a huge debt – and we promise him and Hilary our prayers and love as they move to the challenge of London and St Paul’s Cathedral.)
Much encouragement, yet there is also much still to do. But, as a tree can only bear fruit if it is drawing up the life-giving water from its roots, so can we only display the life of the crucified and risen Christ if we, too, are rooted in him and his lifeblood.
I believe that what we do here this morning is not simply a token or a motion through which we go. I think that what we shall do is pledge ourselves to one another in love. As a loving response to the generous love of God, and in obedience to the Christ who has called us and shown us what he expects of us in our common life together, we are pledging ourselves to build one another up, to talk one another up, and to see in one another our own interest. For, if the church is talked down, I am talked down; if you are diminished, I am diminished; if you are destroyed, I – and we together – are destroyed.
One of the most powerful images I have seen on television in a long time came at the end of the final episode of Rev. This motley – almost random – group of misfits, the lonely, the repeatedly failing, the demoralised, the fallibly committed, and even the recently humanised archdeacon, sit around a large table for a hastily cobbled together meal and we see a modern tableau of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. No romanticism and no haloes behind the heads of these London locals. No sentimentality or false piety. No pretence at some imagined perfection. Just people who know themselves to have been found by God and drawn together in circumstances none of them would have chosen, discovering in that meal their common calling.
Soon I and my fellow bishops shall recommit ourselves to the service of the servant Christ… and to the church that bears his name… and to you. A bishop is called to many things, but essentially to enabling you to serve Christ on whatever front line you find yourselves in the parishes, institutions, workplaces, clubs and societies located within the boundaries of obligation we know as the Diocese of Bradford. Priests and deacons will, in obedience to Christ and in response to his command, commit themselves afresh to the ministry that is not their possession, but belongs to Christ and his church. (And remember: bishops are also still priests and deacons, exercising their ministry diaconally and in a priestly manner.) The laity (which, remember, includes the bishops, priests, deacons and all other ministers) will be invited to commit themselves afresh to the commission that Christ has given to his church: to take responsibility for being the body of Christ in and for the sake of the world in which God has put us. Together we will commit ourselves to that mission, knowing that such a commitment demands more than our words and good intentions, but the evidence of our actions, our language and the reconciliation lived out in our common life.
We shall then recall the sacrifice of Jesus for us on the cross. We shall receive bread and wine with empty hands and open mouths. And we shall be caught up into that mysterious joy of resurrection glory from which we find ourselves empowered and enlivened to fulfil and live out the commitment we have made earlier – in the power of the Holy Spirit who bears witness to the God we see incarnate in Jesus himself. We shall take oils with the intention of being agents and ministers of reconciliation – of healing and restoration, of new life and a new start for people who have ceased to believe God is on their side.
Brothers and sisters, in this Holy Week, as we lead our communities through the story of betrayal, denial, crucifixion, the sheer empty bleakness of Saturday and into the surprising joy and colour of Easter, may we find our own hearts inflamed, our own imaginations fired, our commitment renewed and our energy replenished as we live in Christ and he in us… and as we seek – together and with love for one another – to show the people of our communities what we mean by ‘the joy of the resurrection’.