Maundy Thursday: Do this in remembrance of me

Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green

Based on readings: Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

People don’t like ambiguity. Some time ago Rhiannon decided to become a vegan. As a loyal husband I was supportive. I made the hard decision to become bi-vegan. With a heavy heart I resorted to eating food with no animal products in at all;  but I also ate meat and fish and dairy. Bi-veganism, which I’m hoping will become a major trend, is about saying “yes” to things. Including lamb. But generally people have expressed surprise and confusion on me coming out as bi-vegan, which I maintain even though Rhiannon is now merely vegetarian. People know what a vegan is, and a vegetarian, and when one treats all God’s creation with love and appetite. It’s a simpler world when you’re either one thing or the other. A lot of the issues over gender and sexuality I think can be attributed to this. Facebook famously offered you 58 possibilities including “Agender, “Androgyne” or “Androgynous”, “Gender Nonconforming”, “Pangender”, and “Bigender”. A lot of people, especially the gender anxious, would rather that men be men and women be women as near to stereotypes as possible. Then you know where you are. And everyone is headed to the right cubicle.

This sort of anxiety is equally strong in religion. Jesus’ beef with the authorities is, more often than not, about their scrupulousness to the letter of the law, over the spirit behind it. Unsurprisingly these same issues get replicated within the Church. On the one hand you’ll always get the purists who want black and white boundaries, the ins and the outs, the sheep and the goats. Then you get all these difficult cases that don’t fit, the situations where compassion and common sense ask for a more liberal interpretation.

The New Testament clearly presents two sacraments that we can be sure are efficacious — baptism and eucharist. For the purist you only get one chance at baptism — the one-time-only soul-airbrush. So the purist, the anxious Christian, might expect that any sin post-baptism suggests an unregenerate — and so unredeemable — soul. Hence, for a time, believing Christians put off baptism till close to death. You want to be sure about something like the fate of your eternal soul. But time of death is a difficult call to make and does not make for a long and glittering career of discipleship. So the Church decided upon an extra sacrament of penance and reconciliation to ensure that that deathbed confession holds water. And although the Anglican Church went back to just 2 sacraments at the Reformation; many still hold to this third sacrament and in every Eucharist you’ll find near the beginning a penitential rite and the words of absolution. 

There are, however, no sacraments in John’s Gospel. This is often a great surprise to people. But no, there’s no last supper as recorded in the other Gospels. No “This is my body”; no “do this is remembrance of me”. In fact curiously John places all the events of Holy Week slightly earlier. While the others have Jesus arrested after he’s celebrated the Passover meal with the disciples as the last supper, John places the crucifixion just before the Passover; the symbolism being that Jesus is now the new paschal lamb, able to ward off the angel of death in perpetuity. Likewise Jesus is not baptised by John the baptist in this Gospel and only passing references are made to baptism. This is not to suggest though that John was somehow unaware of the two sacraments evidently practised since the beginning of the Christian church. The reading from 1Corinthians, one of the earliest Christian documents, gives St Paul’s account of the Last Supper as it was passed to him and in un-Pauline words gives an impression of an early Christian liturgy. In fact the words of institution that have been used since, except in translation, are unchanged to this day.

It has been suggested that St John was aware of and wary of pagans who were usurping and perverting Christian rituals. Christianity was by necessity secretive in its origins so it may be that he wished to disguise the Church’s practices within the text of the Gospel. “Let the reader understand…” So instead in the Gospel we have events with sacramental overtones. In tonight’s Gospel we have the scene of the last supper. But instead of describing the last supper John describes Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. And in this act of ritual washing he says: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ And earlier at the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’ famous line “I am the bread of life” with the explanation: “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” followed later by his claim “I am the True Vine.”

What emerges from this Gospel then is not liturgical, as actions to be repeated: ‘Do this is memory of me’ but rather sacramental. We don’t have descriptions of the actions of baptism and eucharist, but we have the theology: that Jesus is identifying himself with the bread and the wine; and that it’s by being washed and by eating and drinking that the Christian and Jesus are brought together. For John’s community which would likely never have met Jesus while he was alive this is key. For people who have not met Jesus John is explaining how they too can share in the risen life. For the anxious this identification is necessarily literal. Roman Catholic teaching on the Eucharist insisted that the bread and wine was quite genuinely changed into flesh and blood.

I’m reminded a little of the story of Oedipus and Thebes. Here, Thebes was losing a Theban a day to the Sphinx because they couldn’t answer the Sphinx’s riddle. The riddle was: What has four legs in the morning, two at midday and three in the evening? Oedipus finally solves it and destroys the sphinx. The answer is a man, crawling first as a baby, then standing, then walking with a stick in old age. It’s not that the riddle was especially hard, but just that the Thebans had no understanding of what a metaphor is. Oedipus did, but then Oedipus had other faults which come to light a few years down the track.

Now a lot of blood has been shed on the question of whether Jesus intended these words literally or metaphorically, and the anxious will always insist that it’s literal, for the surety that it definitely works. For my own mind I am not so anxious to think it matters, as long as you consider that God is present in the taking of communion and understand that its intention is to join you to the spiritual life of Christ. I am though always shocked and appalled by churches that do just pour blessed wine down the sink. For a start, what a waste of good port!

But the Church is right to insist on the importance and maintenance of the sacraments. At times in the Church of England, the Eucharist has been occasional and when we have these promises of the assurance of God’s presence with us, it seems strange to limit our participation. And the Eucharist has the advantage of being non-verbal and non-intellectual. There may be consolation in meditating on the presence of Christ in the sacraments but there is also a simple grace in the physical acts of eating, drinking and washing; they are acts in which even the simplest of us can participate.

And part of the joy of each Eucharist is, as the Eucharistic prayer says, that we join our voices with all the saints and angels; that these words have been said for 2000 years repeating Jesus’ words that he spoke on this night. And, if you’ll allow me, I’ll finish with a passage from Dom Gregory Dix’s majestic work on the history of the Eucharist. It was the favourite passage of a friend of mine, also a priest, and captures the weight of tradition as he reflects on Jesus’ command: “Do this in remembrance of me”:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.