Sermon for Holy Thursday/Maunday Thursday 2008
Friends, we gather tonight on this Holy Thursday to commemorate the Institution of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. This is the central act of our faith in which we experience communion with God in Christ Jesus and with one another as we stand or kneel side by side to share in these sacred gifts of bread and wine. This Sacrament was and is the gift of Jesus to us his people, his Church: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” In this event is expressed God’s desire that his people would come to him and not only as individuals but as a community of faith, bearing one another’s burdens and living not for ourselves but for the whole of his wonderful Creation.
There was of course another very significant event not unrelated to the Institution of the Eucharist which took place on that same night, when Jesus washed his disciples feet. Central to that event is the argument between Peter and Jesus: “Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Jesus is very much in charge here, the initiative is with Jesus. He is not about to let Peter start dictating the terms no matter how well intentioned Peter is. In fact he acknowledges to Peter that “ You do not know what I am doing but later you will understand”. Jesus is saying to Peter: Trust me on this, it is going to be ok! Let go – you don’t need to control everything! I know what I am about. Leave it to me!
But equally stridently comes this statement “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”. Jesus turns Peter’s world upside down. He is not afraid of authority but what is different about this authority as Jesus demonstrates it is that it is redefined as Service. God in Jesus reaches out to his people in loving service. God wishes to wash away the drudgery and the pain of life, to soothe feet that have become sore from walking over difficult ground. God wishes to Love his people without pre-conditions or formulae…the initiative is with God and it we who are called to respond. And how do we respond, well Jesus once again spells it out for us in the command to Love: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Wouldn’t it be great if the Church was like that? Some might say it is – that the Church represents all those values – it’s just that people don’t get it – they don’t understand! There seem to be a lot of people who don’t understand if we are to believe this morning’s survey on religious belief and practice as published in the Examiner. I don’t normally buy the Examiner but I did this morning and it made very interesting reading. All of us know that traditional religious practice is in decline – the survey focussed on the Roman Catholic Church but the statistics are mirrored in our own communities:
In 25 years, weekly Mass attendance has fallen from 82% to 45%! That is a phenomenal statistic and the trend is continuing! And why are people not going to Church? The top 2 reasons given were that it is ‘time consuming’ and ‘irrelevant to my life’. Other reasons included: Lost faith with Church, Boring, Too busy, don’t know, can’t be bothered. Surprisingly enough very low down the list of reasons given for not going to Church was: Don’t believe in God/Religion. If fact and this is where the survey really gets interesting: The percentage of people who say that they believe in God has only fallen from 97% to 84% in the same 25 year period and most telling of all there is NO CHANGE in the numbers who say they pray either regularly or occasionally!
I don’t want to bore you with further statistics so I will stop there, but from all this we can say something very interesting about people today in Ireland and from similar evidence in other so called ‘Christian nations’: They like Jesus but not the Church!
That in fact was the title of a book published last year by Dan Kimball. In it he interviewed a number a number of people who have become disillusioned with the Church as they have experienced it. One young woman, Alicia, a molecular biologist by profession, talks about her experience: “Why do I need Church? It isn’t necessary. I have a relationship with God, and I pray a lot. But I don’t see the point of having to add on all these organised rules like the church leaders think you should do. It feels like they take something beautiful and natural and make it into this complex non-organic structure where you have to jump through hoops and do everything in the way the organised church tells you to. It seems to loose all its innocence when it becomes so structured and controlled.”
It seems to me that Alicia is expressing what a lot of people today are feeling – that the Church, a bit like Peter in our Gospel tonight is reluctant to let God take the initiative. The Church has misunderstood its role and is alienating people from itself.
Spencer Burke, another contemporary theologian in a beautiful book called controversially: “The Heretic’s guide to Eternity” sums it up superbly: “The role of religion, then, is to point the way to God, not to control the flow. The goal is not to make people forever dependent on religion or the church for communion with God but rather to help them on their journey. Salvation is something that happens between God and his people individually and has communal implications.”
Like Peter we need to take on board Jesus admonishment: We do not control the Grace of God! The initiative is with God! Grace is something so amazing (as the great hymn says) so amazing that it defies all our attempts to explain it and certainly to control it. It is a sum that doesn’t add up or as Robert Farrar Capon once said “if the world could have been saved by good bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus!”
Sometimes we need to let go of ourselves and allow God some space to move in our lives: To let Jesus wash our feet!
Barbara Brown Taylor an Anglican priest in America who wrote a beautiful memoir (Leaving Church) on her struggles with the institutional church has this to say: “The history of Christianity is about “beholding what was beyond belief” and that for us today “to confess all that we do not know is at least as sacred an activity as declaring what we think we do know”. This same tension was leading Taylor to the realisation that she “wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business….to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything”
I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he admonished Peter, uttering these words: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”.
Sometimes we are so concerned with getting it right and doing the right thing that we fail to see this Jesus as we meet him along the highways and byways of our lives. We do not have time to be loved by him or to love one another because we are running blinkered and headlong in search of a truth that has always been available to us. It is not for us to find him. He has already found us!
I finish with another extract from Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful memoir. It is an event in her life that seems to mark a turning point. One afternoon a bird hits the window on her front porch, breaking its neck.
“Poor bird,” she speculates “she had thought all that was ahead of her…….when it was really behind her, in the direction from which she had come.”