Washing before Dinner

Thursday 1st April 2021
Year B, Maundy Thursday
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Exodus 12.1-4
1 Corinthians 11.23-26
John 13.1-17

It seems almost callous, on such a night as this, the night of the Christian year where unconfined joy and the bitterest of sorrow are simultaneously within us, to think about formal doctrine; it might be better, I am sure we think, to savour what we have of the joy and regret what we have of the sorrow, to acknowledge our Eucharistic bounty and regret our part in its necessary horror. But my apology for introducing just a little doctrine is that without it we are apt to under-value what we have.

As a child I was taught to venerate the consecrated bread of the Eucharist for what it was but was almost entirely ignorant of what it did until I learned that God might better be understood as a verb rather than as a noun, that what matters is not what God is, which is only ever a subject of abstract speculation, but what God has done and continues to do for his people.

And that reflection led me onto a path which led me into new territory because what I learned from the Readings for Maundy Thursday was that The Eucharist, based on the ritual of Passover, is a Sacrament of liberation, a word to strike fear into the hearts of solid Catholic and Anglican Parish Priests.

Jesus and the Evangelists never do anything important by  accident and so it is no accident that the last meal which Jesus took with his Disciples before his death was in some way or another a Passover meal, a meal celebrating the escape of the Chosen People from Egypt, a meal which directly expressed what God had done for his people; and from the time of the great liberation, beginning with the promulgation of the Commandments, we do not hear God in the Old Testament simply saying that 'he' is God, instead 'he' always says that 'he' is God who brought his people out of Egypt; the important thing is not what God is but what God does.

And so, consciously, Jesus broke bread and blessed it and poured wine and blessed it and gave these to his Disciples not only saying what this was, that it was, in some way his body and his blood, but also what it would do for his followers; his broken body, given for them in the bread and wine and then on the Cross, was a declaration of liberty from the consequence of human imperfection, we would be freed from death. And, we are told, that every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are not remembering in an abstract way but are re-living that meal as today's Disciples of Jesus, living the good news of our liberation from death.

Now what the religious authorities feared was that this doctrine of liberation would write itself across from a doctrine of salvation to a doctrine of Christian social action, which is precisely what it did in the 1960s in Latin America and Africa. We could not, as partakers of the holy meal, simply dwell on the Jesus of the bread and wine, reverencing a thing of incalculable beauty, but we had to do something about this Christian commitment of ours. We had to get ready for the Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven by building a kingdom here of dignity and justice, a commitment we are supposed to affirm every time we participate in the Eucharist. There is, therefore, a richness in the Eucharistic experience which should overflow with thankfulness for our liberation expressed in our commitment to see that the Good News of salvation is not just communicated in the abstract but is made concrete in our commitment to real Kingdom building for real people. In a parody of Bonhoeffer on Discipleship, we might say that there's no such thing as a cheap Eucharist.

Paula Gooder has reminded us that, strictly speaking, the first Eucharistic meal was not the "Last Supper", an honour which goes to the meal at Emmaus which surely reinforces the centrality of the Eucharist in the post Resurrection settlement; and that meal follows a lengthy disquisition by Jesus on the road, telling Cleopas and his companion, probably his wife, how the Scriptures led to the death and Resurrection and it is inconceivable that the story of the Exodus did not play a pivotal role in the narrative.

The theological dispute about the nature of the Eucharist which came to a head in the 16th Century mirrors a seemingly parallel but actually integral dispute about the nature of salvation, as to whether we have any part in it. The dispute was based on two serious misreadings of Saint Augustine which we don't need to go into now but the key point is that to be a follower of Christ is to imitate, as far as we can, his teaching and his action and that, therefore, this obligation is tied up with the central rite of our heritage, our participation in the Eucharist which shows us that if Jesus was prepared to die for us so that we might live, the least we can do is to live for Jesus because he died for us, and that this living for him must amount to more than adoration but must include imitation.

Thus, the doctrine of the Eucharist is one in which we, as the body of Christ, share in his death and Resurrection in the Eucharistic body and blood of Christ; there is no Eucharist without the Church and no Church without the Eucharist; and there is no Eucharist without a commitment to God which the Eucharist demands.

It therefore follows that no amount of breaking bread or pouring wine is of any avail without the contemporary equivalent of foot washing, a kind of sacrificial washing before dinner which, we can infer, preceded the Eucharistic meal.