6 April 2023
Challenged by values from the upper room
It was on Maundy Thursday six years ago that I received an unexpected phone call which turned out to be the start of a process that lead eventually to my appointment as Bishop of Loughborough. Today it’s a huge joy and privilege to be amongst you here as Diocesan Bishop in Chelmsford, sharing in this service and in our wider joint ministry. Ours is a common task to look for signs of God working in this Diocese and to play our part in the growing of his kingdom. We may have different ways of articulating and expressing our calling, and that is part of our rich diversity, but we are all a vital part of the story, each one called to find our voice and play our part confidently and in a spirit of humble generosity.
Maundy Thursday has long been important for me. That it should have played even a small part in my journey to this place is significant. On one hand, it encapsulates, through a meal and the act of foot washing, the simple essence of our faith which is about love, communion and sacrifice. On the other hand, it confronts us with a great drama which plays out the complexities of human emotion and divine self-giving. The upper room provides a deep well I continue to draw from for spiritual inspiration and theological reflection. Today I’d like to explore two themes. One is around authority and the other unity.
In a contemporary western society where there is so much suspicion and mistrust of authority and authority figures, what do the events of Maundy Thursday have to say to us? In a church that seems increasingly divided and where leadership is viewed through the lens of individual theologies; and as we continue to come to terms with abuses of power in past, and sometimes present, safeguarding cases, how can we speak with any credibility about the authority of the church? How can we expect to be taken seriously when we proclaim to the world the authority of Jesus?
According to twentieth century French linguist Emile Benveniste, the word authority is derived from the latin augeo or augere which means to augment, or enlarge. So one who has authority is one who enlarges or enriches the situation of another. Accordingly, all authority, whether parental, civic, religious, political and so on should be used to help others grow towards greater freedom, justice and truth. Essentially authority is about those whom it serves, not about the individual who wields it. It has less to do with status and position and much more to do with creating an environment in which others can thrive and flourish. We catch a glimpse of this true meaning of authority when we see a police offer, for example, or a fire fighter enter a place of danger and give their life in order to save another. This kind of authority not only augments, improves or enriches, but more than that it gives life. The ultimate sacrifice is the ultimate expression of authority.
Each year during Holy Week we relive Jesus’ final journey to the cross. We witness his embodying of authority not as one who sought political power or personal influence but as one who looked only toward the needs of others, having no thought for the personal cost. Hitherto he had appeared a strong figure, authoritative we might say - performing miracles, healing the sick, raising the dead - one whom even the elements had obeyed. But now Jesus displays his true nature, as one who succumbs to utter defeat and in so doing transforms hatred and violence into love and tenderness, challenging our notions of authority.
Interestingly, John’s account of the last supper which we’ve heard this morning does not, as the other three gospels do, include the institution of the Eucharist. John does, I believe, give a rich and deep Eucharistic theology but the decisive action of Jesus for John is the act of foot washing. During this last meal Jesus kneels down before each of his disciples and washes their feet. Looking up into their faces he demonstrates – quite literally - what has been called by some, “authority from below”. Authority from a place of service and humility, and a desire to see others grow and flourish and have life. Peter, of course, tried to resist. We can understand his discomfort and embarrassment. This didn’t fit at all with Peter’s notions of how someone with authority behaves. This wasn’t what he had in mind for the Messiah. But having his feet washed turned out not to be an optional extra – Jesus makes that perfectly plain. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”. Any who want to follow Jesus and have a share in his kingdom must have their feet washed.
And so, in allowing their feet to be washed each disciple, then and now, buys into the topsy turvy message that Jesus proclaimed which is that God’s Kingdom is a place where the poor, the weak, the misunderstood, the outcasts, any whom you or I consider beyond the pale, are given centre stage. The kingdom is not just where those in authority help the poor and do good things for the marginalised - that is authority from above - but where the leader IS the servant and where those in authority take the position of obedience and submission, kneeling at the feet of those whom they serve. Brothers and sisters, friends, as a church we must be challenged by the values of the Upper Room - we must find ways of living out this reality, not because of our credibility but because when we lose sight of the upside down values of the kingdom, we cease to be the church in any meaningful way.
But how can we hope to capture a vision of God’s kingdom when we are increasingly seen as a body with so many divisions – as a house divided amongst itself? How can we speak with integrity of love and unity, of forgiveness and service when there are so many disagreements about doctrine and theology, church practice and social values? From where can we draw some inspiration?
Well let’s pause once more and contemplate the scene in the upper room. We see a motley crew, most probably divided and conflicted in many ways, but drawn close through the loving gaze of the Lord upon each one and through his gentle touch as he washes their feet and calls them to wash one another’s feet. Through its sheer humanity and ordinariness, this simple yet intimate act has the power to draw us not only closer to God but to one another. It requires vulnerability and it may take us to the foot of the cross but as a central act within the drama of our faith, the washing of feet is a symbol of our unity, even when that other central act - the Eucharist, cannot be.
Both are symbolic acts around the body, gestures of communion and love, central to the events of Maundy Thursday. Make no mistake - both are needed for the fullest picture but in our brokenness, even when we cannot share the bread and wine, even when we disagree on all kinds of things, surely we can still wash one another’s feet, as disciples and co-travellers, as those who have aligned ourselves with the values of the kingdom. There is pain in this place and it is deeply challenging and uncomfortable within the context of Christian unity but surely the unity we encounter in the washing of feet is something powerful and worth hanging on to.
By the time the events of Holy Week are under way, Jesus has ceased to preach and teach. Now he is revealing the ways of the Kingdom through his actions. We are invited once more to have our feet washed and, through scandalous gestures and acts of apparent foolishness, join him on his final journey to the cross and beyond. May God bless each one of us as we seek to rediscover the truth of that for ourselves and may we find courage and humility to demonstrate that truth in the way we live our lives.
Maundy Thursday 2023
1 Corinthians 11.23-26