This service is packed with symbolism and poignant moments, so much so that we could be forgiven for feeling sensory overload. It began with the oils to be used in the church’s sacramental ministry being received having been blessed by the bishop earlier today. This links their pastoral use – anointing at baptism, confirmation and when in need of God’s healing grace – with the wider family of the church. We are not alone, we are joined together with all who bear the name of Christ and carry that light together. In a moment a few of us will symbolically reenact Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. More of that in a moment. After the meal, the Eucharist, in which on this night of all nights we remember that it was on the night before he died that he gave bread and wine to be symbols and instruments of his presence, his grace and his feeding in word and sacrament. And then we end as he did, by going to the garden to watch with him for just one hour, in our case to the Lady Chapel. And to remind us of what followed the church is stripped of all ornamentation, representing his humiliation before the court, before Pilate, before the crowd, on his way to the cross.
So back to the feet. Who washes feet tells its own story. It was Jesus who did it and his act astounded his disciples who thought this an unusual moment. Washing feet was no one’s job, not even that of the lowest slave. Water was provided for guests to wash their own feet, as we are reminded when the woman bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and Jesus told his outraged hosts that they had not even provided him with water to wash his own feet. So who represents Jesus in this act? Is it the highest-ranking cleric – the vicar, or bishop or whoever? Well that misses the crucial point. All of us are called to be like Jesus so when he says ‘do you know what I have done, do likewise’, that is a commission to all of us to live this life, this action of service, of care, of humility. All of us are to be like Jesus.
All of us are also called to be his disciples, so all of us need to have our feet washed, at least in spirit. It can be ticklish, it can be soothing, it can feel odd and deeply personal, it can feel a little weird padding around at the front of the church without shoes and socks on, not least when the fear strikes – have I got holes in my socks? But all of us need to receive ministry and care from one another, to allow others in the church community to care for us and these are the moments when a church is seen to really be a church, when it cares for one another. And we do, and you do. So we are all Christ’s disciples who receive his blessing of this gift just as we are all called to be the ones who emulate him and give it.
The Queen doesn’t wash feet; instead she gives out money, the royal Maundy Money, to deserving pensioners of limited means nominated by churches in their dioceses. Again though, the same question arises. Who gives the money? Is this a small act of benevolence and patronage from the local lord and monarch? Is this act restricted to patronage, or are all of us called to join together in generosity, recognition of our duty to the common purse? If we recognize the importance of taxation, where each pays according to their relative wealth into the common fund which is then spent according to democratically accountable procedures, then it becomes more about mutual support than private philanthropy. Tax justice challenges the status quo and rich retaining control, placing the money under the control of the common will. Giving money to the common decision-making requires a letting go of the control, of power to share it and commit to the common endeavour and good. Gifting with strings is not really gift at all.
Who pays and how they pay then, says a lot about how we see our common life being organized. Support for the poor and weak is not just about random acts of kindness but carefully thought through policies, restoring and bringing about justice.
So on this Maundy Thursday, we gather called to be like Jesus and to follow him. We are Jesus to one another as we represent him to one another and to the world, and we are his disciples receiving his healing touch, his blessing of gifts shared, mediated through one another. We wash feet, we contribute to the common fund. All share and bear the responsibility and solution to the need. Maundy Thursday is named after the Latin ‘mandatum’, after the new commandment to love. And love is the key to seeing and understanding the mystery of these coming days.
Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Peterborough Parish Church, 18th April 2019