Sermon, Maundy Thursday, April 18th 2019
The Better Way
Reading: John 13.1-17, 31b-15
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Jesus’ ministry was his extraordinary power of communication, rooted as it was in a deep understanding of humanity and the endlessly subtle, complex relationship between our emotions and our intellects. Take his use of parables, those stories the meaning of which lay buried when he spoke them. It tells us something about the nature of God and the dignity he confers on human beings that Jesus trusted those listening to him work out the meaning of the parables for themselves. As any teacher will tell you, engaging the thought processes of your pupils is the surest way of them really learning a lesson.
In the momentous events of Holy Week what is most notable is Jesus’ use of the power of symbol to dramatize and clarify his purpose as his mission approaches its climax. On his triumphal entry into Jerusalem he chose to ride on a donkey. No surprises there, but what is often overlooked is that in 1st century Palestine the donkey was regarded not as a lowly – if sweet – animal as it is today, but a noble one. As such, it was common for kings to ride on donkeys unless they were going to war, in which case they would ride on a horse. Immediately, you can see the rich symbolism at work in this famous gospel story. Jesus left no one in any doubt as to his kingship. When the Pharisees demand he tells his followers to stop calling him a king he replies: “if they keep silent the stones will cry out”. So Jesus riding a donkey immediately signalled that his kingship was a very different matter from that of earthly kings who rule by war, conflict and subjugation. Jesus’ choice of a donkey told onlookers that he was inaugurating a new kind of kingdom.
Just how new and different that kingdom was became apparent on the night before his death. In moving to wash his disciples’ feet Jesus upends all existing notions of leadership.
Peter is horrified – “Lord you will never wash my feet!”. Note that Jesus in no way denies his leadership in the foot washing – “You call me teacher and Lord” he says “for that is what I am”. It’s rather that he is demonstrating in this dramatic, symbolic act a radically different kind of leadership, one that proceeds by example and that ushers in kingdom of peace built on mutuality, service and community. As Jesus says in John’s gospel – “I no longer call you servants, but friends.”
Now of course, Jesus was not alone in understanding the power of symbolic action. The Roman authorities had grasped that point all too well. As much as anything else the cross was the symbol of their terrifying power. Crucifixion was an horrifically common form of execution in the Roman empire. It was reserved for the common people and slaves. No Roman citizen would suffer this form of death. The whole point of it was to subjugate through terror. The degradation involved was total. The victims were naked on their crosses rather than covered by loin cloths as you see in so much western art. Onlookers were encouraged to jeer and spit at them. Again, unlike in so much familiar art, victims were not raised up high but relatively lowly off the ground so that their persecutors could mock them to their face. The agony could last for many hours, even days and the crucifixion itself was preceded by scourging which left the victim’s flesh in tatters.
The symbolism of Jesus’ crucifixion site outside the city walls said it all. The condemned were beyond the pale, “non-people”, the “filth and dregs of humanity” as the Roman politician Cicero called them. These sub-humans were so low and despicable as to warrant an inhuman, degrading death.
For us, as Christians, the cross is ultimately unfathomable as a symbol but at its simplest and starkest it tells a terrible truth – perhaps the terrible truth - about our fallen world: the cross symbolises what we do to each other. Ours is a world in which young men in our own neighbourhood can’t walk the streets without being slaughtered – like young Calvin Bongisa just a few days ago. How could those who knifed him have done so had they truly regarded him as a human being, just like them? And before we dismiss such crimes as only occurring within gangs in which we have no part we should remember that whenever we treat others with contempt, whenever we regard them as beyond the pale, as insufficiently like us in their views, or where they come from, or what they look, then we too have taken the first steps to nailing them to a cross.
In submitting to the cross Jesus took the necessary step towards breaking its symbolic power even to the point of it becoming our symbol of victory. For what the resurrection tells us is that for all that we do to crucify each other there is NOTHING at all that can separate us from the love of God, that forgiveness is complete and total. This most Holy of all seasons reminds us that constantly before us is the choice between life and death and that God, in the words of Deuteronomy, enjoins us to “choose life.”
So, which is it to be – life or death? Make no mistake, if we choose life, as we profess to do, then we must go the way of foot washing and the cross, the way of sacrifice. In the context of Holy Week and Jesus’ extraordinary sacrifice this can seem too much, too demanding.
If it seems so to you let me leave you with the words of Fleming Rutledge, an American Episcopal priest whose magisterial book on the crucifixion has been my Lenten reading:
“Wherever there are gracious acts of unselfishness there are the signs of God’s kingdom of remade relationships based on mutual self-offering. Even in this old world of Sin and Death, who would want to live a life of utter selfishness? To show any sort of care for others at all, some sort of sacrifice is necessary every day – to be magnanimous instead of vindictive, to stand back and let someone else share the limelight, to absorb the anger of a teenager in order to show firm guidance, be patient with a parent who has Alzheimer’s, to refrain from undermining a colleague, to give money away one would like to spend on luxuries, to give up smoking, to bear with those who can’t give up smoking – all such things, large and small, require sacrifice. What would life be without it”?