Maundy Thursday: Service

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Thursday 9th April 2020 (Maundy Thursday)
Exodus 12.1–4,11–14; Psalm 116.1,10–end; 1 Corinthians 11.23–26; John 13.1–17,31b–35

[…] love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it. (Song of Solomon 8.6b–7a)

Is there any cause you’re passionately committed to? Something you would make great sacrifices for? Something you really care about, that drives your whole existence?

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re thinking, ‘Actually, no there isn’t. That sounds a bit exhausting. Aren’t people who are that committed to a cause really quite annoying? What’s wrong with just trying to get along with people and making my part of the world a better place? Who needs to be passionate about a cause?’

Well, the bad news for any of us who think like that is that we follow someone who was very passionate about a cause. His cause was the kingdom of God, and he was so devotedly, embarrassingly passionate about it that he went to his death.

Whether or not we can really be passionate about it, we share with Jesus that hope of the kingdom of God, and that hope commits us to a life of love. Not just any kind of love ­– a kingdom-of-God love. The events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter help us to understand what that love is like – how it is demanding, but also life-giving. Tomorrow we’re going to think about love as solidarity, and on Saturday we’re going to think about love as salvation, but today we’re going to think about love as service.

It’s the Last Supper. Jesus has been in Jerusalem for five days, and he realizes the end is near. His enemies have been plotting, and soon he will be arrested, so he gets his disciples together for a farewell meal. They still don’t understand why Jesus seems intent on getting crucified, and so he tries to explain it to them with symbols.

During the meal Jesus takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and says, ‘This is my body that is for you.’ (1 Cor. 11.24) The disciples probably all look nervously at each other and eat the bread, not quite sure what he means. Then he takes a cup of wine, gives thanks, and passes it round, saying, ‘This is my blood […], which is poured out for many.’ (Matt. 26.24) The bread satisfies hunger, the wine makes us glad – they help us to understand that Jesus’s death is good for us, that Jesus’s death was for us, an act of service. We know that the disciples understood this because they passed these symbols on, and Christians today are still using them.

But there’s another symbol at this supper. We’re told, in the Gospel of John, that during supper Jesus, the disciples’ teacher and master, kneels down to wash their dirty, dusty, smelly feet. This shocks them, as it slightly shocks us every year to see one of our priests washing our feet. Jesus is taking the role of a servant. And he says:

‘[…] if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’

We’re used to thinking of this as a sort of final moral lesson: I’m going away, and after I’ve gone this is how you should treat one another. But in other places Jesus’s servanthood is connected with his death:

‘[…] the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10.45)

By washing his disciples’ feet on the night before his death, Jesus is summing up a life in the service of others and prefiguring a death in the service of others – a life and death of love.

The theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus ‘the man for others’. This is what we have in the words Jesus says over bread and wine: ‘This is my body that is for you. This is my blood, which is poured out for many.’ And this is what we have in the foot-washing. Jesus saw his death as he saw his life ­– for others. In his commitment to the kingdom of God, he lived for others and he died for others.

So Jesus interprets his death as an act of service. But he doesn’t stop there – he’s not just telling us what he’s done for us. He adds, ‘You also should do as I have done to you. […] Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ If we are united to Christ through our baptism, then we are committed to his way of love. Tonight we remember that that way of love involves service, doing things for one another.

During this lockdown we’ve had plenty of opportunities for loving service: phone calls to the sick or lonely, deliveries of shopping to the vulnerable, acting responsibly for the good of everyone.

This may all sound very human, not at all ‘divine’ or ‘religious’, but the Bible teaches us that love of neighbour is a religious act, it is loving God. In the first letter of John the author writes:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4.11–12)

Since God has loved us, we ought to love one another – that is how we return God’s love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer also wrote about this from his prison cell in 1944:

Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to a highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘being there for others’, in participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendent is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbour who is within reach in any given situation. [1]

If through baptism we are united to Jesus and his cause, the kingdom of God, then that means living lives of loving service, living for others. Let us love one another as God has loved us.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: An Abridged Edition (2001, London: SCM Press), pp. 143–144.

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