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Thornbury Parish


Maundy Thursday Sermon 2013

Actions speak louder than words.

Have you ever thought why did Jesus long to celebrate the Passover with his friends before he was arrested?

Think about what the Passover was about. A series of actions which showed the Israelites that they were being saved by God,saved from death, and saved immediately after from slavery. The Passover marked their passage into life and freedom. But it was very visual. The lambs being killed, the blood around the door frame; the unleavened bread to make sure it was ready quickly. Eating standing up with walking sticks ready in their hands.

And every year the Jews repeated this, still repeat it, over and over, to bring themselves close again to the truth that God liberates us from death to life and from slavery to freedom.

But Jesus gave it the extra twist, on this special night, the last one of freedom for him. He was about to go into captivity and death. So he gave his friends an action, a picture to remember to do and to remember him by.

He broke the bread- like this, he said, my body will be broken. He poured out the wine and passed it round - like this, he said, my blood will be poured out. Blood from the scourging, from the thorns, from the nails, from the spear, pints and pints of it poured out.

When the Passover lambs died, your firstborn lived. Now when I die, you will live.

It takes time to take in such a message. That’s why we repeat this ritual Sunday after Sunday, with the bread and the wine. Do this whenever you meet together, Jesus said. Remember me. Perhaps we never fully understand the meaning of the Communion that we give thanks for today. And if we did perhaps it could not be put into words. Actions do speak louder than words after all. We can feel and sense the meaning, we can be touched somewhere deep inside out souls, without words.

When I place the wafer into your palm and say ‘the body of Christ’, am I speaking of the wafer? Am I speaking of the community which shares the broken bread? Am I speaking of that individual before me? Am I speaking of a transcendent Christ present in spirit? All of those.

As I break up the wafer into sections and we pray the ‘Lamb of God’, I think of Jesus allowing himself to be broken for us, of Jesus giving his whole self to each one, of Jesus, including everyone in his feast, I think of the 5000 and the baskets of left overs. Enough and to spare for everyone.

This is a sacrament, an outward visible action which signifies an invisible spiritual reality. Words cannot express that inward reality well enough. but doing the action, over and over again in this case, helps it to sink in a little bit each time.

Actions speak louder than words.

And after supper, there was another action. One which we also follow and imitate today. He rose from the table, wrapped a towel around him, took a  bowl of water and washed the feet of his friends.  

According to the other gospels, Jesus simply said to them, ‘now I want to you serve and help each other. I want the most powerful ones of you to serve the rest’. Would that have the impact of this action? No, it would not.

In this simple action Jesus engraved into their memories an example which they could not forget. It shocked them to the core. It was, well, embarrassing. It was topsy turvy as Peter pointed out. It was unprecedented.

It gave us a picture of servant leadership which no words alone could do.

Rather like when Gandhi, a Hindu from the highest caste, cleaned the toilets of his community, a task which the outcaste untouchables usually did. It was about the most shocking demonstration of equality that he could have come up with. Everyone in the community at once knew what was expected of them; how far they needed to go in overthrowing the social mores they had been brought up with. What equality meant. It was better than a learned speech or a legal argument. It was a demonstration.

John takes care to tell us that Jesus was aware that he had come from the Father and was returning to God. And with that awareness he got up and performed a menial task, a personal service for the 12 men around him, his followers. All except Peter were speechless. Shocked. Gobsmacked. Then at the end he reinforced the lesson by reminding them how they addressed him - as Teacher or Lord - how much more, then, should they, we, be prepared to wash each other’s feet?

This action has inspired much deep Christian service in the world, from Mother Teresa picking up dying beggars out of the gutter and tenderly caring for them, loving them as they die, to the leprosy missions, overcoming physical revulsion and fear to care for deformed and grotesque victims of leprosy.

Getting down to floor level and washing feet is an action which speaks so much louder than words.

In a moment we are going to reenact this together with a group of volunteers coming forward for me to wash their feet.

And you know, the act of service flows in both directions for us here tonight. Whether washing or being washed, we need an attitude of humility and graciousness.

Many of us are happy, even keen to help and assist others. It can be fulfilling to support someone else in their time of need. But being supported, being on the receiving end, can be harder. Being content to receive takes a special grace.

Time to reflect now, as the foot washing takes place, on our own giving and receiving; on our acts of service; on humility and grace. As we sing ubi caritas, deus ibi est - where love is, there is God also - reflect on the body of Christ; on Christ, embodied in us as we serve each other.