Sermon Preached by Fr Nicolas Stebbing CR at St Mary, Bourne Street, London on Maunday Thursday (5 April) 2012

Jesus is now on the edge of his crucifixion. That lonely figure which we have seen walk through the Gospel story is now with his disciples for almost the last time. This time before his death is going to tell us what his death is all about. What can we find? Our readings give us three themes: the Passover lamb, the Eucharist and the washing of feet. 

The lamb is the great figure of sacrifice – a lamb pure and spotless, ‘without blemish’; that is the only kind of lamb to be offered to God. It was offered in Egypt so that it could provide the blood for the Lord’s Passover – that the angel of the Lord will pass over the children of Israel, not killing their oldest sons. The blood of the lamb protects the people from the divine wrath. The wrath of God is justly poured out on the world; such is the sin of the world but Jesus the Lamb of God places himself in its way. He sacrifices himself allowing his blood to divert the wrath, to absorb it, to transform it into love.

Again in Jewish religion the lamb which is offered brings about the reconciliation of God and his people. The lamb is offered for the people’s sins. It is supposed to take away the sins of the people so that they can come back to God pure and without sin. Yet how can a lamb do that? An ordinary lamb cannot do it. Only this lamb, the lamb of God, can take away the sins of the world and truly restore the people to God. This is the lamb that is offered in sacrifice on the Cross. It differs from all other lambs not just because it is a human being, not just because it is also the Son of God but because it goes willingly to its death. This lamb offers itself. Violence has come upon it, yet violence has been willingly embraced. Death will come upon it, because it allows the death to come so that love may find its way to the very end of all things, the terrible death of a Cross.

How does this touch us? It is in the daily presentation of that death on the Cross, the one which happens when “we do this in memory of him”. “This is my body, broken for you…This is my blood.” Jesus had to die to be able to make his body and blood over to us. The body was broken, the blood poured out so that it could be broken and poured out over and over again on our altars. It is offered to take away our sins; it averts the wrath of God and replaces it with his love and it takes us into the very heart of the lamb of God purifying us from our sins and leading us into the heart of God. It is a mind blowingly generous action on the part of Jesus to give us his own flesh and it happens to us not just once but over and over again – in just a few minutes we will once again be invited to receive Jesus and be transformed by him.

Yet before we can do that we have one painful lesson to learn: “The Son man came not to be served, but to serve”. The Son of God not only takes human flesh; he seeks the lowest place. He will not let himself be proclaimed as a King. He will not let people dress him up in Kingly robes. He will be a servant washing the feet of his disciples. Most of us feel uncomfortable when we see Jesus doing this; we know it means we should do the same. It is even more uncomfortable when we realise Jesus is going to wash our feet. He places himself below us. He is the servant; we are the masters. From now until he dies on the Cross Jesus takes the lowest place, as servant washing our feet, as prisoner abused by Jewish priests and roman soldiers, as criminal dragged along the road before a shouting, mocking crowd and as a naked body nailed to a tree. As our wonderful Archbishop of Canterbury once said, Jesus takes the lowest place so completely that no one has ever been able to take it from him.

The disciples at the last supper could only watch and let Jesus wash their feet. They could only watch, or fail to watch, as he prayed in Gethsemane. They could only be spectators who fled when he was arrested on the Mount of Olives and they could only watch from a distance when he was tried, convicted and crucified on that desolate hill. That is all we can do, now, as Jesus walks the way of the Cross and washes our feet.

            Nicolas Stebbing CR