Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday

There’s something about the number five that is especially suitable for lists.  Possibly that is because we have five fingers on one hand, so it’s easy to count them off.  Maybe it’s because any more than five is getting dangerously close to what scientists tell us is the limit of most people’s short-term memory.  Who knows.  But during the five weeks of Lent a small group from this parish have been studying a book that works its way through what the author argues are the five practises of fruitful Christian living.  There are also, I reflected, five practices listed in our very own parish mission statement.  And five marks of mission that the world-wide Anglican Communion and just about every Diocese in the world have accepted as broadly describing what being a Church is all about.  So I started to wonder whether they were all the same five, maybe just worded a bit differently, or whether the United Methodist author of our study book, and the worldwide Anglican Church and our own parish had managed to come up with wildly different ideas of what they each thought the business of being a disciple is all about.

And of course you just know, since I’m mentioning this, that these lists of five are all pretty much the same.  The first thing that struck me was that each of them divide the crucial practises of discipleship into two main sections – you might call them interior and exterior modes of discipleship – or you might think the division is between the ways we respond inwardly to God, and ways in which our response to God as disciples transforms how we live.  The United Methodist bishop was very strategic, it seemed to me, softening us up first with what seemed like the least demanding practises.  Firstly, he wrote, we need to pay attention to the extravagant hospitality of God who, in his Son, empties himself to take on our human form – and to learn to practise this hospitality in return, by making room for God in our lives.  Then, he said, our worship needs to be passionate and engaged.  Because as Christians we understand that worship is where we glimpse the central mystery of our lives, the mystery of what and who and why we are and how we are connected to God and to one another.  The passion and commitment we bring to worship reflects our understanding that all of life comes from God.  And we need to grow in faith – that’s number three.  Because being a Christian isn’t just about coming to church.  It’s about committing ourselves to a lifetime of growing in understanding and maturity and love.  It’s a work in progress that lasts the rest of our lives, and as our lives take us through new and surprising and sometimes difficult places so too our faith needs to grow and deepen to keep up.  You see, here, the bar is getting lifted a bit, the vocation of being a Christian is starting to look like we might have to work at it.  We might need to be deliberate and intentional.  And practices four and five confirm this – the practise of selfless service, of reaching out to others in need, of getting out of our own comfort zone for the sake of other people we maybe don’t even know.  And the practice of generous giving – giving our own resources including though I guess not limited to our money.  This of course, especially in our affluent Western society where money rules, seems to be the hardest of the lot.  But, the author of our study book claimed, if our experience of God’s blessings is limited to what we receive, and we’ve never learned the joy and discipline of giving, then we’ve only travelled half the journey of God’s extravagant generosity.

But Cannington Anglicans, I discovered, had already worked this mix out back in the eighties or nineties when the mission statement we print on the front of our pew sheet every week was written.  Bringing Christ to our community, surely, says something about the practice of hospitality – God’s hospitality, and the need for us to reflect that.  Worshipping God is number one on the list – presumably with energy and joy. Nurturing each other suggests an especial emphasis on the needs of children and young people and those who are young in faith to be helped to grow in understanding and Christian discipleship.  While ministering to those in need and supporting mission suggest that Cannington Anglicans value selfless service and contributing their resources, including their money, to the mission of the Church.  Even the worldwide Anglican Communion gets there in the end, through the commentary on the five marks of mission that explains that proclaiming the good news of God’s love is about carrying God’s love into the world and celebrating that love through worship and liturgy.

But of course in the end the real question is what Jesus demonstrates, what Jesus teaches us and models for us, about living in a way that is consistent with God’s kingdom.  And I think that our liturgy this evening reveals it in a nutshell, for the simple reason that – in modern workplace terminology – tonight is a handover session.  Tonight is Jesus’ last opportunity to sum up for the disciples what it has all been about, and how they can live together in community in such a way that his living presence will continue to be seen in them.  It’s his last chance to model for them what God’s kingdom is all about, and he knows it.

Of course, it happens around a meal.  Of course – because so much of Jesus’  teaching, and his practical demonstrations, as well as his stories about God’s kingdom, feature meals.  Big slap-up banquets, simple meals of bread and wine, the miracle of feeding thousands of people in the desert, meals at which the unwelcome are made welcome, meals that demonstrate in the simplest and most direct of terms what God’s love and hospitality are like, meals that would have reminded his followers over and over again of God’s miraculous provision for God’s people in the ancient stories from Exodus.  Jesus practises, on the last night of his life, the open hospitality that has always been the hallmark of his ministry, for the simple reason that it is also the hallmark of God’s love.  The simple generosity of a meal reminds us how we experience God’s hospitality, and reminds us how to begin practising that hospitality ourselves.

This meal becomes worship, the meal that joins us together and makes us the body of Christ.  It may have been a Passover meal, the meal at which Jews even today recall the miracle of the flight from Egypt and remind themselves that they are the inheritors of that freedom and the children of God’s promise.  Mark and Luke seem to think it was, while John’s Gospel suggests it was the night before the Passover, but in any case the context of the meal is a traveller’s blessing.  And the meal that Jesus shares with his friends on the night before he dies is the ground zero of our Eucharistic worship, the meal that digests and transforms us as it reconstitutes us as the body of Christ.

To the end, Jesus nurtures and teaches his disciples, reminding them how much they still have to learn – the one who so misunderstands that he will betray Jesus to the authorities, the one calls him ‘Rabbi’ but will soon be angrily denying even knowing Jesus, the circle of intimate friends who, within a few hours, will have abandoned him and fled.  And he says to Peter, when you have come back to yourself, strengthen and support your brothers and sisters.  The Gospels portray Jesus’ disciples as failures, as ordinary human men and women who stumble and fall back when the going gets tough, and who need to continue growing in understanding, in courage and in strength.  This is what Christian life is all about.  And so we need opportunities to feed our spirits, to strengthen and support and sometimes challenge on another, to study the scriptures and reflect on what Jesus is trying to show us.

And then Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.  He is, of course, still teaching them, giving them a powerful and loving lesson that – at the time – they find hard to bear.  Peter objects.  Christian men and women even today object to this practice that the Church liturgically re-enacts year by year.  Don’t wash my feet.  It’s embarrassing.  I have bunions, you shouldn’t have to, for heaven’s sake you are the teacher.  And Jesus says, to Peter and to us, unless I wash you, you have no part in me.  It’s an object lesson that tells us that humble service is the hallmark of discipleship – the fact that it is the disciples calloused and grubby feet that are washed is important because feet take us places – feet are what take us out of our homes and places of worship and into the world where we get to speak eloquently and wordlessly of God’s love in acts of loving service of our own.  And it’s an object lesson that says to us, this is what God characteristically does – God pours Godself out in love to the world – and invites us to participate in God’s love by living in the same way.  Our need to serve others flows seamlessly from the hospitality of God.  How we do it – depends on our gifts and our energies and our passion.  But serve we must, if we want to really join our lives to God’s.

And the final practice?  Already, as he sends Judas out into the night, Jesus is preparing to pour himself out in extravagant love, a gift valued somewhat higher than the trifling thirty pieces of silver Judas is paid.  It is a gift that is nothing less than everything he has and is, and that reflects the extravagant outpouring of God in creation.  All of the five practices, in fact, are grounded in the character of God and our experience of what God does in our world and in our lives.  And Jesus invites his disciples – us – to participate in the gift, asking us to stay awake and pray with him.  It’s difficult for us, our eyelids are weighed down with the burden of being us, the burden of busy lives and worldly concerns – but give we must, if we want to fully experience God’s extravagant generosity to us, and if we want to be set free to see reality from God’s world-changing perspective.

Radical hospitality, passionate, transforming worship, intentional growth in faith, risk-taking service and extravagant generosity are the life-giving practices that Jesus gifts to his disciples in tonight’s meal that we recognise as the formative moment of the Christian Church – but there is just one other point.  Jesus knows his disciples aren’t up to it – not the lot gathered around the table, one of whom has already disappeared, and not us.  We aren’t up to it.  Which is why Jesus promises we don’t have to do it alone.