A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on Maundy Thursday 2022.
When Christ met with his disciples for their last supper together, there was a profound sense of foreboding. We’ve just heard that:
‘The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of
Simon Iscariot to betray him.’
A little later on in the evening Judas leaves the intimacy of the upper room, goes and gets the soldiers and leads them to the garden where Jesus and his disciples have gone to pray.
Judas then betrays Jesus with a kiss, and in the ensuing scuffle one of the disciples cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Jesus orders him to put his sword away and then asks:
‘Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he
will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?’
(Matthew 26. 52)
So why didn’t he? Why didn’t he appeal to his Father for those 12 legions of angels? Why were events left to unfold – the betrayal by Judas, the arrest of Jesus, the denial by Peter? Surely the taunts of the crowd at the foot of the cross were justified when they shouted:
‘He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he wants
To throw some light on this I want to suggest an analogy from our own experience – when and how should we intervene?
On the international stage Ukraine is uppermost in our minds, but before that there was Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Kosovo – the list is long. When is it right to intervene and how do you do this effectively?
Social workers know this dilemma with families, parents know it with their own children, at home and at work, on big questions as well as small ones – when is it right to intervene, and how are you going to do so without making matters worse?
Elsewhere we’ve put in place no-fly zones as the Ukrainian authorities want us to in their country; but even when we’ve done that, as we did in Libya, we’ve quickly discovered that there’s only so much you can do from the air. And we’re extremely reluctant to put troops on the ground with all the risks that involves. Yet we know that without engaging on the ground, our ability to change how things develop is very limited.
My point is theological not political. I’m offering this as an analogy. If God wants to effect change in our world, he cannot remain ‘up in the air’. He too has to become engaged, has to commit himself to ‘boots on the ground’ if you like.
So God’s presence becomes localised, focussed in a person – Jesus of Nazareth.
But there’s still the unfolding of his life and his interactions with others, none of which can be predicted. Will God bring in the legions of angels when things get difficult?
The answer we’re given in Holy Week is disconcerting.
Instead of legions of angels, what we’re offered is some bread and wine, a towel, a cross and an empty tomb: this is the language of love, divine love.
Tonight we’re thinking about some bread and wine, and a towel. All the gospels agree that we’re commanded to do something in remembrance of Jesus. For Matthew, Mark and Luke, their focus is on the bread and wine; the focus for Saint John is on the towel.
It’s a sobering thought that if Christian worship had revolved around foot washing rather than breaking bread, debates down the centuries would have involved whether the right or the left foot should be washed first; whether feet should be totally immersed or whether sprinkling with water was sufficient; and whether women could have their feet washed or be allowed to wash other people’s feet.
Fortunately washing feet has never been a matter of debate amongst Christians. In Christ’s day, washing feet was a normal preliminary before a meal, done for guests by slaves, for parents by children, sometimes for teachers by devoted students.
But never did a teacher wash their pupil’s feet. So what Saint John offers us tonight is deeply disconcerting: Christ kneeling at the feet of his disciples and washing their feet.
There’s a quaint handbook on church needlework, published sometime in the 1950s, which contained this instruction:
‘The length of the lavabo towel (that is the towel used by
the priest to wash their hands before celebrating
communion), the length of the lavabo towel should be 12
inches for Roman Catholics, and 18 inches for
This inspired the late S. H. Forrest to begin one of his poems:
‘O filthy, dirty Anglicans needing a larger towel!’
The truth is no towel is large enough to express Christ’s sacrificial life, no towel dirty enough to express how we’re called to live:
‘I have set you an example,’ Christ says,
‘you are to do as I have done to you.’