Archbishop Mark Coleridge preached this homily at The Mass of the Lord’s Supper, The Cathedral of St Stephen, Brisbane. Thursday, 18 April 2019
This evening we celebrate the first part of a great three-part Paschal liturgy: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper tonight, the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion tomorrow and the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening. Taken together, these three will lead us to the very heart of all that is most Christian and all that is most human. That’s why we call these days sacred.
Each of the three moments is shrouded in darkness. The Lord celebrated the Passover with his disciples at night-time; as he died on the Cross the whole earth was covered with darkness; and we will light the new Easter fire when night has fallen. This isn’t because Easter is about darkness but because Easter is about light born from the heart of darkness. This Paschal liturgy offers no escape from the darkness of the world, of the Church, of our own lives; but it says that it’s precisely there that the true light is found, and the name of the true light is Jesus.
Each of the three moments also begins in a strictly conventional world but goes on to celebrate the great disruptions of God which make Easter what it is. Our own celebration of Easter may seem conventional enough; but there’s nothing conventional about Easter. It’s disruptive to the point of being revolutionary. The Paschal Mystery is the revolution of God in a world where death seems to hold sway.
The celebration of the Passover by Jesus and his disciples was conventional enough, even if the Passover’s normal setting was and is the family table. But the New Testament claims that Jesus crucified and risen brings to birth a new family, and it’s at the table of that new family that Jesus celebrates the Passover. So far, so conventional.
But the disruptions begin when Jesus takes off his outer garment and girds himself for foot-washing, the task of the lowliest servant in the household. Given the logic of convention, Peter’s reaction makes perfect sense: “Never! You shall never wash my feet”. Jesus was the master and Peter the disciple: what Jesus wants to do is simply unthinkable. It would have to be the other way round. But not according to Jesus. What he’s doing to them, putting himself at the feet of his disciples, they are to do to others. They are to be the foot-washers of the world. And unless they commit to that, they can, as Jesus says, “have nothing in common with me”. He says to the Twelve, “Unless you let me wash your feet, we cannot eat the Passover meal together. Unless you do the same to others, you have understood neither what I have done to you nor the Passover meal itself”. And he says the same to us this evening.
Once the feet have been washed and they are at table the second disruption comes. Conventionally, Jesus takes the unleavened bread of the Passover; most mysteriously however he speaks not the conventional formula of the ritual but these strange words: “This is my body which will be given up for you”. Later in the meal he again follows convention in taking the cup of wine; but again he speaks strange words: “This is the cup of my blood which will be poured out for you”. Not this is like my body, this is like my blood – but this is my body, this is my blood; and we have been grappling with the meaning of those words ever since, words that have never ceased to be spoken since first they were uttered by the Lord. We can only guess at how the disciples first understood them; surely they were perplexed. And beyond our own perplexities we renew our faith this evening that the Lord meant what he said. We renew our Eucharistic faith that what we share here this evening is not just bread and wine, as convention might claim, but the Body and Blood of Christ, broken and poured out for the life of the world.
The two disruptions of this evening point, strangely, to the humility of God; and that’s the great disruption of Easter. At the recent Clergy Convocation, the speaker was reflecting upon leadership, and he said that a leader needed to be three things: humble, hungry and smart. He went on to say that far and away the most important of the three was “humble”. Unless that was the foundation, we are building on sand. The truth of what he said was unmistakable; and that truth rings out mightily in each of the three parts of our Paschal liturgy, though never more so than this evening as we look to the God who puts himself at our feet and into our hands, the God who becomes vulnerable for our sake and who, because of that, will go to his death tomorrow but who, because of that, will rise from the dead on the third day.
Humility can seem weak in a proud world; it can seem a recipe for failure in a world obsessed by success. But it’s the only true strength we will ever know, our only true success. To speak of humility can sound moralizing, as if Christianity were simply a matter of trying harder to be humble, without ever quite succeeding, not wanting to aggravate our low self-esteem or poor self-image. Yet humility means sacrifice, as we see in Jesus through these days; and sacrifice means that blood is shed. Humility means sacrifice and sacrifice means blood and blood means death. Those who let the Lord wash their feet and who consume what he offers at the table commit themselves to a kind of death, as we do this evening. Those who let the Lord place himself at our feet and into our hands pledge that they will become his sacrifice and his feast, his body broken and his blood poured out for the life of the world.
This is a troubled moment for the Church in this country and elsewhere, a time when we ask what needs to change. Simply chugging along conventionally is not an option. We’ve been disrupted by the secular state in moments like the Royal Commission, but we need more than ever now to open to the disruptions of God; and that’s what Easter provides. It’s also the promise which the Plenary Council holds out. More than anything, we need to become a humble Church, a Church which acknowledges that we have too often been proud, with all that that means – self-regarding, self-promoting, self-justifying, defensive, unheeding, insensitive, more concerned with power and prestige than with proclaiming the Cross of Christ. We have been humiliated – that is certain; and the humiliation is not over. But our hope and our heartfelt prayer this evening is that again and again humiliation will give birth to humility, so that like Peter we will move from “Never shall you wash my feet” to “Not only my feet but my hands and my head as well”. Only then will we come forth from the Egypt in which we now find ourselves; only then will the Passover we celebrate be more than empty ritual inspired more by nostalgia than by faith.
As believers, then, let us shed blood for the life of the world; and let that blood be the blood of the Passover lamb placed on the doorposts and lintels of those who are saved. Let the blood of the Lamb of God flow from the heart of a humble Church, and let it be placed on the doorposts and lintels of our churches, so that the angel of destruction, seeing the blood and all that it means, will pass us by, so that we can set forth to freedom. Amen.