Sunday 20th of October 2019
The Very Rev Dr John Chalmers
St Matthew 27:15-24 & St John 13:1-13
The Basin of Commitment
Firstly, can I say how good it is to be able to share the service with John today. It is very special for our group to be welcomed here and I find it a very special thing to be leading worship and sharing the Eucharist in this city which is so significant in the story of our faith.
Make no mistake about – this is the city and this is the land in which the Bible takes on a different dimension. For me there are two reasons why this is so – the first: that there is a distinct and tangible connection between the DNA of the soil and of the culture which gave birth to some of the counter-cultural and anti-establishment ideas which make up the manifesto of Jesus. You can hardly turn a corner without feeling that you may be walking where Jesus walked and you cannot turn your eyes to the horizon without the sure knowledge that the landscape is the same one which, at one and the same time, both inspired Jesus and led him to despair.
The second reason for the Bible taking on a different dimension here is to do with the politics of this place, it is to do with the fragility of relationships across the separation barrier and it is also to do with the frustration and distress that I feel that three great cousins in the faith – who each trace their heritage back to father Abraham – cannot live in peace.
So, for instance, when I read the Palm Sunday lesson of Jesus looking over Jerusalem from one of its many vantage points and saying of Jerusalem, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” then I cannot think of any words which Jesus spoke – which mean, unequivocally, exactly the same today as they did 2000 years ago. Jesus knew intimately the words of the Psalmist who, a thousand years before had prayed for the peace of Jerusalem! That it might prosper and that there might be security within its towers; I read these verses today and in my imagination I can see, as well as hear, Jesus speaking the same words.
This is definitely a place where text and context meet in such a way that the words take on their deepest possible meaning.
And if it is true that this is the place and this is the land where the Bible takes on a new depth, then it is also true that this is the place and this is the land where the Sacrament of Holy Communion also takes on a new depth of meaning.
You probably know the game 5 degrees of separation – this is the idea that through a friend of a friend of a friend there are no more than 5 degrees of separation between anyone of us and anyone else on the planet.
So, for instance, someone shakes hands with me today at the door of the church and I have shaken hands with my son, who has shaken hands with former President George Bush who has shaken hands with Barak Obama, who has shaken hands with Donald Trump, who has shaken hands with Vladimir Putin – then there is only 5 degrees of separation between you and Vladimir Putin. We are closer to one another than you can begin to imagine!
I once held a communion cup in my hand that was almost 500 years old (I’m sure there are older cups) but when I held that cup in my hand, first I wondered how many people had drunk from it – women and men of faith, who received that faith from women and men who handled the same cup and handed down the same faith through almost 500 years of history. And with that kind of generational count we are but four cups away from handling the same cup that Jesus used just a mile or so from here on the night before his death.
Sadly, however, one of the most vexing facts of Church history is that this sacrament that we call communion – instead of doing what it says on the tin (bringing us into communion with one another) it has become one of greatest areas of controversy and division in the life of the church worldwide.
There is a huge measure of agreement amongst churches on the nature of baptism – we recognise one another’s baptismal rites. If you are baptised in a Roman Catholic Church and later become part of a church in the reformed tradition – you will not be expected to be baptised again. The same is true in reverse. This, of course, is because it is not what the priest does or what the minister does that is important – it is instead, what God in God’s grace does in the act of baptism…. and in this we are entirely agreed
But when it comes to the Sacrament of Holy Communion we are not of one belief about what God is doing. We remain deeply divided on whether the activity is symbolic and memorial or whether it is transubstantial or consubstantial and sacrificial.
What began in an upper room in this ancient city – with the sharing of a cup of wine and a loaf of bread has become the source of more difficulty and strain in the Christian Church than anyone can begin to imagine.
And here’s the thing – before the end of the first century, before the gospels were in common circulation – this meal had already become a matter of misunderstanding, misuse and abuse.
Perhaps that is why St John:
- writing later than any of the other gospel writers;
- who tells us more about the night before the crucifixion than any of the others;
- who spends almost a quarter of his book in the upper room;
prefers not to refer to the institution of this sacrament.
Scholars are almost all agreed that the omission is deliberate. His readers had developed superstitious ideas and they had departed so far from the spirit and intention of the celebration that he chooses instead to tell the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet. And he tells it as if that was the whole point of the gathering.
I want you to consider this – this may well have been John’s way of addressing all the confusion, misuse and misunderstanding of the meal. His way of saying – of what avail are the bread and wine if they do not speak to our soul about the nature of our discipleship, and of what use are they if in receiving them, you do not receive Jesus’ spirit of humble service and self-giving goodness.
So he tells his readers that:
“during supper, Jesus………….. took [not bread] off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him”
There really is nothing in our society and culture which would equate to what Jesus is doing here, but it was common practice in Jesus day. That after a long day in the dust and the heat; a servant would bring water and would bathe and dry the feet of the weary traveller – but it would be completely out of context for Jesus to take on this role. So for John it has far-reaching implications.
It is a demonstration of servant leadership; it is a way of saying as clearly as possible that you won’t change the world unless you serve the world
What I really like about this story is that those who were closest to Jesus and who thought they knew him so well had been caught out, to the extent that they were forced to recalculate their co-ordinates. There is a challenge in this story for every one of us, never to allow ourselves to get so comfortable with our perspective and our understanding of Jesus that we become immune to being surprised by what he demands of us and by the way in which he appears to us.
I call this basin that Jesus takes up on the night before his death – the Basin of Commitment – I see Jesus on his knees teaching his followers to serve others and to serve them with humility. It’s dirty water and it’s a menial task, but it’s this stuff – and not the dogmas we hold dear that build the Kingdom, Jesus says, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
It has always struck me as significant that within the last hours of Jesus life there are two basins of water that feature large; for just a few hours after this labour of love in the upper room, a basin of water is placed in front of Pilate so that symbolically he can somehow excuse himself from any involvement in the condemnation of Christ.
In actual fact that basin represents some form of indifference, insensibility and even self-preservation, while the basin that Jesus takes represents God’s complete commitment, compassion, involvement and self-giving. It is the complete antithesis of the basin into which Pilate places his hands.
Both Pilate and Jesus make use of the same tools – a basin and a towel, but to very different ends. Now as we take these ancient symbols, I hope that, between the act itself and the place where we find ourselves today, that this will be a sacrament – poignant with of deep meaning. AMEN