The Body of Christ
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
5 April 2007, 20:00 (Maundy Thursday)
‘Who can believe what I have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ That cry begins the 53rd Chapter of Isaiah on the Suffering Servant. It tells of a man who was so disfigured that people turned their heads away. Then we hear that it is through his wounds that we are healed. From those who are very broken, very wounded, comes life.
Writing in The Tablet, the founder of the L’Arche communities, Jean Vanier, tells this story about a child.
‘In Rome we have welcomed into L’Arche a beautiful little boy called Armando. He was born with a very severe handicap, which triggered off his mother’s inner pain. However much she wanted to hold on to him, she could not cope. So she put him in an orphanage...’
‘When a child is loved, it rests quietly in its mother’s arms. But once it senses that it is not loved, and feels unwanted, there is a wound in its heart. Loneliness and anguish also bring guilt. For if we are lonely, it may be that we are not loved. If we are not loved, then it may be that we are unlovable. So it was that Armando refused to eat. There was too much anguish and inner pain.’
‘We were asked if we could welcome him into our community. And there in that very small home he was loved, he was bathed, he was fed. And gradually he began to taste communion. He began to like being loved, and one day opened his heart and somewhere decided to live.’
‘He is now seven years old, tiny, he has not grown. Yet if you take him in your arms his eyes light up and a smile appears on his face and he looks at you, and all his body quivers and says “I love you”. He says it not with words, but with his little body. He has found communion and is living it. Armando wants neither money nor power. He does not want to go up the ladder of promotion. All he wants is another heart.’
From those who are very broken, very wounded, comes life. And God has something to show us through their wounds – how to find community.
A friend of mine, a Roman Catholic priest working in Londonderry, who has seen much violence in Northern Ireland once wrote to me: ‘I saw a Catholic woman try to revive a Protestant Loyalist shot within yards of her front door. I saw her face as she got up from breathing on him. It was the look of someone who realized the awful moment when a human life dies away, and I think at that moment that she would have given her life for his. Politics do not exist. There are, I believe, a great many people who would give their life for a friend and who would not discriminate too closely between one of God’s people and another. Perhaps our job is not to make people love one another, but to stop preventing them.’
At tonight’s supper a row broke out among the disciples as to which of them was ‘top dog’. However, Jesus didn’t tear them off a strip. He simply took a towel and a bowl of water, and began to wash their feet, saying, ‘Look! I’ve done this as something for you to follow. If you do what I’ve done, if you wash one another’s feet, there can’t possibly be any of this jostling for position among you for status and recognition.
The disciples were startled beyond words when Jesus began to wash their feet. But there was something even more startling to come. The kind of meal they were accustomed to sharing together was something which as Jews they were very used to. It had its regular pattern and ritual. But what Jesus suddenly said, in the middle of the meal, was unbelievable. Jesus said words that implied, unmistakably, that God had established a new relationship between himself and humanity: a new Covenant, through him, through Jesus himself; through his blood; his life; his suffering; and his death, still ahead.
It was as he gave thanks and took bread that he suddenly said the words, ‘This is my Body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And when he took the cup, he said, ‘This is the New Covenant, sealed by my own blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
They all knew the Old Covenant between God and Israel. But Jesus, whom they called Lord and Master, had washed their feet and then declared at the meal that, ‘This is the New Covenant in and through my blood.’ It was either the most incredible arrogance, or nonsense, or blasphemy – or the truth. But they knew very well that the man who had just washed their feet wasn’t arrogant. They knew that he was a man of profound prayer and goodness. It was the terrible and glorious events of the next few days which filled out for them what Jesus had meant by his words and actions at the meal that evening.
At that meal Jesus prepared his disciples for destruction – to be lovingly dismembered and rebuilt by God into a community of mutual interdependence, where there would be no preferred seating, no first and last, no better ones, and no corners for ‘the least of all’.
So let me leave you with an image – something to carry into the darkness of this night and the dawning of a new day tomorrow morning - something I saw in India that impressed me with the truth of this in a quite unforgettable way. I was in Calcutta visiting Mother Teresa, who said when she fed the starving destitutes and cared for the dying that she was seeing Jesus under the distressing disguise of the poor. I was in the House for Dying Destitutes being taken around by the Sister-in-Charge, Sister Luke. There were two simple wards - one for the men and one for the women - separated only by a thin plastic curtain. Behind the curtain lay the naked stick-like body of an old woman, being gently washed by a young girl, barely 14 years of age. And above them, written in chalk on the wall, were the words: ‘The Body of Christ’.
And Jesus says to us tonight: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no fellowship with me’.