This homily was given by Ian Boxall at the Solemn Mass of the Lord's Supper on the Thursday in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday.
So we have entered the old city of Jerusalem, we have jostled through the crowds of pilgrims as we made our way up the steep flight of steps into the upper city, and we have come finally to the upper room, to begin that chain of events which will take us to Gethsemane, to Golgotha, and finally to the garden with its new tomb. And as we prepare to participate in these events over the next few days, it is appropriate that we begin here, in the upper room in Jerusalem.
Because as John tells it in his gospel, what Jesus does at this Last Supper with his disciples, and what we are doing here this evening, is the key to understanding what Jesus will do tomorrow. Tonight, as we gather with Jesus and his disciples in the upper room, we begin to glimpse the meaning of the cross. At the Last Supper tonight, we begin to unravel the mystery of Christ’s death.
Death, of course, is very much in the air as the disciples gather with Jesus for this last supper in Jerusalem. John has already told us that Jesus is going away. Moreover, every year, the events of Holy Week will have particular poignancy for some of us, because of recent bereavements, or because this aura of death calls to mind loved ones who have gone before us.
When one of our own is close to death, we strain to hear those last words, we read particular significance into every last action, and treasure and ponder those memories. So too the early church remembered and meditated upon the last words and actions of Jesus, and three of those actions we meditate on this evening: the breaking of the bread, the taking of the cup, and the washing of the feet. And when the early church remembered, it understood that what Jesus said and did on the first Maundy Thursday revealed to us something of the mystery of the first Good Friday.
First, the bread and the cup. Some twenty-five years after these events in Jerusalem, Paul writes to Christians gathered in another room. The room is almost certainly in the villa of a wealthy member of the Corinthian church, perhaps Gaius who we know had a house large enough to hold the whole community (Rom. 16:23). But the company gathered in this dining room is a rather select one. Nine, perhaps ten people are reclining on couches on the newly-laid mosaic floor (the room can’t comfortably accommodate any more). Gaius, his wife, and a few select friends, perhaps those other Corinthians Paul mentions by name, Stephanas, Crispus, Erastus ‘the city treasurer’ (1 Cor. 1:14-15; Rom. 16:16:23). The table is groaning with the best the Corinthian markets have to offer; the wine is flowing freely, and things are getting rather raucous.
But something is not quite right here. Through the doorway, one can just make out the faces of fellow Christians who failed to make it into the small dining-room: Corinthians of the wrong social status who might spoil the new mosaic floor; artisans from the workshops which lined the city’s streets; domestic slaves still about their master’s business; unwashed dock-workers from the port of Cenchreae, arriving late after their shift.
What is going on at this Eucharist in Corinth – for all its claim to continuity with the Lord’s Last Supper – is a travesty of that supper. First of all, because it divides rather than unites the community, separated now between two rooms; then, because those with the host in the dining-room are eating and drinking too much, while those outside go without. Those in the dining room are unable to discern in their brothers and sisters the body of Christ which is his Church, and are therefore dishonouring his eucharistic body.
And so Paul writes to remind them, and more importantly to remind us, of what the Lord Jesus did on this night. How he took bread, broken as his own body would be the next day on the cross: ‘This is my body that is for you.’ How he took the cup, and offered it to them as a sign of that new covenant which the shedding of his own blood would inaugurate, a relationship which could bind together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female as far away as Corinth: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’ The death of Christ, proclaimed in the Eucharist ‘until he comes’, is for Paul the pre-eminent revelation of the self-emptying of the Son of God, ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). And for Paul, what Christ has done lays down the pattern for what his followers are to do in remembrance of him.
Now we jump perhaps another thirty or forty years, where John also looks back upon the tradition of the Last Supper, meditated upon again and again over the decades. But John is silent about the bread and the cup in his narrative of the last supper. Instead, he focuses on the action of the foot-washing. Yet again, the same pattern is there: the Lord Jesus lays aside his outer garment, and assumes the condition of a slave, as he kneels to wash his disciples’ feet. And whatever else is signified by this action (and there are many things), we catch here a glimpse of the meaning of the cross, when the Son lays aside his glory out of love for his own. In the cross, we see God revealed to us as never before, the God who is love and who gives himself in love for the life of the world. For John, if we wish to see God, then we are to contemplate the twisted, disfigured man hanging on the cross for our redemption.
But again for John, as for Paul, the action of the Lord on Maundy Thursday, which opens for us the meaning of his action on Good Friday, is not simply presented to us for our contemplation. It is also presented to us for our imitation. ‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done for you.’ It is the new commandment, lived out, enacted in the washing of the feet as the divine Son lays aside his glory out of love for his own. ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ Or as St Augustine puts it:
‘We have learned, brethren, humility from the Highest; let us, as humble, do to one another what He, the Highest, did in His humility’ (On the Gospel of John, 59.4).