Sermon: Eucharist of the Last Supper and Vigil
The Very Revd David Monteith
Maundy Thursday 2015
Alabaster is a form of gypsum which is used widely in the making of plaster and cement. It is the base material for so much of our homes and houses. It emerges from ancient lakes and seas and is found all over the world. It was mined across the Midlands, with Nottingham being known for this. Indeed we have Gypsy Lane in this city because it was the site of a gypsum mine. Henry VII used it to build a tomb for Richard III in the Greyfriars. It is sometimes used in the brewing industry, it has been used as a fertilizer and in Asian cultures it is used to make tofu. It carves well and easily and so in the form of alabaster it has been used decoratively to make memorials and the interiors of palaces, stately homes, and places of worship. It is calcium sulphate dehydrate and now it forms the altar around which this community gathers.
I don’t think I have been the only one here to find it quite hard to relate deeply to Holy Week this year. The combination of tiredness, the on-going demands of offering hospitality to our visitors and the enormous amount of head and heart processing means that this year, even more than others, I find myself like many would have done in Jerusalem, aware of what is going on but not fully comprehending.
It seemed appropriate to reflect a little today on the process which led to this altar arriving because we commemorate tonight the Last Supper and the moments when ‘doing this in remembrance of him’ first became a phrase to identify Christians. John’s gospel is different to the others in many ways, not least in that when he tells the story of the supper, we only hear about betrayal and foot-washing, with no mention of the bread of remembrance and the cup of sacrifice. I’ve heard many preachers trying to resolve this to convince themselves of either John’s high sacramental doctrines or in other cases to point out his non-existent sacramental doctrine. I would suggest more uncomfortably but maybe more truthfully that this is an enigma in John.
It is also baffling why foot-washing as a Christian ritual did not become normative practice and indeed even considered to be a sacrament instituted by the Lord. Paul in 1 Timothy described how widows washed the feet of others and so were counted as full members of the church. Not repentance or conversion or even baptism but foot-washing – imagine what that does to the font in this and every church! It is now only in some Mennonite churches that it is regularly still practised and understood to be done so commanded by the Lord. In some ways washing feet tonight in this service actually makes much clearer what we do every week at the Eucharist. We attend to God and we attend to each other.
Our new altar helps us to see this too. This week every time I have been thinking about the Lord’s Passion my mind has been going back to my first visit to the Holy Land. As I was thinking about tonight two memories returned to me. The first was an encounter I had with a very ancient altar at Tel Dan right in the north of Israel on the slopes of Mount Hermon, adjacent to the Golan Heights. It was a huge altar almost the size of the whole of our new sanctuary. Today it is a dangerous place and you can look across to the villages of Syria that have been butchered and the villages of Lebanon that previously were butchered. Dan was the northern point of the biblical kingdom and, far away from Jerusalem and the religious authorities, all kinds of things went on there, not least syncretistic religion. It is what the Bible calls ‘a high place’ and you can still stand on the stones which were built up by King Jeroboam 1,000 years before Jesus. This high place was a place of sacrifice. This altar made of stone allowed for the slaughter of animals and then their burning as an offering to appease for sin. This is a place of blood and indeed brutality, but unlike our thinking where blood simply equates with illness or death. We think of an ambulance and carnage. For biblical peoples, blood signalled life. The altar was the place where life was made most vivid and offered to God for transformation.
But sadly in Dan and in every place throughout history where religious practice exists, the capacity for turning it into a game or a method for control or a means to focus people on a god who is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ever real. Our stone altar speaks of sacrifice, of vividly making present the life and death and resurrection of Jesus with all the attendant dangers of every altar down the years. The altar can only point and focus God exposed to human frailty.
The second image from the Holy Land is of a visit to the biblical museum at Tantur run by the Roman Catholic Church. They have constructed many things to help Western minds really understand the New Testament so that we don’t think about sheep folds like those we see in Derbyshire or wine presses like those we have seen in Spain on holiday.
They have reconstructed the Upper Room based on a developed architectural understanding of first century Palestine. The table is coffee table height and laid out around three sides. Roman citizens who were free citizens dined lying on their sides propped up with cushions – this fits with accounts of the beloved disciple falling asleep on the breast of Jesus. In the synoptic gospels there is every suggestion that the Last Supper was a Passover meal celebrating the liberation of God’s people in history now made present afresh with Christ the liberator in their midst.
The table becomes an icon of community, of mutual dependence, of gathering together around Christ and the social order being reconfigured. This made even more vivid and radical by the host rather than the servant washing feet. This understanding of table fellowship also is vulnerable to misunderstanding as we try to control those who can gather and truly belong.
A rabbi once asked his students ‘How can you tell that night has ended and day is returning?’ One student said, ‘When you can tell that the animal in the distance is a lion not a leopard’. ‘No,’ said the rabbi. Another suggested that it is when you can tell a tree is producing figs rather than peaches. ‘No. It is when you can look on the face of another and see that woman or man is your sister or brother. Until you are able to do so, no matter what time of day, it is still night.’
Our new altar is made from alabaster stone where Christ’s sacrifice of love is remembered and made real demonstrating the fundamental change in relationship between us and God. Humanity is made new. One sacrifice once offered has brought to an end the need for more sacrifice. The stone altar tells us this is how God has made peace and this means we no longer need go about making peace through blood sacrifice. And secondly, the design alludes to a table with legs, as if a table cloth in alabaster hangs over allowing us to glimpse through. We can now gather literally from east and west from north and south and become a new kind of humanity where all that divides loses power. Here the fellowship of the church, Christ’s new broken and healed body is remembered and made real demonstrating the fundamental change in relationships God gives us, no longer strangers but friends, brothers and sisters.
So we wash feet, take bread and wine, gather, offer it, bless, break and share it remembering Christ that we might know his real presence, accept God’s real forgiveness and be changed for good.
© The Very Revd David Monteith