Sermon: Thursday 5 April 2012

Maundy Thursday

The Revd Canon Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor

Dear sisters and brothers,

What are the most important things in your life?  What reminds you of these things?  Usually these reminders are called symbols: if you hug somebody it is hopefully not just two bits of skin touching, it has the potential to make aware that God had the amazingly wonderful idea before the beginning of time to create you and that you are made in his image.  A hug can carry that message, can deepen a relationship and can make a relationship real and tangible.  A real hug has the potential to make one cry because it conveys this reality: we are loved and we sparkle with God’s image.

A kiss between people who love each other is potentially something which conveys and makes real the love of those involved: it ideally strengthens the relationship among people.

This ring I am wearing is not very valuable.  It is gold, but now that it is scratched and old I may get 20 or 30 quid for it.  Some of you are wearing similar rings – perhaps yours are more valuable.  However, I would never sell it or switch it – it is my wedding ring which reminds me of something hugely important in my life – somebody else wants to spend her life with me.  This symbol reminds me of this when we are apart – it is something which makes one of the most important realities of my life more real, tangible, touchable and present.  This is about what I am and who I am.  Johannes is somebody who belongs to Esther.

There may be other things hugely valuable to you which are probably worthless to anybody else: pictures or presents of friends and family, particularly people who loved you and whom you loved and who have gone.  Probably the most valuable things I own are a few baby clothes and some toys in a box which belonged to our first son.  Under no circumstances in the world I would throw these away – but to anybody else they would just be rubbish.

Symbols are about what is important; they convey a reality, they make present and real what is vital in our lives.  We treat symbols with great respect: if somebody showed the only picture of their mother you would take great care with it.

Similarly we treat symbols of God we treat with great respect, we bless them and call them sacred symbols.  In our tradition the gospel is kissed after formal reading in church.  Jews would never throw a bible in the bin; a bible which is too old to be used is buried.  An altar which is broken is not thrown away, it is either burned or buried.  Vestments are not thrown away when they are threadbare, they are burned or buried.  The Paschal Candle as a symbol of the resurrection is burned during the Easter Vigil – come and see on Sunday morning.  Symbols of God are always treated with respect and I had a number of conversations about a rubric about this I put in the service sheet this morning.  Treating sacred symbols with respect shows whether we love our Lord.

What today’s and every Eucharist is about is that Jesus promised us that particular signs and symbols go even further than the most meaningful individual symbols we can think of: we call them the seven sacraments in the church, reliable ways of encountering God himself in a real and true way: baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, ordination, marriage, anointing of the sick, reconciliation.  I don’t believe in playing the number game about sacraments; I believe there are as many reliable ways of encountering God as there are people.  One pretty reliable way for me to encounter God is via architecture and via music.  The difference between my personal taste and ways of encountering God and sacraments is that sacraments are reliable ways for everybody, whereas music and architecture may not work for me at all.  My wedding band may be worthless for you, but baptism is a universal way of encountering God.  Those special ways of encountering God allow us to be touched by his mercy, of meeting him, of encountering him himself.

The respect required in dealing with sacred symbols is even more true of the signs of God sacramental presence: the signs he promised to be places of true encounter with him.  This IS my body, this IS my blood.  I AM the bread of life.

This whole church was built for the purpose of the Eucharist; that in this service Jesus has a worthy place to meet us in the bread and in the wine.

This church is a tent for God to dwell and the Latin word for tent is tabernaculum: the tabernacle.  The tabernacle or aumbry in this church is currently in St Dunstan’s chapel, a place where God has pitched his tent among us – this is a special place to say a prayer before or after services and the lamp to signify the presence of God is burning there day and night.  God is going to pitch his tent among us on this altar in the Eucharistic feast in a few minutes and we have a built another place for him to stay tonight in St Katharine’s chapel.

This is the place to meet God.  God has pitched his tent among us.  However, this devotion could easily become too pious and too meaningless.  What we must not forget though, is that God has pitched his tent among us in other ways as well.  There are a great number of God’s tents, of tabernacles here today: you, you, you.  Let us ask God that we may be worthy of this incredible honour, that we may not just be hidden tents, but become monstrances of God, that his glory may shine through us and that through our lives he becomes visible, a place where God’s presence becomes tangible and visible, a person through which others can recognise God.  You are living and walking sacraments, you are the place where God is pleased to dwell.

Thus the most precious item in this church is obviously you, and you and you.  But if it was burning down and no other people were in here and I had the time to save only ONE item from this church the answer would be instant and obvious: the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle, Jesus himself.

Sometimes people wonder that faith in Jesus Christ would have been much easier if we lived 2000 years ago and encountered Jesus in person.  I think this is complete nonsense.  Those who met Jesus in person frequently did not believed in him, took offense at him and finally crucified him.  Those who were his closest friends like Peter and the other disciples usually didn’t have a clue what Jesus was on about.  I think it was no easier being a Christian 2000 years ago in his human presence when it is today in his sacramental presence.

Can you not stay with me for one hour?  Maybe not for an hour, but deeply hidden within the signs of bread and wine, hidden from our human senses is the most beautiful thing on earth – I invite you to watch out for him tonight with the eyes of your heart.  Amen.

© Revd Canon Johannes Arens

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