"My Favourite Island Church

- Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman CBE (1906-1984)



Maundy Thursday Text 2020


The present crisis challenges us to find different ways of living each stage of Holy Week. Tonight is no exception. The most striking feature of this evening’s liturgy is the ritual re-enactment of this scene, the footwashing which would usually follow the sermon, but which has of course been suspended this year.  Nor can we receive Holy Communion on this, the annual commemoration of Jesus’ Last Supper.  Neither can we process to the altar of repose and watch before the Blessed Sacrament.


We can of course follow the text of the liturgy or perhaps watch a streamed mass online, read and ponder on the scripture passages for each day and make an act of spiritual communion.  I wonder however whether there might be further ways in which we can make acts of faith and hope and love to express the mystery of Maundy Thursday.


We have heard St John’s account of the Last Supper. The other gospels tell us about Jesus’ last Passover meal with his disciples.  John does something different.  He doesn’t describe the meal but about how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.


The immediate point of the incident is obvious.  The disciples’ feet were dirty at the end of a day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem.  It was not uncommon for a host to provide a servant to wash the feet of his guests. But here, it is Jesus, the host at this supper, the leader and teacher of his disciples, who took it on himself to wash their feet. In doing so he humbled himself before them, we might even say, he humiliated himself before them.  This helps explain Peter’s outraged reaction, “You shall never wash my feet!”


So far so good.  Jesus was clearly turning the normal order of things upside down; he was acting out for his disciples a completely different from the way the world sees things.  In God’s kingdom, the Lord is the servant and true glory is to be found in humble service of each other.


So then at the end of that rather painful conversation with Peter, Jesus said, If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you.”  We are not wrong to understand those words in their obvious meaning.


But we would be wrong to think that’s all that Jesus meant.


The first thing that should make us a little suspicious is that Jesus did not wash his disciples’ feet as soon as they arrived for the supper but during the meal, and he did so “knowing that he had come from God and was going to God.”  “Going to God” is clearly a reference to his imminent death. That gives a clue to something else John wants us to understand about footwashing.  It’s not just an example of humble service, but a sign of something even more profound. Do you remember St Paul’s words to the Philippians that I quoted in the address for Palm Sunday, “although Jesus was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross”?  


If the footwashing was about humility, it was not only about acting as a humble servant to other people, but also about the humiliation of being scourged, mocked and crucified as a criminal.  


Do you see the way this sermon is going?    Let’s go back to our text. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you.  What is it, we must ask, that Jesus has done for us?  The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, Yes, but don’t forget what comes next: and to give his life as a ransom for many.  Yes, of course we must follow the example of Jesus by serving others; but more fundamentally we must follow his example of being obedient to God whatever it costs.  Just think of how much of the time we worry about how we appear to other people, about our reputation, about how well other people think of us. That is a worldly way of thinking which Jesus demolishes. In its place he offers us a way of self emptying so that we can truly serve others and obey our heavenly Father.


This year, when we cannot celebrate the footwashing liturgically, we can express our humility by accepting with good grace the restrictions placed upon us.  And while we cannot receive the Lord’s Body and Blood sacramentally we can celebrate our communion by making an extra effort to keep in touch with other people.  Those of us permitted to  get out can volunteer for one of the local groups offering support to those limited to their own homes and we can all phone or email those who are isolated.   The important is to remember that everyone can do something.


For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you.



Kindly made for us by +John who was due to take our Holy Week services at St. Alban's Church this year.