The Reverend Alice Venning
Maundy Thursday, 29th March 2018
Gospel Reading: John 13.1-17, 31b-35
What do we learn tonight of Light, Darkness, and Love?
In this gospel light and darkness take on a deeper meaning. Think back to John’s opening words in chapter 1:
'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.'
These, now, were Jesus’s darkest hours. 'Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.' 'He knew who was going to betray him'. Yet not even the darkness of death could extinguish his light. Read on through these final chapters of John’s gospel and you will see how in his darkest hours he 'loves until the end'. He comforts, prays, promises, teaches and admonishes. He even takes care of his mother.
But at this moment we are in the upper room. The evening meal was being served. Later, once Judas leaves the room, John brings back the focus on the dark: 'It was night.'
John gives us the longest account of that evening in the upper room, in a scene where Jesus is in command of the situation. He knows what is to happen to him, and he knows that he is to be betrayed and denied. But it is here that Jesus’ real emphasis on love emerges – the word appears only 6 times in the first 12 chapters of John’s gospel, but 31 times in chapters 13-17. Love, not as a feeling, but an action, a way of living.
In our schools, we begin every weekly act of worship with the responsorial words:
God is love: all the time.
All the time: God is love.
We do this so that everything they learn of God becomes rooted in this one truth: God is love. The simplicity of these words does not do justice to their impact. God is not a feeling. God is love.
God is not the bad things which happen to us; God is the love which overcomes those things.
God is not the things we do wrong; God is the love which looks us in the eyes and truly knows us and forgives us.
To say that God is love is to equip ourselves for life in all its complexity. This love equips us for the brightest joys and also for the darkest nights of the soul.
Now, If I was to tell you to read a few chapters of a book focusing on love, would you expect to come across accounts of brutality, confusion, subterfuge, violence, betrayal and heartbreak? That is what you will find in these next chapters of John's Gospel, in this supposed story of love. The darkness is there … but the light is there to overcome it.
We stand in a privileged position today. We know the context of this story: the outcome, the meaning. We know that Jesus is their light - and ours - and his is the victory. But even so, we too sit alongside, amongst and entangled in the darkness of our world. There is, even now, brutality, confusion, subterfuge, betrayal and heartbreak.
There is a darkness. Not just in the events we remember tonight, but in the world we take part in. So, that command which we are given, the mandate from which Maundy Thursday gets its name, is as much Jesus speaking to and challenging us as he was speaking to and challenging those disciples round that table: love one another.
This week the Archbishops of Canterbury and York published a pastoral letter following the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse. You can read the letter on our website. In writing the letter, our Archbishops are naming the darkness, and proclaiming that it is Christ, our light, who will overcome it. Not by us sitting back and waiting for him to do it, but by our own response to the command to love one another. To love one another, we must truly see one another and not allow anything to remain hidden.
It is interesting that Jesus names the darkness that surrounds him that night in the upper room. He does not ignore it or allow it to remain hidden. “Not all of you are clean” he says, referring to Judas. And only 3 verses after giving this new commandment Jesus predicts how Peter will deny him.
Why is it important that this darkness is acknowledged and named? Because Jesus is claiming authority. Darkness gains power if we allow it the cover of secrecy and shame. I’m sure we can all think of examples of where this is true. Darkness of depression and mental illness, hidden in misplaced shame. Darkness of debt. Darkness of cruelty. Darkness of loneliness.
See the darkness. Name the darkness. And the light will overcome it. There is no place for shame and secrecy with Jesus. He already knows it all, so allow him authority over it all.
Yesterday I was leading the Bladon Primary School Easter service. Teaching the children to cheer out Holy Week alleluias can sometimes leave me a little bit liturgically off-kilter, but this time I found myself moved almost to tears by the way the children looked at our Easter story.
The classes each focused on a different element of the narrative. Some on the triumph, some on the desolation. The younger ones talked about the last supper and how bread and wine didn’t sound very appealing, so they drew their own last supper choices on paper plates and talked about who they would invite to sit at the table with them.
The final classes stopped me in my tracks. The children were lined up down the aisle of the church, facing inwards. One of the children took the role of Judas. He was weighing up his decision to betray Jesus. As he walked down the aisle he stopped to face each classmate, looking them in the eye as each gave him their advice. On one side they offered encouragement-
“ask for more money!”
“Go for it, who does he think he is anyway”.
And on the other side the children counselled against it:
“this is his life we’re talking about!”
“He’s your friend, why would you do that?”.
“there’s always another way”.
The effect was that Judas was turning from one side to the other as he walked down the aisle, with the advice alternating from light to dark. The dramatism of it hit me powerfully – light versus dark, with the choice being his to make as he walked a path between them.
And not only that but what also struck me was how this boy was looking each of his friends in the eye. I realised that I don’t see that very often. Do you? Eye contact is so often lost in busyness, in rushing, in answering our phones and emails. In not paying attention.
Have you ever been talking to someone who is constantly looking over your shoulder? Or at the clock? Or at their phone? My guess is that you don’t feel like you are significant to that person, you are not their focus.
And again, can you recall a moment where someone looked you in the eye when you were going through something, and they uttered the words “I understand?” Sometimes those words are not possible, but it is ALWAYS possible to say “I see you.”
Being seen, properly, is important. It is also a vulnerable, and therefore difficult, thing to do.
This Maundy Thursday is a chance to go back again to that upper room. To put ourselves in a position where Jesus, seeing and knowing who we truly are, kneels down and serves us. Some people ask what earthly use is it to re-enact something which happened so long ago in such a different place.
It is an act of returning God’s gaze, knowing full well that when we look him in the eye we will be found wanting. What an odd thing that is to do.
Or is it?
Look at Peter. He forgot. He was there, right there, and he forgot what Jesus already knew – that he would deny him. But as soon as the cock crowed, he met God’s gaze and he realised how much he was found wanting.
Put so eloquently in words from Bach’s St John’s Passion:
Peter, who did not remember,
Denied his God,
Yet after one serious glance
Jesus, also glance at me
When I will not repent:
When I have done ill,
Stir my conscience.
Being here tonight we remember Jesus’s darkest hours. The light is yet days away. And we are undertaking an act not just of remembering but of vulnerability.
By remembering in this way, we put ourselves in the place of those errant disciples. We remember that Jesus saw them all for who they truly were, just as he truly sees us. We remember that despite - and because of - that he loved them until the end. Just as he loves us to the very end. We remember what they did and we remember what Jesus did so that we can remind ourselves of what God did to bring his light into their darkness. Oh, there is still such great darkness. And yet: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There is darkness. It is night. But God is love. All of the time. And we must meet his loving gaze, knowing that we will be found wanting, and take the action that Jesus commands:
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”