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Home Who's who Bishops The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam. Sermons, articles, and speeches Maundy Thursday Sermon 5th April 2012

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Maundy Thursday Sermon 5th April 2012

by Robert Shuler last modified 05 Apr, 2012 03:35 PM

1 Samuel 16:1-13; 2 Corinthians 3.17 - 4.12; Luke 22.22-30

A few weeks ago I began to get anxious about the number of people asking if we are happy here in Salisbury. We aren’t intending to give uncertain signals. Like the disciples at the Transfiguration, “It is good, Lord, to be here.” In the first nearly six months the car has done 11,000 miles and I have visited over 30 schools, 40 churches and made 8 Deanery visits. Highlights have included Sunday mornings in a greater variety of settings and styles than I ever experienced as a parish priest, including in two prisons; the Wholeness and Healing Day here in the cathedral, a pre-deployment service for soldiers going to Afghanistan, nearly 200 people of all ages confirmed, an ordination and the licensings of new ministries. I have been to a range of social care projects such as Alabare and the Trussell Trust here in Salisbury, Footprints for ex prisoners in Dorchester and the Harlequins centre in Pewsey for people from the Valued Lives homes, the sort of loving service Christ taught his disciples through foot washing. It is a privilege to share the breadth and depth of this ministry which is both yours and mine.

For us these days from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day are the absolute core of Christian faith and ministry. The priority to love in the way of Jesus Christ, and the certainty that in the end goodness, love and life are stronger than evil, sustains our calling. There is nothing more important for us and for the world.

Someone on Iona said, “the Church is the Fifth Gospel”; the community of people scattered through history and geography and who try to follow Jesus: we are the Fifth Gospel. A journalist, Martin Roe, got his local church thinking about this. He collected the stories of 12 people in the congregation[1]. Theirs are rich and complex lives. One of them worked here, for Salisbury Cathedral, whilst homeless. I doubt we knew his real circumstances.  One of them, a mother, said, “I suppose I have lived a messy life but I think the cross of Jesus is quite messy and it is the church which mistakenly tries to sanitise it”. 

That appeals to me because I grew up in the Ronnie Bender school of theology. Ronnie was the Kray brothers’ driver and came to church on the Isle of Dogs where I was the Vicar. He had done ten years in prison for a murder he said he didn’t commit. When we first used the Ten Commandments in Lent he said to me as he left church, “I haven’t heard those commandments since I was a child. I’ve broken nine, and I’m not going to tell you which is the tenth.”

St Matthew would have understood him. In Matthew’s Gospel, we are given the Sermon on the Mount, like a new law. “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass away until it is accomplished” (Mt 5.18); and in Matthew the disciples are told it is better not to marry, the young man is told to sell all his possession and give the money to the poor, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and not surprisingly the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” (Mt 19.25) All this comes after Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”. This is a righteousness not of the law.

I have always found these Maundy Thursday services exceptionally difficult. We have a high calling, to follow Christ and to care for God’s world. It is our duty and our joy. Yet I always come to today’s service with a sense of my own failure, needing to make my confession. We are not here by our own merit. In reading the Passion Gospel liturgically this week, we enter into the story and identify with the characters because we have behaved like them: like Mary who stood at the foot of the cross and the women and followers from Galilee who watched at a distance, and like the 12 disciples who fled, like Peter who denied he even knew him  and Judas who betrayed him.

In recent years I have come to see that one of the significant differences between Peter and Judas is that Judas despaired. What he had done in betraying his Lord was so dreadful that he believed not even God could make things right. Whereas enthusiastic, responsive, immediate Peter, in the resurrection, allowed himself to be remade by the risen Christ: “Peter, do you love you love me... do you really love me,” (John 21,15-17, the three times echoing Peter’s denial he even knew the man.

In these three days we have little option but to come honest about ourselves: events lay us bare. By resisting the temptations to fight (Peter drew his sword) or flight (the disciples ran away), we allow ourselves to be remade by God who comes among us as one of us, who knows us inside and out and who loves us.

At the time of the elections in Myanmar last weekend Aung San Suu Kyi said we like to talk of what we are passionate about, of what we love. She sounded like a theologian when she explained that the word passion means suffering. The people and the things that mean most to us, that we love and want to give ourselves to fully, are also what cause us to suffer. This is universal experience and the Christian gospel points to the way in which sacrificial love transforms the world. It is why the Passion of Christ is the heart of the Gospels.

We will all have spent time with people who are sick. Not just hospital chaplains but all ministers do this. I was very taken with some theological reflections on medicine, the mentally handicapped and the Church by the American Methodist Stanley Hauerwas. He says that it’s not ethics that medicine most needs from Christianity but the experience of being with suffering, the practices necessary to sustain the care of those in pain over the long haul.

For it is no easy matter to be with the ill, especially when we cannot do much for them other than simply be present...

Prayer is not a supplement to the insufficiency of our medical knowledge and practice; nor is it some divine insurance policy that our medical skill will work; rather, our prayer is the means that we have to make God present whether our medical skill is successful or not. ...

For unless there is a body of people who have learned the skills of presence, the world of the ill cannot help but become a separate world both for the ill and/or those who care for them. Only a community that is pledged not to fear the stranger – and illness always makes us a stranger to ourselves and others – can welcome the continued presence of the ill in our midst.[2]

We have gathered in our cathedral before we go to keep the great three days in our local communities. What makes this service possible for me is the recognition that we are here not because of our virtue but by God’s love: passionate, self-giving, sacrificial love. We simply – there’s the rub – we simply have to be present.

Day by day, week by week we have hopefully practiced the spiritual discipline of being present to Christ and to one another in the reading of the scriptures and in the prayers, and in the celebration of Holy Communion. It seems unlikely to me that we will do better than the disciples and avoid the temptations to fight or flee the passion of Christ. It is demanding; and when we fail, as inevitably we do, to allow ourselves to be forgiven and to try again, and again, and again.

The oils at this service help show what revives us. As the vicar of a St Martin’s I discovered that Martin, Bishop of Tour in the Fourth Century, used to pray for the sick and outcast in the cathedral on a Sunday afternoon anointing them with lashings of oil, an act of gracious and healing generosity welcoming and accepting the strange, the damaged and the outcast. Each week Martin sent the baptised out with oil to anoint the sick. He prepared people for baptism at Easter and the oil made their skin shine brightly and sealed the gift of the Holy Spirit on them. Oil for the sick and dying; oil for the signing of the cross at baptism, the way of Jesus Christ; oil of chrism joyfully confirming the faith of God’s holy people and identifying us as a royal priesthood.

Concentrated in these three days is life in all its fullness. This isn’t about personal success or failure. It is the Passion of Christ, lived with one another and in our local communities. Priests and ministers are the people who hold this possibility before the church and world. It can be so. There is nothing more important and by it we and those whom we serve will be brought to Easter and Christ’s resurrection, to whom be the glory now and for ever. Amen



[1] Martin Wroe and Meg Wroe The Gospel According to Everyone,, 2011

[2] Stanley Hauerwas  Suffering Presence, University of Notre Dame, 1986, p.81


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