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Sermon preached on Maundy Thursday (17 April 2014) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
On Maundy Thursday, The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at leadership and says it is 'not about crowns and coronets but about towels and basins'
1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
In 2012, the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, St Paul’s Cathedral wrote a prayer for the Jubilee which was distributed throughout the UK and around the Commonwealth so that other churches could use it in their own jubilee celebrations. It began: ‘God of time and eternity, whose Son reigns as servant, not master;...’
The opening phrase sparked a certain amount of debate on social media about whether it was theologically correct or not – some people approving of the emphasis on service rather than lordship and others championing Christ’s lordship and our submission to it.
But, as with most theological debates, one can argue a case for either side. It just so happened that, in this instance, the model of the servant king seemed to be the most appropriate one with which to echo the Queen’s own very particular interpretation of constitutional monarchy.
In this act of worship on the eve of Good Friday, the day of the cross, the Son of God literally takes the form of a servant and uses symbolism to echo the reality of what will happen tomorrow. He lays aside his outer robe and girds himself with a towel and, after an act of humility in the washing of his disciples’ feet, he takes up his robe again. Tomorrow, he will lay aside his life and on Sunday he will take it up again.
And it is part of the great scandal of Christianity and the stumbling block for the world that our debts are cancelled by an act of service and not one of mastery.
And the Church itself is in danger of forgetting this simple truth. New clergy are trained in leadership and not service; management figures are being appointed to senior clerical positions; maverick clergy who are known to be characters are passed over for preferment; it’s increasingly difficult to appoint to junior positions in the Church; and clergy are more inclined to champion Christ’s lordship than his servant-hood.
And yet this morning, in Blackburn Cathedral, in the northwest of England, the Queen, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, laid aside her outer robe and distributed small purses of what is known as ‘maundy money’ to 176 elderly people who have undertaken quiet acts of charity in their local community without any particular recognition.
It’s a revised version of the very foot-washing which we will enact in the liturgy this evening. Her predecessor, King John, actually washed the feet of twelve poor souls in the thirteenth century but this was a piece of symbolism too far for her more recent predecessor, Charles II, who replaced the foot-washing with alms-giving. But nevertheless, this morning, in Blackburn Cathedral, the Queen’s attendants were still girded with towels as they assisted her and nosegays of flowers and herbs were still borne in front of her to protect the royal nose from the smell of people’s feet – the symbolism now something of a mixed metaphor, as it were, but at least thus not losing sight altogether of the gospel narrative to which it ultimately points.
I was privileged to be involved in this royal ceremony in another place a few years ago. The local clergy were invited to nominate people from their parishes who had undertaken these quiet acts of charity to which I referred a moment ago to be recipients of the maundy money.
A small group of us sat down together to read the many submissions which came with the nominations and, by the time we’d finished, we were quite overwhelmed by the extraordinary picture they painted not only of the selfless activity of so many people but, perhaps more cogently, of the sheer debt which society owes to voluntary service: something which the Queen acknowledges each year on Maundy Thursday – this day on which we recall the new mandate (think of the origin of the word ‘maundy’), the new mandate given to us by Jesus: love one another as I have loved you.
So the Prime Minister is right when he says that the Church has been doing his ‘big society’ idea for decades. The difficulty for him, and I suspect for many of us, is that it’s so easy to believe that it stops there; that we can be Christian without death and the cancellation of debt; that we can move from Maundy Thursday directly to Easter Day without the gut-wrenching challenge of Good Friday.
And, of course, no, we can’t skip the bit about the cross because the cross obliges us to love one another. For the Christian, acts of self sacrifice – what we perhaps too easily call ‘voluntary service’ – should be undertaken as a responseto the cross: a small, half-hearted, limited, flawed, inadequate responseto the cross.
And given that Jesus, in his ultimate act of self-sacrifice, has taken the burden of the cross away from us; has taken the fear of death away from us; has taken the penalty of our sins away from us, is it really so much to ask that we love one another as he has loved us?
The mistake we make is to separate the concept of service from the message of the cross. The concept of service is not an alternative to a deep and full engagement with the message of the cross. The concept of service is our obligationas a result of the message of the cross.
Today, in the Gospel, in this service, and in Blackburn Cathedral this morning, leadership is proved not to be about crowns and coronets but about towels and basins. In fact leadership is not about leadership at all: it’s about service.
That’s discipleship – on Maundy Thursday, on Good Friday, on Easter Day, and every day.