Sermon preached on Maundy Thursday (2 April 2015) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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Sermon preached on Maundy Thursday (2 April 2015) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

The Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas looks at the Jewish ghettos of the Second World War and Jesus's betrayal and arrest on Maundy Thursday.

In October 1940 the authorities in Warsaw announced the establishment of a Jewish Ghetto. Subsequently the city’s Jews – a third of its people - were forced into a space which took up just 2.4% of the city’s surface area. To them were added refugees who had been transported to Warsaw, making the Ghetto population up to 450,000 people.

Surrounded by walls and under strict guard, they were cut off from the outside world.

The conditions were unbearable – on average 6-7 people lived in one room and the daily rations represented just one-tenth of the minimum required daily calorie intake.

There were children in the Ghetto who could not recall having ever seen a tree or flower.        

Epidemics were hard to prevent. More than 80,000 Jewish people died in the Ghetto.      

Despite the appalling conditions intellectual, cultural and religious creative life persisted.

But in July 1942 the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began. That summer 300,000 Jews were sent to ‘the east’ - code for the death chambers at Treblinka.

Many left behind began to plot what we know as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  One revolt had taken place in January of 1943. Another opportunity came towards the end of April.  The Nazi’s had chosen the week leading up to Passover for the final destruction  of the Ghetto. As their soldiers moved in, the Jewish resistance fighters rose up.

One of them, Tuvia Borzykowski recalls one striking encounter on the evening of 19th April: “I unexpectedly came upon Rabbi Maisel. When I entered the room, I suddenly realised that this was the night of the first Seder. The room looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. Chairs lay overturned, the floor strewn with household objects, the window panes all gone. Amid this destruction, the table in the centre of the room looked incongruous, with glasses filled with wine, the family seated around, the rabbi reading the Haggadah. His reading was punctuated by explosions and the rattling of machine guns”.

This description of the rabbi and his family, celebrating Passover in the midst of the danger and devastation all around them is striking. In an echo of the events of the original Passover, these courageous people were faithful, to God and to one another - to the end.

That image of a Jewish leader and his group of companions coming together for a meal in Passover week, sharing cups of wine, singing hymns, praying to the God of Moses even as turmoil gathers around them is a familiar one for Christians – one we recall this very evening.

The clock had been ticking since the previous Sunday with his highly visible entry into Jerusalem – well the clock had started ticking long before of course – but the arrival of Jesus into the city and the enthusiasm of the crowd had caught attention.

The military rulers were on edge.

Even one of his own had been to the authorities offering to betray him.

Amidst this backdrop of impending danger, what does he do?

John’s gospel tells us that Jesus, ‘Having loved his own…loved them to the end’.

To ‘the infinite capacity of love’ as some translate it.

He got up, took off his robe and put on a towel.

This would be the last time Jesus would dress and undress himself.

(From now on he would be stripped and covered by others).

So attired he knelt before them and one by one, he washed their feet.

An amazing glimpse into the heart of God.

Betrayal, arrest, false accusation, mockery, beating, all await Jesus that night. At that moment he would have every right to be self-absorbed, frightened, angry or bitter but these were not what preoccupied him.  What was on his mind was…love.

Jesus understands the time – his hour has come – and it brings him to his knees – in love.

The God who descended to take on our flesh, descends once more and kneels before us.

One by one God lifts and bathes dirty feet – even the feet of the one who would soon betray.

This mutual act involves proximity, availability, vulnerability and a choice whether or not to accept and to be accepted.                   

It’s both comforting and unnerving, this loving and being loved to the end…

For God in descending, in loving them to the end, overturns our tendency to make distinctions between ourselves and those we see as ‘other’ and especially the distinctions we make between ‘us’ and those we deem ‘inferior’.

In kneeling before humanity God overturns the distinctions we impose between:

Master and slave

Those who wield power and the powerless

The purchasers of fine expensive clothes and those who labour to make them.

Ghetto guard and Jewish prisoner.

May we who seek the Saviour this Passiontide, be granted the grace to reject the temptations of the world and of our own hearts, to reinstate the distinctions the separations that he, in kneeling before us, has swept away.