The following is the text of a sermon that I preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Riverdale, on Thursday, April 5, 2012.
John 13:1-17, 31a-35
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Back before movie cinema mega chains had moved into the suburbs my father took me to our little local theater to see a film. I was about 15 years old at the time and it remains one of my favourite films, even today. The Matrix. The first one, that is. The good one. How many of you here have seen it? Well for those of you who have not seen the movie it depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue the human population, while their bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source. The main character, a young computer hacker named ‘Neo’, played by the awe-inspiring Keanu Reeves, comes to learn from some mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. This happens when those mysterious rebels come bursting, quite literally, into Neo’s world, an event which so disrupts Neo’s life that he is left with a decision. Morpheus, a man who can help Neo, presents him with two pills, a red one and a blue one. Neo can take the blue pill in which case, “the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,” as Morpheus put it. But given what Neo now knows, given that his reality has indeed changed, this would be for Neo a self-contradiction. Thankfully, Neo choses the red pill and the film gets a whole lot more interesting! Now, like any analogy this one does not fit perfectly but I think it bears at least some resemblance to our gospel reading for today. What our readings from today proclaim, is that our reality has indeed changed and it has done so in Christ Jesus, and as a result a new way of living is opened up to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The opening words of our gospel reading from this evening provide for us the key to understanding the passage: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father,” (13:1). At the beginning of the next chapter Jesus says to his disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them, “And if I go to prepare a place for you,” he says, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (14:1-4). Again a few verses later Jesus says, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me,” (16:16). Jesus was aware that he was leaving his disciples in order that he might go to the Father. Yet he was also aware that he would return. Well, a number of years have passed now since Jesus left his disciples to go to the Father and he has not yet returned to judge the world and set all things right. We now, like the disciples then, are living in the time between the times. Here we are, living between the ascension of Christ and the return of Christ, a seemingly lonely place to be. Yet, we are not alone, we have not been abandoned here for Jesus also says, “I will not leave you orphaned…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you,” (14:18, 26). So, to recap, Jesus is going away, he will return, and in the mean time he has sent the Spirit to us in order that he may “guide [us] into all the truth,” (16:7, 13). Further, as we read just a moment ago Jesus told his disciples that they knew the way to the place where he was going (14:4). When the disciples replied that they, in fact, did not know the way Jesus responded thus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” (14:6). OK, so, Jesus is going away, he will return, and in the meantime we are to follow in the way of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In our New Testament reading this evening we heard the words of St. Paul: “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” (1 Cor. 11:23-25). “On the night when he was betrayed…”. Here we have Jesus, knowing that he will be betrayed, knowing that he is leaving to return to the Father and he takes the bread and he breaks it, and he takes the wine and pours it out. In his absence, Jesus does not just give the disciples a theory or an explanation to tie them over until he returns. Rather, he gives them a meal to share, an invitation into a particular sort of life. Indeed, this meal is the fulfillment of Jesus’ high priestly prayer for his disciples later in John’s gospel that they may be one as Jesus and the Father are one (17:11, 21, 22, 23).
There is a lot that could be said here about the centrality of this meal for the life of the church but I will simply point to the prayer that we will pray when we celebrate the eucharist together this evening. In a few minutes the community will offer the gifts of God, this bread and this cup, to God, praising and blessing him, and Ajit will pray, “Father, we pray that in your goodness and mercy your Holy Spirit may descend upon us, and upon these gifts, sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ. Grant that all who share this bread and this cup may become one body and one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ to the praise of your name,” (‘Eucharistic Prayer 6’ The Book of Alternative Services). There is a movement in the eucharist and it is this: The community offers the gifts of bread and wine to God, the Holy Spirit comes upon the gifts and transforms them into Christ’s body and blood, and then the consecrated gifts are given back to the community in order that we may participate in the life of Christ Jesus himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is, simultaneously, another three-fold movement that takes place in the eucharist, that is the movement of the community. In our offering to God we are taken up into Christ’s own self-offering to the Father. The Holy Spirit comes upon the community and transforms us into the Body of Christ. We then become Christ’s Body, broken and offered to the world, “a living sacrifice in Christ”. The point is, and this is the important bit, that in the eucharist Christ Jesus is not merely distributed to individual members of the community, but rather, as we consume the bread and wine that is Christ’s body and blood we are taken up into the one body of Christ. In this meal, we become that which we could not be by ourselves. In Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed into something which is greater than the sum of its parts, we are transformed into the Body of Christ and are so for the good of the whole wide world.
We are indeed the Body of Christ. This is true of us before Jesus ever commands us to do anything. This is important because during that meal when Jesus gets up from the table and takes off his robe, wrapping a towel around his waist, fills the basin with water and begins to wash the disciples feet and then afterwards tells the disciples that they ought to do the same thing for one another, Jesus is pointing at himself and essentially saying, “You are members of my Body, this is who you are.” This sort of radical servitude, this love which is so wholly oriented towards others, is proper and fitting for those who are in Christ because this is what the love of Christ looks like. So then, for those of us who are part of this particular community that is the Body of Christ, the sort of loving action that is most fitting for us is precisely the loving action which Christ himself demonstrated not just at this moment, and not just on the cross, but throughout his entire life. For John, this dramatic foot-washing, this act of radical counter-intuitive service, foreshadows the ultimately radical act of Jesus’ giving up of his life on the cross for the sake of the world. To be the Body of Christ, to love like Jesus loves, is to practice the sort of love that leads to the laying down of ones life for others. This is a love which empties itself for the sake of others, and we love this way by participating in the life of Christ as we become Christ’s Body through the meal which he gave us to eat and become bread broken for and sent out into the world. This meal becomes a launching point for mission.
A well known American theologian has said, “Christianity is simply extended training in dying early,”
and I think that is quite fitting in light of this evenings gospel reading. The Christian life is about learning to die early. Of course, I do not mean a literal bodily death, although to be sure this new life which is ours in Christ may actually call for that, and indeed many of our brothers and sisters throughout history have died for Christ. The sort of death I am talking about however, is a life marked by the cross. In other words, a life which, in love, is poured out for others. A life which looks first to the interests of others. A life which is willing and able to say no to itself if it means saying yes to another, especially where this pertains to reconciliation between people. Basically, to say that “Christianity is simply extended training in dying early,” is another way of saying what St. Paul said in Phil. 2:5-11 which Chris preached on this past Palm Sunday: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”
This is the responsibility which the disciples were given and it is the same responsibility which the church today has, as we live in anticipation of Christ’s return when all will be fully and finally invited in to the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-10). This happens, first and foremost, as we participate in and proclaim Christ’s death in the eucharist. Out of this participation, we learn to die early in light of Christ’s love which pours itself out for others, a love marked most supremely by the cross. Indeed, when we love and serve one another in this way, because we are Christ’s Body, “everyone will know that you are my disciples,” (13:35). Just as Jesus went out from that supper to give his life up for his friends and for the whole world, as we go out from the supper tonight what is it we can be doing, actually doing, to make the risen Jesus known in the world? After all, like Neo, our reality has changed because Christ has come bursting into our life and permanently disrupted it. We could resist but this would be to contradict the truth of who we already are in Christ. Or, we could embrace this new reality and participate in it by the power of the Spirit, which would certainly make things a lot more interesting! This is Christ’s commandment, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” (13:34).