The following sermon was preached by Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel at the morning office.
Maundy Thursday 2019
Exodus 12 & St John 13
The skies over Paris on Tuesday evening of this Holy Week 2019 were eerily akin to those over Jerusalem in September of the year of our Lord 70, except that no firefighters were on call to douse the flames that rose from the Temple. You don’t need three PhDs or an extraordinary volume of spiritual gifts to realise that the dramatic collapse of the roof and spire of the great cathedral of Nôtre Dame is a visible metaphor of the spiritual condition of Western Christendom, which has gone from precarious and wobbly when I was a boy to almost terminally sick today.
As Nôtre Dame burned, a quality Christian magazine featured a well written article by a thoughtful, conservative young Englishman explaining why, dismayed at the nihilistic ideology that has taken over his homeland, he has converted to Islam, turning his back on Jesus for Mohammed (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/05/why-i-became-muslim). The young man had hoped that Oxford University would transmit England’s cultural heritage to him, but found it under the tyranny of Social Justice Warriors pursuing the campaigns that are so dear to the heart of our own Prime Minister. Hoping for a while that Christianity might be his solution, the student attended college chapel services, but the wishy-washy drivel served up by the chaplains simply turned him off. So, as I said, he gave up Jesus for Mohammed.
This young man praises Islam for what he calls its “pure monotheism”, unspotted by the confusion associated with the Blessed Trinity, undiluted by the idea of God stooping down to exist as the suffering Jesus. In truth, because nature abhors a vacuum, the West will increasingly find that, as it rejects Jesus, it gets Mohammed instead.
The great mystery that we observe from this evening through Sunday certainly reflects something other than the “pure monotheism” of Deism and Islam that picture a God absolutely disconnected from all the change and misery that transpires here below. Turning to this morning’s readings, we register the fact that the first and second rounds of Passover deliverance display the face of the one true God who is not content to abide in remote transcendence cut off from the world He made and from the people He fashioned in His own image. The plagues of Egypt, Passover night, and the Exodus manifested, albeit obliquely and in somewhat veiled fashion, the face of Israel’s God. And now at the Last Supper and through the whole of what the Holy Church commemorates over the next three days which are actually a single prolonged event, the Son of God become the Son of Mary, the Word made flesh reveals not only God’s face, but also His heart, His heart broken and pierced open for the human race that He not only owns as its Maker, but also loves as its Redeemer and Saviour.
The pastorate of the Church is often just as riven by faction, rivalry, and sheer nastiness as any other profession, but this sorry state of affairs is not the will of the Church’s Head. It’s been said of the devil that his pride causes him to have no knees, but the Enfleshed Son has knees, knees on which to pray to the Father in Gethsemane, knees on which He gets down to wash the smelly feet of the Twelve. When we’re absolved, it’s as though Heaven’s high King kneels down again to wash off our filth as one might expect a menial servant to do. And Jesus says, in first place to the clergy of the Church, “Love one another, just as I have loved you.”
Jesus’ Heart beats with love, and it also feels pain, excruciating, numbing pain. John tells us how wounded Jesus was at Judas’ betrayal, and it goes without saying that His heart still suffers pain whenever the baptised and the ordained turn away from Him to commit apostasy, to go over to the other side where the Canaanites and their successors walk the way of death. Over the upcoming holy three days, the ordained will pierce Jesus’ heart afresh if they don’t proclaim loud and clear that He has established the only true religion in the world, if they don’t present the holy Gospel as the one path to salvation, and if they don’t commend and model life in Christ as the only way to please God here below.
Jesus’ ordained servants are to lay their heads on His bosom, as did John the Beloved Disciple, and they are to bring the lay people to the same place. And the ordained, we ordained, if we are faithful to Him, must share to the full in the love of Jesus’ heart towards those He came to save, and in the pain of Jesus’ heart over those who turn away from Him, including the disillusioned young Englishman who has opted for Islam like a drowning man clutching at a straw.
Marvel of marvels, ordained men get to act in Jesus’ person and name, as it were to step into His very shoes, by carrying out the command given to the Twelve, “This do in remembrance of Me.” In the setting of a prayer of thanksgiving, they/we are to speak what blessed Luther calls His “divine, almighty, heavenly, and holy words” over bread and wine, whereby they become His actual body and blood, so that He might visit most intimately with His Church and give Himself to His people as food and drink.
Next time we teach Apologetics, the educated young Englishman’s apologia for Islam will surely be must reading. In the meantime, it befits us to pray for him and for all others whom Satan has deluded to turn from the only Saviour of mankind. As the seminary goes into a brief recess this afternoon, let it not be for any worldly amusement, but for the observance of the holy three days that display God’s face and heart to those whom He so passionately longs to draw to His bosom.