History records various “famous last Words” but the most powerful are from people we have known and loved ourselves. Their last words and actions often have a profound effect on their hearers. They become their last will and testament.
Walking with those who know their life is coming to an end is always a privilege… That’s even more powerful with those who have a terminal, life limiting illness. Aware that they’re going to die, there’s very often, a release of life.
Some of you will have listened last year and earlier this year on Radio 4’s PM, the journalist Steve Hewlett recount his last months having been diagnosed with what became incurable cancer.
It was an extraordinarily honest sense in which, in the face of death, he discovered life in an even richer sense – and was able to have all those conversations with family and friends which, otherwise, might have felt awkward given the usual English reserve. It never ceases to amaze me what those who know they will die soon are able to accomplish. Steve died just before the start of Lent.
Another friend of mine, aged 33 knew he was going to die. The means of his end wasn’t clear, but in his conversations with his friends he was clear: he knew there wasn’t much time left. He invited them for dinner, and told them what they needed to know. He shared a meal with them. He told them to look after not only each other, but also their extended family. You know him too: his name is Jesus. The upper room is our glimpse of his Last Will and Testament in twofold action: bread and wine; and washing feet.
Now that might not sound like much of a ‘bucket list’ – but his is profound act not only self giving, but an exacting example – a condemned man’s command to his friends. From these actions, we can learn much.
Its easy to see them as either/or actions. I’m asked if you can be a Christian without going to Church. The answer is ‘no’ I don’t think you can – for being a Christian is to be part of a community of prayer and worship – it is not a solitary exclusive exercise.
Can you be a Christian without serving the poor, those in need, the community in which one finds oneself? Well, the answer to that is no too – that can all too often warp the Christian life to a reductable false piety.
Sacrament and Praxis (action) live not in separate domains, but together. We use the term mass because it denotes action: the Eucharist isn’t a sacrificial memorial meal that’s there to simply comfort us: it is to drive us out into the world, to watch, to pray, to serve in sacrificial lives.
This is the genius of what Jesus does in the upper room, in subverting the Passover symbolism and by that subversion giving us something ever new.
Jesus’ command to serve isn’t an optional add on for the religiously inclined. It is a new commandment: we must love one another – no matter how hard at times that can be.
Equally, we must take bread and wine – a command to ‘do this in memory of me’. Jesus tells us that this sharing is an essential, non optional element of his testament – and through it the priesthood is born.
For every priest, this is a powerful day. It reminds us of what Jesus has called and commanded us to do – and through our frailties and failings, what we so often fail to do as we should.
Yet the power of the priestly life exists not in doing for as is so wrongly adduced – but in the example of that all are called to follow. The washing of feet is no pious exercise for clergy whilst others looked on with wrapt attention – if that’s all it is, it fails. It is an example for you all to copy.
Ubi caritas et amour, deus ibi est. Where love and charity are found, God is there, we shall sing later in response to our intercessions. But that has to be real. Real love, real charity. That is embodied by Jesus in the command to all of us to service.
The sacrament we receive isn’t for our own satisfaction. It is food for the journey of loving service to others. Our task is to strengthen that outreach, that service – Jesus doesn’t call us to an indulgent life of anglo-catholic flim flam. More of that on Easter Day.
Tonight we see before us what we are called to do, to be, to become. Christ’s example is to each and every one of us: to serve him, to serve our neighbour. And our service, like his, calls us to a life of sacrifice: to make time for him, each day; to look for the opportunities to show his love, each day; to serve our neighbour, each day.
His words are the greatest words ever uttered. They have transformed the world. Love one another as I have loved you. Do this in memory of me. But they can only continue to do so if we all give effect to them in our lives. What greater last words could there be? What better example could anyone be left to follow?
May Jesus our Lord and God continually show us his servant heart and make our hearts beat with his.