A Sermon from Sherborne

An offering far too small

A sermon for the Eucharist of the Lord’s Supper at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Maundy Thursday 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Something I think all of us of a certain age dread is the gradual loss of mobility, of activity and of independence. To anyone used to an active life, the thought of increasing passivity and dependence on the ministrations of others is desperately unwelcome. We do not look forward to encountering the pain of passivity.

We know from the Gospels that Jesus was not always active; he wasn’t always doing. He needed silence. He needed to be still. He needed sometimes to be passive. Nevertheless, it must have been hard for him, as a comparatively young man, to begin to be more acted upon than acting as his earthly life began to draw to its inevitable end. It is a change marked in the Gospels as the Passion narratives begin. Matthew, Mark and John all identify this change of gear as happening at Bethany, where (the details vary) a woman comes to Jesus and anoints him with a fragrant and very costly oil. And Jesus says to his indignant disciples, This is her way of preparing me for my burial. And from then on, the verbs attached to him become more and more passive: Jesus is handed over; he is taunted; he is mocked; he is scorned, he is spat upon, flogged and crucified.

One significant change from active to passive in the life of Christ is an equivalent change in the direction of gifts and giving. Until his Passion, Jesus is always giving of himself: his time, his energy, his care, his love. But suddenly the tables are turned. He has to accept gifts, just as when he was a vulnerable toddler the Wise Men brought him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. We all know about the gifts of the Epiphany, but I wonder if you have ever thought about the gifts of the Passion? There weren’t three of them, there were seven. They were, in order, a donkey, a box of ointment, a room, a shoulder, a word of encouragement, a drink, and a tomb.

First, the donkey, the Palm Sunday donkey. There is no doubt but that Jesus used that donkey in two ways. The first was to take all the steam out of the political campaign that would have placed him at the head of a rebellious crowd and used him as a symbol of resistance against the Romans. That was what all the fuss was about as Jesus entered Jerusalem: the waving of the palm branches and the loud hosannas. The crowd had been manipulated by resistance leaders to see in Jesus the hope of a political messiah, a secular saviour. But he quite deliberately defused that conspiracy by riding into Jerusalem not as a conqueror on a stallion but as a man of humility and peace on a gentle donkey. This, as the prophet Zechariah had foretold, was the symbol of the true King of kings, the spiritual saviour, the Messiah who comes in humility and not in pomp. The donkey was a kind of acted parable, which sifted the audience into the perceptive and the unperceiving.

Then came the second gift, the box or jar of scented ointment – given, St John tells us, by Mary of Bethany, anointing Jesus for his Passion. She was somehow aware that what was developing could only end in death. And as Jesus went on his way in loneliness, she gave him a most precious gift, the gift of sensitive understanding.

The Upper Room came next. Jesus needed somewhere to have a last meal of fellowship with his disciples. The Maundy Thursday gift of the Upper Room was the setting for the institution of the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Sacrament which would sustain his disciples through the terrible events which were to come, and which has been the foundation, the sustaining Sacrament of the Church of Christ, ever since.

Then there were the four gifts of Good Friday. When Jesus faltered under the weight of the cross, Simon of Cyrene gave him the gift of his shoulder. He took and shared the Lord’s burden. It is only a tradition, but a very ancient one, that subsequently Simon became a Christian himself. But all that matters for our purposes is that here he moved to make his gift as Christ stumbled, and Jesus had the grace to accept it.

The fifth was equally unexpected. It was a word of encouragement from a thief dying on a cross by the side of Jesus. For a moment he rose above his own pain; he saw in the pain of Jesus a much greater agony by which the whole world would be redeemed. And he asked, not for a share in that redemption, but simply to be remembered by the Saviour – who gave him in return the pledge that that same day they would meet in Paradise.

The sixth gift came a little later in the Lord’s agony. It was a drink, part of a soldier’s ration. It was given by a man whom we might have expected to have been hardened to suffering, especially the suffering of the people whose land his Roman army was occupying. Yet, as he watched the Galilean die, he was strangely moved to do something to ease his agony.

The last gift of all was a tomb, given by Joseph of Arimathea, who had long been an admirer of Jesus, even though he had not dared to make that admiration public. But now, somehow, he was given the courage to make a very public declaration of his esteem, with the offer of his own tomb as a resting place for the Lord. And, as with all the gifts of the Passion, his was accepted and transformed in the service of Christ.

The gifts of the Passion. And just as the carols at Christmas ask us what we would bring to the infant Christ, so these gifts ask us what we shall bring to our crucified Lord. The donkey, the sign of our Lord’s humility, pleads with us for humility in our loud and strident and arrogant modern world. Nor is the box of ointment outside our experience. Mary, alone perhaps amongst the people gathered at Bethany, saw beyond her own perceptions into the need and the suffering of Jesus. How much we too need to be able to see beyond the limits of our own circumference into the loneliness or the despair or the agony of others; to be sensitive to their inner needs.

The Maundy Thursday Upper Room is every church and every dwelling where Christ is at home. He is the unseen guest, who is with us always. In fact, the Upper Room can also be your heart and mine: is Christ welcome there, and is all that we think and say and do an acceptable offering to our guest? For be sure of this, if he does indeed live in the upper room of your heart, then nothing you can ever think or say or do will be hidden from him.

And what of the gifts of Good Friday, the shoulder, the word of encouragement, the drink and the tomb? Well, they are all gifts which cost the givers a good deal, in terms of pain or sensitivity or courage. But the thing that haunts me about those four Good Friday gifts is that they all came from people outside Jesus’ own band of disciples and friends. On the last day of his purely earthly life, it is strangers who come to our Lord’s help. It is his friends, his followers, who let him down. Jesus receives comfort and care from the foreigner, the criminal, the Roman soldier, and one of his Jewish opponents. His disciples fall asleep during his agony in the garden; they run away when danger comes; Peter denies him when challenged about his allegiance. These are chilling facts, because they are too much like a mirror in which we can see our own lack of faith, our own lack of courage, and our own lack of love for the crucified. These precious days call us not to let him down, nor to deny him, but to watch and wait and pray with him, to kneel down at the foot of his cross, and to offer him the gift of ourselves – for that is precisely what he has offered us. How did Isaac Watts put it?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were an offering far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 29/03/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne