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Thursday 14 April 2022: Maundy Thursday

The Upside-Down Kingdom
1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

By Arani Sen
Church of England Rector of St Olave, City of London, and Area Director of Ministry

Context: a service of foot washing and Holy Communion in an inner-city, open evangelical, multi-ethnic parish. Ages 18-80 at this service

Aim: to demonstrate that Holy Communion makes all Christians united and socially equal

As a ten-year-old, I experienced something that would change my life forever. I was born in the UK and my parents took me to Kolkata, our family home city, shortly after the Bangladesh liberation war. Whilst we stayed in relative luxury, every street of Kolkata was brimming with refugees sleeping on the pavements, scantily dressed, begging for every last morsel of food. In that culture, your life station is innate, you are born into your karma. Even as a ten-year-old I yearned for a better, transformative, just world.

It was only when I encountered Jesus Christ as a student that I had a profound realisation that Jesus modelled servant leadership. I was overwhelmed by Jesus’ spending time with the oppressed, the hungry, the disempowered. This Maundy Thursday as we reenact Jesus’ last supper, we are challenged to action, place our assumptions under the microscope and re-evaluate how we treat our neighbour.



In first-century Palestine, rather like India of my childhood, society was extremely hierarchical, with virtually no social mobility. At its pinnacle was the powerful court of Herod, then the landowners, the religious leaders. At its lowest point were beggars, people with disabilities and slaves. Servants - usually slaves - had no rights whatsoever, so when Jesus gets down on the floor and washes the feet of his disciples, they are offended. Jesus is engaging in a demeaning act unbecoming to their teacher and Lord. The Memsahibs of India soon realised they could not command a sweeper to chop food, so engrained was caste in India. Your caste determined what job you could do. Peter, the disciples’ shop steward, is so scandalised that he tries to stop Jesus in his tracks.

Following this acted-out parable, Jesus presents us with practical steps in how to follow his example, ‘you also should do as I have done to you.’ A new upside-down kingdom is being heralded in, a kingdom where all are welcome, where there are no social barriers. Jesus sums it up with: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ As we prepare to take Holy Communion this night, we should be so transformed by the supreme act of sacrificial love, as Jesus is led to the cross, his body torn by nails, his blood shed for our salvation.



Did you notice tonight that there is no account of the last supper in John’s gospel? It is in the epistle that we hear how St Paul requires us to examine ourselves deeply, including our attitudes to others, before coming to the Lord’s table. The act of sharing broken bread at Holy Communion is highly symbolic; we become united to each other and to God. Imagine this as a cross shape with an axis up and an axis across.

In the Corinthian church, the axis across had become incredibly dysfunctional. The rich and powerful, the socially mobile and well connected eat handsomely and drink copious amounts of wine. They are very self-satisfied. The materially poor are left out – there is nothing left for them, they are left hungry and invisible. We will affirm: ‘Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread’. We will share from one cup, we are united through the blood of Christ shed for us. All of us are welcome, as equal partners at the Lord’s table.



This evening as we prepare to meet our fellow Christians at the altar rail, we have an opportunity to examine our own attitudes to others. Who do you kneel next to? When you share the peace, who do you go to first? Unconscious bias training reminds us that we are conditioned to favour people like ourselves: same background, same interests. Many churches function like this, have a look around at coffee time. Do you notice new people? Is anyone just left on their own? Having a chat with someone can help them feel welcome; we learn something about them, their story, their joys, their struggles, and they learn about us. We break down barriers through conversation.

This Maundy Thursday we recall that Jesus models for us servant ministry. In his sight, all have equal worth. We will shortly take Holy Communion. St Teresa of Kolkata often spoke of how Holy Communion transforms us to become more Christlike. She wrote to the Bishop of Calcutta: ‘Each one of us is a co-worker of Christ - we must labour hard to carry Him to the hearts where He has not yet been known and loved. But, unless we have Jesus, we cannot give Him; that is why we need the Eucharist.’ Holy Communion nourishes our inner life but equally as we feed on bread and wine, the Holy Spirit transforms us and sends us out ready to serve.

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