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Title: Love’s Last Word
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Date: Maundy Thursday 6 April 2023 5.30pm
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
And so the candles are lit, and the people have gathered. Darkness has fallen, and a community is gathered together; gathered together for a very special occasion – a celebration, indeed. An annual celebration, and one that never fails to have a mixture of joy, sorrow and remembrance. A celebration, but a celebration in the darkness.
Thus thirteen remarkable men gathered in an upper room nearly 2000 years ago – themselves, already, the product of a remarkable faith history coupling joy and sorrow in an extraordinary mixture. And one, at least, of these thirteen already experiencing his own very personal mixture of joy and sorrow, in the realisation that what he had come to understand as the sole purpose and mission of his life had come to its very climax. Such a poignant climax that, as he rightly anticipated, this was to be his last earthly meal. And not just a normal meal – this meal was the Passover meal, redolent with the ancient history of the liberation of his people. A meal, which so he himself says, he had earnestly desired to share with his friends and followers before the end came.
And so the candles are lit, and the people have gathered. Darkness has fallen, and a community is gathered together; gathered together for a very special occasion. An annual celebration, and one that never fails to have a mixture of joy, sorrow and remembrance. A celebration, but a celebration in the darkness.
For thus the community of the New Covenant gathers together. Thus the Church, the Body of Christ gathers together, and as it does its members bring their own mixture of joys and sorrows. Tonight Christians gather together to celebrate the first of the three great darknesses of Holy Week – the joyful and sorrowful darkness of Maundy Thursday, complete with its recollections of feasting and friendship joyfully shared in a moving meal, but recollections also of the scandalous foot-washing, the betrayal by Judas of Jesus, the agony of the Garden, and the arrest, terror and betrayal committed by an entire community of friends. Thus tonight, as every year, faithful Christians come together into the darkness of the night.
But darkness is not easy. Darkness can be overwhelming. Darkness can be scary – for adults, just as much as for children. And darkness can a place of uncertainty and confusion.
After all in this darkness, even Simon Peter was confused. As Jesus is about to wash his feet, Peter remonstrates with him, only to be told You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand. In the darkness of this night, Simon Peter was so confused he could not even recognize love that clearly.
If that sounds odd, then let me challenge those of you here tonight who have ever been blessed to have a deeply loving relationship. Just think back to the time that you first realised that you seriously and profoundly loved that other person, whoever it may have been. For many of us, that moment of realization is also a moment of anxiety – for it is also the moment when we wake up to the awful question about whether such feelings are reciprocated – about whether our beloved loves us. Sometimes, especially in the darkness, it can be hard to recognize love that clearly.
Now think back to the moment that you realised that the person you loved actually loved you back. To that remarkable moment that can be both inevitable and so deeply nerve-wracking – that moment when, after a split second, that
someone – someone who matters more than anyone else –that someone says I love you too for the first time. That moment can be a bolt of flame that glows out in the darkness with an intensity that is incomparable.
And, for that community of thirteen men who gathered in the upper room before the festival of the Passover, love was in the air – but it was hard for them to understand it, as the candles flickered in the darkness of that night.
It was hard for Peter to make sense of it, for it would be many days yet, well after this darkness had turned to daylight, it would be many days hence, when the world would be a profoundly different place, that Peter would be able to look Jesus in the eye and say, Yes Lord, you know that I love you. For you do not know now what I am doing said Jesus, in the darkness of that night, but later you will understand…
Later, they would understand, that Jesus had done what he had ultimately come to do. Indeed, Jesus had done what it was impossible for him not to do. Jesus had come to act out for them the Last Word of love. For having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…
Much of the poetry of the Welsh poet-priest, R.S. Thomas demonstrates clearly just how hard it can be to understand love – but it also demonstrates a profound knowledge of what love can do to transfigure people, and thus transfigure the world. In an understated poem simply called The Chapel he wrote
A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.
But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
For in the darkness of that poet’s evening, in the darkness of the Upper Room, in the darkness of this very evening, and even deep in the darkness that can sometimes shroud our hearts and lives – in all that darkness there is only one fire that consumes and burns steadily and with a strange light, and that is the fire of God’s love – a love that only comes to us, a love that only comes to you and me, a love that only comes to the world… because Jesus having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.
But what an end. For this is one of those moments when no translation does justice to the subtlety of St John’s language. This end of which John speaks is the highly ambiguous Greek word telos, which means so much more than just the end of something, be it a street, a sausage, or even a life.
John is trying to tell us that Jesus loved his own to completion, that Jesus’ love was a love which loved to an end that is so complete, that it is made perfect. John is trying to tell us that Jesus’ love for his own is the last word on the subject.
And so, in the darkness of this night, as the candles flicker, Jesus gives his disciples – his beloved ones – two very big hints about this perfect love. He acts out for them a love that is rooted in such a shocking act of service it has Simon Peter almost running for the door in disbelief and horror.
And then, reaching for wine and bread sitting on this table of precious food, he catches their attention yet again, by breaking and sharing what he tells them is his body, and his blood. A gift so profound and deep and precious, that it can make those who receive it Christlike, as we, in our turn, become the Body of Christ.
Or, in other words, Christ gives his beloved ones the flame of love. The flame of a love so remarkable that it can endure to the end. The flame of a love so wonderful that it can bring completion. The flame of a love so unique and extraordinary that it is the only thing which can bring perfection into an imperfect world. The flame of a love that can be hard to understand, but which will pierce the darkness with a light that (so this gospel writer told us at the very outset, in his famous prologue) will never be overcome, and will conquer all that tries to extinguish it.
We may not always understand that love, and often we may fail to mirror it in our own lives. But this is the love that created the world, and which, now redeems the world, and it is a love that burns with an inextinguishable flame that can set on fire the poet’s preacher in that gloomy Welsh valley, and which can set us, can set even me and you on fire. For this is the night of love’s last word.
So as we journey on in the darkness of this night, as we journey on through the darkness of betrayal, desertion and denial, as we journey into the darkness of a sky turned black, and of an innocent man’s death, as we journey into the cold darkness of a sealed tomb, let us hold on to Love’s last word.
Because then, and only then, in that final darkness, before the dawn breaks on the third day, will we be able to perceive that flame of complete and perfect love which will never, which can never again be extinguished. Amen.
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