Sermon on 2nd April 2015
Day: Maundy Thursday
Date: 2 April 2015
Place: Lancaster Priory
Theme: ‘Living in a New Reality’
Film: ‘The Hunger Games’ by Gary Ross (2012)
Readings:Ex. 12:1-4, 11-14; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Jn 13:1-17, 31b-35
‘If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them’ (Jn 13:17)
The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in a dystopian future and in a state called ‘Panem’. The action is set some 70-odd years after a huge rebellion in which the outlying ‘districts’ rose up against the Capital, but were violently subdued. As a result, the twelve remaining districts are now ruled with an iron fist by the capital. Conditions are awful, and the whole population suffers from hunger, with the exception of the well-fed and complacent inhabitants of the capital.
As a show of the capital’s power, and for the entertainment of its over-fed citizens, there is a deadly ‘game’ every year (highly reminiscent of our own reality television). In this ‘game’, two teenagers from every district must fight to the death, until one of them emerges as the ‘victor’. Teenage ‘volunteers’ are selected by a kind of macabre tombola known as a ‘reaping’, which is held in the town square of each district and televised for the entertainment of the capital. One male and one female ‘volunteer’ are required.
The first film opens on the day of just such a ‘reaping’. We are introduced to the Everdeen family in district twelve, the capital’s main source of coal area. Two teenage girls, Catniss and Prim live with their widowed mother in a mountain shack. This will be Prim’s first reaping, and Catniss hopes that her young sister will not be the one chosen for this year’s Hunger Games. Inevitably, Prim is chosen. But Catniss does something unexpected. She actually volunteers to go in her sister’s place. This is the first way in which she resembles Christ.
But there is another slightly less obvious way in which Catniss is like Jesus. And this only becomes evident as the film progresses. The best way to ‘win’ a Hunger Games, we learn, is to form a temporary alliance at the beginning. In this way, one has a chance of staying alive long enough to wipe out some of the other 23 competitors. But eventually, one has to turn against one’s allies in order to win.
Catniss refuses to do this. She forms an alliance with the weakest contestant, a girl from district 11 called ‘Rue’, who (inevitably) reminds Catniss of her own younger sister Prim. Rather than turning on Rue at the appropriate time, Catniss tries to protect her. And when Rue is killed by a very aggressive contestant from district 1, Catniss does something very surprising. At great personal risk, she remains with Rue’s body long enough to lay out a huge floral tribute and sing the song that the two of them have been in the habit of using as a signal. Then, in the full knowledge that her actions are being televised, she turns and makes a signal of defiance in solidarity with Rue’s family and friends back in district 11. Catniss refuses to collude with the dog-eat-dog premise of the Hunger Games, and chooses to act in solidarity and humanity instead.
This theme continues throughout the rest of the film, until there are only two contestants left. And here again, Catniss undermines the very logic of the games, by threatening to kill herself and allow her fellow contestant to win; or to kill both herself and him, thus depriving the capital of the satisfaction of a ‘winner’. She sees through the rules and chooses to completely disregard them.
And here I would like to quote from William James, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (of 1901): ‘Psychologically and in principle, the precept “Love your enemies” is not self-contradictory. It is merely the extreme limit of a kind of magnanimity with which, in the shape of pitying tolerance of our oppressors, we are fairly familiar. Yet if radically followed, it would involve such a breach with our instinctive springs of action as a whole, and with the present world’s arrangements, that a critical point would practically be passed, and we should be born into another kingdom of being. Religious emotion makes us feel that other kingdom to be close at hand, within our reach’ (p. 283f.).
‘Born into another kingdom of being’ very precisely describes the behaviour of Jesus at this point in John’s gospel (cf. Jn 13:3). Not only does he show love for his ‘enemy’ Judas (under one reading of the gospels; though we have questioned this interpetation last night), by washing his feet and breaking bread with him in the last supper; but Jesus even undermines the social hierarchies and proprieties at work around that table by washing everyone’s feet.
As we saw on Monday night, the anointing of Jesus’s feet by Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus presaged the last supper tonight, with a table set for friends and the washing of feet. But Mary was woman, and one of the hosts at that celebratory meal. Tonight, there is no host, and no servants have been provided. We do not know whether any women were present at the last supper. Some traditions have Mary the mother of Jesus (at least) present among the disciples. But even if there were no women present, cultural conventions would have it that the person of lowest status should serve the others. Perhaps this would have been the youngest disciple, or the most recent to join their number. It certainly shouldn’t have been Jesus, whom all of the disciples referred to as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master’.
We also know from the other gospels that the disciples were obsessed with who among them was the ‘first’ or the ‘greatest’. They would bicker about this constantly as they walked with Jesus along the dusty roads of Galilee and Samaria, and no doubt they were all thinking about it as they gathered for this meal in a borrowed upper Room in Jerusalem. Which of them would blink first, and kneel to wash the others’ feet? Which of them would, by doing this, admit to being the ‘least’ among the disciples?
Imagine their surprise when they see Jesus kneeling to do this. It certainly explains Peter’s protestation: ‘You will never wash my feet’ (Jn 13:8). But notice what Jesus says to him: ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand’ (Jn 13:7). Jesus is not simply ‘flipping’ the polarities to say that the ‘least’ is really the ‘greatest’, as we might say when playing cards that Aces are ‘high’. He is not showing his disciples a new way to gain power and influence over one another. Rather, he is saying that the whole system of ‘least’ and ‘greatest’ is fundamentally wrong.
To adapt William James: Jesus’s action ‘involves such a breach with our instinctive springs of action […] and with the present world’s arrangements, that a critical point [has been] passed, and [he finds himself] born into another kingdom of being’. This knowledge informs everything that Jesus does throughout his ministry, but above all on this night and in his crucifixion tomorrow.
In his institution of the sacrament of bread and wine (not recorded in John’s gospel but present in our reading from 1 Corinthians), Jesus points out that his death (v. 26) is ‘for you’ (v. 23). And in the context of the Passover festival, this means that Jesus is identifying himself with the sacrificial lamb whose blood secures and protects all who are covered by it. Any explanation of what Jesus does for us on the cross needs to include this element of a voluntary sacrifice on behalf of others.
And Jesus’s citizenship of ‘another kingdom of being’, the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew and Luke) or Kingdom of God (Mark, Luke, and John: Jn 3:3, 5 and 18:36) is expressed in his teaching at Jn 13:34-35. ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.
The love of which Jesus speaks is emphatically NOT simply a different way of gaining control over people. It is not secretly a rhetorical device for the manipulation of others — although human ‘love’ is very often used in this way. Rather, the love that Jesus describes is a free and spontaneous expression of our belonging to a different kingdom of being. The values of this kingdom can be seen not only in the actions of Catniss Everdeen in the ‘Hunger Games’, but also every time we instinctively take on a difficult or unpopular piece of work on behalf of other people, whenever we hold back from destroying another person, or step back to allow others to take the glory. Part of what it means to be a Christian and to have the Holy Spirit of God is that we begin to see the world in these terms, both as a guide to our own choices and actions, and also in an appreciation of these actions when others undertake them. And here it is worth saying that not only Christians (or often and sadly not even particularly Christians) live their lives in accordance with God’s kingdom of being. Since it is the most fulfilling way of being human, we also see it whenever people live with respect for their own humanity.
The example of Mary on Monday night reveals something else about this coming kingdom, which is that people at the bottom or on the edges of a given social hierarchy have a better instinctive appreciation of this new kingdom of being. Much as Jesus said we must become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God, so also we must learn from the elderly and the sick, the excluded and the unpopular. Pope Francis for example has famously washed the feet of AIDS victims in the past.
A radical expression of the coming of this kingdom would be if David Cameron washed the feet of a young unemployed person, or Nigel Farage washed the feet of a stowaway under a lorry at Calais. This is how radical the coming kingdom of God will be.
May that kingdom come.
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