The Royal ceremony of the Royal Maundy Money this morning at Derby Cathedral dramatically represented once again an endorsement by our monarch of a central teaching of Christ. The joyful duty placed on all who share the Christian faith is to follow the command that Christ gave this night at the last Supper. To his disciples he said " a new commandment I give to you: love one another." (St John 13, verse 34) I don't need to tell you that the words mandate and Maundy are from the same root, or that in the colourful annual ceremony of the Maundy Money the queen is symbolically acting out of this command. Our Maundy Thursday, solemnly marked each year, reminds us that the Last Supper was not just a pleasant meal with friends, or a dramatic, if temporary, farewell. It carried with it the memory of the Jewish Passover, the Israelites escaping from slavery in Egypt, the liberation of the oppressed. The core of the Last Supper is the theme of a once-for-all-sacrifice, of hope for the hopeless. Above all, the disciples are left with a new command which encapsulates the best of the old law as well as a transforming insight into the way to live: Love one another.
The majesty of love is too great to handle in a short sermon. So forgive me if I look for insight by concentrating on what has for many is a sign of love - the Kiss. In life, as in the Christian story, the kiss holds a noble place. The kiss is an action carrying many messages and emotions. Perhaps, if we look at it from three aspects we may discover resonances of the teaching of Christ given at the Last Supper
First, the kiss can be a mark of respect. The grave way in which a young child may kiss a grandparent seldom seen may reflect that respect. The way the members of the Greek Orthodox Church kiss the hands of the priest - as a mark of respect for hands that have consecrated the sacrament is similarly respectful. In our services of Holy Communion the Gospel is carried into the body of the church with great ceremony, accompanied by lights and incense. We stand up, out of respect , to hear the words and actions of Christ read formally from that Gospel. After the Gospel passage has been read by the deacon or priest the book is kissed. This mark of veneration or respect is an impressive reminder to us of the way in which the Gospel is an icon or symbol of Christ himself. The saints and martyrs of the past made sacrifices, including laying down their lives, to write and protect the gospels in times of persecution when these books were being destroyed. Others too were willing to go to their deaths to provide a translation of the Gospels into language that people could understand. This solemn respectful kiss marking the reading of the Gospel at every service is particularly poignant tonight as we remember the Last Supper command "love one another."
Second, the kiss may be a mark of friendship. We have seen the way in which the French, for example, greet one another lavishly (if symbolically) with air kisses which never make contact. Among the changes in church services through which many of us have lived has been the reintroduction of "The Peace". St Paul and St Peter refer to the "Kiss of Peace" as do the early Fathers of the Church. But it came hard to the stiff-upper-lipped English to shake hands with each other in Church. In this regard how things changed over the centuries. The great Dutch scholar, Erasmus, wrote to a friend in Italy in 1499 saying how wonderful it was to be in England - the girls had faces like angels and it is the custom to kiss on meeting, parting, and at many other times. The formalised handshake in church today's version of "the Kiss of Peace" is the symbolic mark that we take the words of Christ seriously: "love one another." These days we are very confused about friendship. In a post-Freudian age the tendency it to analyse what it means instead of rejoicing in our friends, and thanking God for their interest and love. We need to be more expansive in friendship. I had a curate who told me "I've friends I haven't used yet." I hope he was joking! Love may sometimes be an act of will and we certainly owe a debt of friendship and love to each other for Christ's sake. You don't necessarily have to like those you love! But thank God for our friends who make this new commandment so easy to follow.
Third, the kiss when given as a mark of deep human love can be memorable and binding. At its best it may express a deep but undemanding love. I want to be self indulgent and remind you of a passage from Laurie Lee's ‘Cider with Rosie’. If you are not familiar with this romantic, autobiographical memory of childhood and youth, I commend it to you. Young Laurie tells of his encounter with Rosie Burdock (he never revealed her true name). "She took off her boots and stuffed them with flowers. She did the same with mine. Her parched voice crackled like flames in my ears. Rosie told me outrageous fantasies. She liked me, she said, better than Walt, or Ken, Boney Harris or even the curate. And I admitted to her, in a loud rough voice, that she was prettier than Betty Gleed. For a long time we sat with our mouths very close, breathing the same hot air. We kissed only once, so dry and shy it was like two leaves colliding in the air."
As a result of this encounter Lee says nothing was ever the same again. Tonight we remember the most famous kiss of all - the kiss of Judas. The story of poor Judas makes most sense when we see the mark of his love for Jesus as the ambition he had for him. Reading between the lines it seems that, inflamed with a belief that Jesus would overturn the order of things with a legion of angels, he sought to force the pace. His kiss was not only a sign to Jesus' enemies to show them where he was. It was the sign of his love all right, but a love wanting to bring forward the coming of a material, political kingdom rather than the kingly rule of God in hearts and minds. He thought he could make Jesus show a firm hand by bringing his enemies to him. His mistake was not so much lack of love as an inability to love without manipulation. He loved Jesus but thought he knew best how to bring about what Jesus was teaching. After the kiss of Judas nothing was ever the same again.
We are not mere spectators of this kiss, this crisis in history. We may reflect on our own lack of love, the way we have failed those we love. How often has this been as a result of our selfishness and readiness to manipulate? Because our unwillingness to see and accept them just as they are, may mean we fail to see just how wonderful they are. The love of which Jesus speaks is an uncompromising love accepting us exactly as we are and where we are. In the story of the Passion of Jesus we see just how costly love can be. His love for us takes us exactly as we stand. It calls from us a response; a response to love him and live by his teaching: "A new commandment I give you: love one another." We cannot do this and fail to be changed.