The eternally last meal
Many years ago I encountered a man who was truly evil. At least I believed him to be evil. There was no “smoking gun,” so to speak, unless you counted his extremely hard heart. Oh, and the absence of any hint of the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, and the like).
Now I wonder if you can guess where I met this man, week after week. That’s right. I encountered this man in church. He was a core member; I know this because he even attended Holy Week services, each and every of them, and twice on Easter!
I didn’t just dislike this man, you understand; he gave me the “heebie jeebies” being anywhere near him (to use a technical term). In other words, I experienced a strong negative reaction just being around him.
I wonder if there is someone you know who gives you the “heebie jeebies?” Someone who, by your own reckoning, just doesn’t measure up? What should we do with such people? What should we do with ourselves when we have such reactions to other folks?
A very wise person all those years ago counseled me to share a meal with this man who I found so troubling. If I would only get to know him, I was told, I would understand his pain and could empathize with him. I was particularly grieved that my counselor didn’t understand that this troubling man was “evil.” Instead, she seemed to think that I was at fault (imagine that!).
I never did what I had been instructed to do. I was working on being willing when the man died. That’s when I discovered that he had been secretly ill, terminally ill, in a painful and debilitating way, and angry at God about life being so short and so unfair.
Jesus took another approach entirely, another approach from either Mr. Heebie Jeebies or from me. On this very day, today, in Jesus’ short life, he was in the midst of existential angst. In other words, Jesus experienced darkness and pain and sorrow. The gospels make this clear, that Jesus knew he was going to be killed, and he didn’t exactly go skipping to his fate.
What Jesus did was turn everything over to God. Easier said than done! “Not my will, but yours,” he said. What Jesus did was have a meal with his disciples. This meal that Jesus shared is so well known we call it “The Last Supper.” And at Jesus’ Last Supper he shared a meal with the very ones he knew so well:
- With Peter, who wasn’t exceptionally bright
- With James, the elitist
- With Thomas, who we call “The Doubter”
- With Andrew, who got eclipsed by his brother
- With John, who was certain that Jesus loved him best
- With Matthew, who was dodgy about money, as dodgy as Judas Iscariot, whose name is synonymous with betrayal
- With Philip, Simon the Zealot, James the Lesser, and others who spent time with God Incarnate and yet left no voice of their own in witness
Were there others there, at Jesus’ so-called “Last Supper”? We don’t know. But our gospel lesson tells us that, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus had no anger or bitterness at his fate, no hardness of heart or blaming of God. Jesus had no impatience with his disciples’ failings, and no anger, even, at his coming betrayal.
We need our epistle lesson tonight to tell us about Jesus’ so-called Last Supper. I am sure you know this was the very first Eucharist meal, when Jesus shared himself with his disciples so completely that he declared that the bread and wine they consumed were his body and blood, given for them.
I wonder if Jesus’ disciples understood what he was telling them. The author of John’s gospel certainly knew, some 60 years later. In John’s telling, Jesus was offering himself as the Passover sacrifice, the being without spot or blemish who died so that we could live. In John’s telling, Jesus was the Passover Lamb, the one who is infinitely divided even to this day in proportion to the number of people who eat of that meal. The meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion was certainly not his “last;” this Jesus-meal has continued throughout time and space. In a very real way, THIS meal that we share tonight will be Jesus’ Last Supper—until the next Last Supper and the next and the next.
But Jesus didn’t end his eternally last meal with the bread and wine of new life. He took off all the earthly symbols of his status as our Lord and Savior and washed his disciples’ feet. Having loved them to the end, he showed them how to respond to each other. In case they didn’t understand, Jesus told his disciples to do the same for each other, to love one another, as he had loved them.
So here we are tonight, in church, to share Christ’s eternally last supper. Isn’t this what church is? Isn’t church a group of Jesus followers who come together to practice the Last Supper, week after week, and from that offering of love learn to humble ourselves to each other?
We KNOW this story of the Last Supper. There is no escaping the conclusion. We are all condemned to die, if not today, then tomorrow. Are we angry at God, or have we found a way to forgive God for our reality here on earth? Have we judged our fellow disciples, or have we accepted them for who and what they are, and washed their feet—have we learned to love them? Have we accepted Jesus’ love?