Picture courtesy of theinformistnews.wordpress.com
The Last Supper
The story of the Last Supper, which is remembered the Thursday preceding Good Friday, has always resonated with me.
It is a story about a group of friends dining together in keeping with the Jewish Passover tradition.
It reminds us that Christianity and Judaism are inextricably connected. In fact, the three major religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have Abrahamic traditions. One would not know they shared a common history, given their attitude to one another today. Aren’t humans short-sighted, particularly when their perspective is distorted by religion?
The Last Supper has dramatic undertones as friends gather for the final time with their leader on the eve of his death.
I think it is one of the rare times in the New Testament that we see Jesus and his band of disciples together and interacting with one another. And what do we see? We see dysfunctionality and disharmony. It is a quintessentially human scene.
We tend to idealise the Last Supper scene but when you examine it more closely, nothing could be further from the truth. For example, we find out early in the dinner that there is a traitor in their midst. Who? “Surely not I Lord,” each of them says.
The traitor is Judas Iscariot. Many commentators have speculated on the cause of his disillusionism. Some say he was disappointed by Jesus’s passivity. Judas was expecting Jesus to use his undoubted power to defeat their Roman overlords. He was the long awaited Messiah after all! But this was not Jesus’s agenda. The Roman Empire would eventually collapse (but not before embracing Christianity in and around 320). History is rich with irony.
Some think that Judas wanted to create an incident that would force Jesus to demonstrate his power, to create a crisis or confrontation that would force Jesus to act.
Ultimately, Judas is seen as a tragic character who is so overwrought by his treachery that he takes his own life. Judas is a broken man.
So the dinner proceeds under a veil of intrigue.
Another example of dysfunctionality. We know that after dinner Jesus seeks solace in the Garden of Gethsemane. He takes his friends with him ……. but they cannot stay awake. Jesus implores them to pray with him, to support him. But they cannot do it. Perhaps too much drink at dinner? We cannot help but see the weakness of the apostles …..and probably the weakness within ourselves. How many times have we said that it’s too hard or that it can wait until tomorrow or that someone else will take care of it or that I’m too tired.
These are the people with whom Jesus chose to share his Ministry.
Another example of dysfunctionality is the scene where Peter refuses to have his feet washed. He doesn’t get it. More on feet washing later. But Peter’s slowness is encouraging for the rest of us. Jesus chose Peter to lead his followers after he had left them. Would you hire Peter as your next CEO?
This was the same guy, who when confronted, denied knowing Jesus. “But I am sure I saw you with him,” they said. “Not me” said Peter. “You must be mistaken”. He denied knowing Jesus, not once but three times.
Hours earlier Peter was declaring his devotion and pledging to lay down his life for Jesus. So fickle so human.
At least Peter stuck around. The others fled for their lives once they saw their leader, helpless in the arms of the Roman constabulary.
Remember these people were handpicked by Jesus.
It is telling that Jesus has chosen “ordinary Joes” to carry his message and continue his mission. Jesus is interested in our weaknesses and failings. Judas is a traitor, Peter is slow and impetuous and the others are frightened, lazy, doubting and lacking in resolve. Jesus chose these people to share his final meal.
He has come for the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, the vulnerable, the dispossessed, the oppressed and the needy……not only in fact, but in spirit. It is telling that this message has been passed down to us through the centuries. Human history is written by the victors and it is a story of triumph and victory. The Jesus story stands in stark contrast to the rest of history.
The Last Supper is filled with themes and messages. Always remember that throughout this time, Jesus is feeling intense pain. He is about to die. He is a prisoner on death row. He will be tortured. His death will be slow and excruciatingly difficult as he suffocates under the weight of his own body. He was scared.
I am also taken with what they eat – bread and wine. Bread is the staple of human civilisation. It takes us back to the very first river civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The rivers provided fertile soils and soils allowed the cultivation of wheat and other grains. Importantly, these grains could be stored and consumed in lean times.
Wine came much later. Wine has brought joy, mirth and good times since its inception. It has been the party drink of choice for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks dedicated one of their gods to the drink.
The presence of wine tells us this was to be a light hearted occasion despite the gravity of the situation.
One thing that wine and bread have in common is the process by which they are made. Wheat is ground into powder before it is combined with other ingredients to make bread. Grapes are crushed into juice to make wine. The process is the same for us. All of us are ground and crushed in some way. Life can be harsh at times. We are the product of many influences and pressures. Some make us stronger others damage us. Jesus accepts all of us.
The dinner has its macabre undertones. It is a drama evoking a wide range of emotions much like a Shakespearean play. Jesus tells his followers that the bread and wine they are about to consume is his body and blood. Come again?
Jesus is alluding to his imminent death. His body is soon to be broken and his blood spilled. He will die for his friends and for us. We are reminded that there is no greater sacrifice to be made than someone laying down their life for you. We ask ourselves, “”Why would you do that for me?”
There are examples of people making the ultimate sacrifice, parents for their children, police and firemen for their communities, soldiers for their country. In every case there is a dedication, a devotion, dare I say it, a love for the beneficiary.
The Jesus message is a message of love. It should not surprise us that it concludes with an act of love.
But the meal is purposefully intended to be a memorial. Jesus says every time you share bread and wine with each other I want you to remember me. How great is that! Jesus as God wants us to remember him with a simple meal.
He is not interested in parades or shows of strength or sacrifices or elaborate rituals. This is not his scene. Just break bread and drink wine in my name.
Even if you don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus or don’t believe in God at all, you still have to think it’s pretty cool that this leader and philosopher in the moments before his death, would ask his friends to remember him with a meal.
However, the highlight for me is what happens during the dinner. Jesus picks up a towel and basin, gets down on his haunches and washes the feet of his followers. This would not have been a straightforward act. These were grown men, in the dusty Middle East who travelled by foot on well worn sandals. Their feet would have been a real mess.
Jesus chose to wash their feet, Not their hands or their heads. He chose to clean the dirtiest part of their bodies. Here was a person with significant power telling us that it is not about power or strength or might.
Ever since I was a child this scene has always moved me.
Again, whether you believe in God or not, the idea of a leader humbling himself before his followers by washing their feet is quite profound.
In humility there is power. Pacificism gives you strength.
For me this is the takeaway message.
How many leaders believe in service, in serving the people. How many believe in putting themselves last, how many believe in raising the lowly and downtrodden?
It may be an idealistic (if not unrealistic) principle on which to organise a country. But it should not be too difficult a principle to follow for the church that bears Jesus’s name.
It is disappointing that the church that purports to represent Jesus has strayed so far from his message. Recent events have taught us that the church has been prepared to put itself first, even in circumstances when basic human decency and most moral codes would have told any Christian that this is plain wrong.
Far from protecting the lowly and the helpless the church has hurt them, causing much heartbreak and damage to victims and their families. The vulnerable have been exploited.
The church has shunned humility and instead pursued policies of self preservation and perpetuation of evil. Underlying all these activities is an undercurrent of deceit and betrayal.
The many profound messages of the Last Supper have been lost on the church.
Shame. Shame. Shame.