Friday, April 14, 2006

Last Suppers

For an annotation about this painting go to the artist's website.

Exodus 12: 1-14; John 13: 33-36, 14: 1-6
******** United Church of Christ
April 13, 2006 (Maundy Thursday)

Yesterday at sundown the festival of Passover began. This was the most important ceremony in ancient Israel and early Judaism. It is a day of remembrance, to remember what God had done to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt. The exodus is the defining moment in Israel’s faith history. Through the Passover meal and ceremony, Jews acknowledge and celebrate that it is God who sets people free, who names each person, and calls them “God’s people”.

The Seder meal, the last supper to be eaten in captivity and in slavery to Egypt was to be eaten hurriedly, for the people of Israel were running for their very lives. It was to be a meal without leftovers if possible, and whatever was left was to be burned. Nothing was to be wasted or left as scraps for scavengers. The meal was to be an act of salvation from God. They were ingesting the very means by which God would save them, by the blood of a lamb, perfect and without blemish.

In the gospel of John it is this Passover festival that Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem to celebrate. It was a holy pilgrimage that Jews made each year, to observe the highest of festivals in the holiest of cities. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, in John’s gospel Jesus has his last supper with his disciples before the Passover festival begins. There is no institution of the Eucharist. Jesus himself is to be the Eucharist, the Passover of God, the lamb who will be slain to save Israel.

If both of these passages were taken literally, we would have an awfully gruesome picture of who God is: a God who slaughters the innocent firstborn Egyptian sons, who demands a blood price in the form of his own son in order that we be saved from the penalty of death for our sins. There are many hymns about being “washed in the blood of the Lamb” and the blood of Christ being referred to as a “precious fountain”.

But if we look at the intent of both of these “last suppers” we see God’s desire to save and set free all people in bondage, and we see the relationship between God and humankind in every age. These stories are true in every generation. God’s people were in slavery and bondage not only in the past but still continue to live in bondage in the present and our need for liberation and mercy persists. Through a meal and God’s intent behind it, we are saved from bondage and from sin.

In the movie Babette’s Feast we see how a meal and its intent as an expression of extravagant love have the power to save a small community of believers from pettiness and disagreement. Two sisters in tiny provincial village on the northern Danish coast, daughters of an itinerant minister who have carried on his ministry in their household, wish to honor the 100th anniversary of his birth with a dinner. Their French cook and housekeeper, Babette, asks if she can cook a real French dinner to celebrate the occasion and to express her love for the sisters. All of the guests are superstitious and skeptical about the French meal and afraid of what it might do to their souls. Their bickering continues right up until the night of the party. But in the unfolding of this sumptuous banquet, tempers are cooled, love is rekindled, and forgiveness flows like the wine at the table. In the candlelight the group is warmed by each other’s presence and the years seem to fall away. By the end of the evening the guests are singing a hymn hand in hand under a winter sky.

This night, this Maundy Thursday, this last supper, draws us in, in a powerful way. We find ourselves strangely attracted to the drama presented before us in a way that makes us a part of the story, for indeed we are. Just as Passover is a day of remembrance that calls to mind the continual need for liberation, so is this Thursday night a reminder of our constant hunger for God’s mercy and forgiveness. As the shadows become heavier and heavier, we begin to feel a small measure the weight that Jesus carried that night, and tonight once again. We can almost see ourselves as one of the disciples seated with Jesus, wondering who will betray him.

Many of you have heard about the newly-translated and published “Gospel of Judas”, written in about the 3rd century, long after that last supper so long ago. According to this gospel, Jesus asked Judas to betray him so that he might leave this life in the flesh to live with his Father. As with the canonical Bible, these stories about Jesus’ last moments are not necessarily about what actually happened but about the meaning behind these events, describing the relationship between God and humankind. The gospel of Judas describes what most folks wished had happened, that Judas and Jesus were in on the betrayal together. No one likes the idea of a Judas goat, someone whose task it is to betray the hero of the story. In a Newsweek article about the gospel of Judas it says: “It’s such a downer to think the guy sinned and felt bad…”

We’d all like to feel better about Judas; we’d all like to feel better about ourselves. The harder truth is that we have sinned and feel bad, especially about the ‘Judas’ in our own lives, that one who betrayed us, hurt us, left us, deserted us. God desires not only that we be set free from sin, from our own guilt but also that we be set free from our unwillingness to forgive.

In the book If Grace Is True, the authors invite us to envision that great heavenly banquet when all God’s people have come home. They ask us to imagine who will be seated around us and next to us. Not only will we be welcomed by those we love and who love us, but we will also be greeted by those who have hurt us and those whom we have injured. For this last supper, this one that will be for eternity is a table of grace where no one is excluded. Who will be seated next to you?

Through a meal and the intent of God’s love that is behind it, we are saved. There is power here: power to transform us, release us, and increase our faith. Tonight let us come to this table with an open heart, that we might meet our Lord face to face.

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