Have you ever experienced that terrible feeling, of being at a dinner, party when everything is going wrong? When the main course is inedible or when the dessert is dropped or worst still when gentle conversation around the table looks like it is turning into open warfare? The last supper which Jesus shared with his friends must have felt a bit like that.
Jesus had obviously given a lot of thought to the meal which he was going to have with his disciples – who, significantly, he simply called his ‘friends’. Whether it was the Passover meal itself – as the first three Gospels say it was – or whether it was one of the preparatory meals that often preceded a Jewish festival and every sabbath, Jesus had taken a great deal of care over it. It was very much his party. He had made very specific arrangements with a friend, and the disciples had gone into Jerusalem to complete the preparations.
Eventually, Jesus had joined them, and at first, everything had gone to plan. Then, at that moment of all moments, at that meal of all meals, a row had broken out among the disciples as to which of them was ‘top dog’. It was heart-breaking for Jesus. But he did not tear them off a strip. Actions speak louder than words. So he simply took a towel and a basin of water, and began to wash their feet, saying, “Look! I’ve done this as something for you to follow. If you do what I have done, if you wash one another’s feet, there cannot possibly be any of this “top dog” nonsense.”
But that row wasn’t the only thing that went wrong that evening. Because it was at this meal of all meals that it finally became clear (to Jesus at least) that Judas was going to betray him. In fact, it was clear to Jesus that his own end could not now be far off. The disciples’ row, Judas’ betrayal, the end at hand. What an evening!
The disciples were startled beyond words when Jesus began to wash their feet. But there was something even more startling to come. This meal was the kind of meal they were accustomed to having together, it was something which as Jews they were very used to. It had its regular pattern and ritual. But what Jesus suddenly said, in the middle of the meal, was unbelievable. They all knew that the meal they were having celebrated the time when, centuries before, God had delivered their nation from slavery. But, suddenly, Jesus said words that implied, unmistakably, that God had established a new relationship between himself and humanity: a new Covenant, through him, through Jesus himself, through his blood; his life; his suffering; and his death, still ahead.
It was as he gave thanks and took bread – there was no surprise about that, that action was part of the normal Jewish meal – that Jesus suddenly said the revolutionary words, “This is my Body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And when he took the cup, he said, “This is the New Covenant, sealed by my own Blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” All those friends, who were gathered for the meal, knew about the Old Covenant between God and Israel. But now their leader was saying, “This is the New Covenant in and through my Blood.” The old is gone, something new is beginning.
It was either the most incredible arrogance, or nonsense, or madness, or blasphemy – or the truth.
But they knew very well that the man who had just washed their feet wasn’t arrogant – far from it, and he wasn’t mad, or blasphemous. They knew he was a man of profound prayer, and goodness. Hadn’t they watched him at prayer, often enough, early in the morning?
It was the terrible and glorious events of the next few days which filled out for them what Jesus had meant by his words and actions at the table that evening. But it was with heavy hearts that they sang a hymn together, some no doubt near to tears, and went out with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Several years later, the Apostle Paul was writing to the church at Corinth. Believe it or not, among other things that the Corinthian Christians had been up to, they had been getting drunk at holy communion. So Saint Paul decided to write them a letter in which he described what he had been told had happened that very first Maundy Thursday. Paul wanted to pass on to them the importance, the significance of Christians gathering at table together, to help them to re-focus. And here we are now, nearly two millennia later, keeping Maundy Thursday evening; having a part of that letter of Paul read again, alongside the Gospel description of the first Last Supper, helping us to prepared for what is to come; helping us to focus once more on ‘mandatum novum’ the new commandment of Christ, that we love and serve one another.
Not long ago, I came across a poem which I think may have something special to say to us here in Merewether on Maundy Thursday evening. It’s by Chuck Lathrop, a Canadian, and it’s called “In Search of a Roundtable”.
Concerning the why and how and what and who of ministry, one image keeps surfacing:
A table that is round.
It will take some sawing to be round-tabled,
some redefining and redesigning,
some redoing and rebirthing of
narrow-long Churching can painful be for people and tables.
It would mean no setting apart and throne-ing,
for but one king is there, and he was a footwasher,
at table no less.
And what of the narrow-long faithful when they confront a round-table people,
after years of working up the table
to finally sit at its head,
only to discover
that the table has been turned round?
They must be loved into roundness, for God has called a People, not ‘them and us’.
‘Them and us’ are unable to gather round;
for at a roundtable, there are no sides and ALL are invited to wholeness and to food.
At one time our narrowing Churches
were built to resemble the cross
but it does no good for buildings to do so, if lives do not.
Round-tabling means no preferred seating,
no first and last,
no better, and no corners for the ‘least of these’.
Round-tabling means being with,
a part of,
together, and one.
It means room for the Spirit and gifts
and disturbing profound peace for all.
We can no longer prepare for the past.
We will and must and are called
to be Church,
and if He calls for round-table we are bound to follow.
In our churches today we tend to separate off our meetings and our meals from our services, so that our celebration of the Eucharist bears little resemblance to a meal together with friends.
Last Saturday afternoon, at Xalt we tried to re-capture some of that sense of meeting and eating and praying together in the context of a Passover meal. But as Anglicans we have lost our way a little, in separating these things from each other. So, in these days, when the McDonald’s sign is becoming better known than the cross, and when people no longer sit down together at the meal table, we (the church) must surely be in the business of setting a fresh example of what it can be like to sit and eat together: rich and poor, brown and pink, protestants and catholics, established and new arrival.
But if it is to be an example to the world, it has to be (once again) essentially a group of disciples, (of friends) – of people who like, and care for, and even love each other in the name of Christ. Who gather around a table, knowing that it is the Lord himself who has prepared the meal, that it is the Lord who himself passes to each one of us the bread and cup to share with one another; and says to each one of us, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” At which all are servants, albeit with slightly different servant roles to play, at which the table has been rounded and expanded, so that there is room – equal room -for everyone.
That is the vision which we are reminded of this evening, as we come face to face with the one who washes our feet, and gives of himself for us. A shared loaf and a shared cup is the very essence of holy communion, the reason that we gather together this evening: literally, it is the heart of the matter.