A sermon for Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:14, (51-0), 11-14, Psalm 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
When you that hear Jesus and the disciples are at the Passover or the Last Supper what image pops into your head? I bet you it is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. No question it is a magnificent painting. But I’ve read three articles this week, which started me wondering if Leonardo, and we, have the correct image. In the painting, things seem very formal. There is lots of conversation, but not much fellowship. In the Gospels, there are details about setting up for the Passover meal, but little about the meal itself. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the action takes place in the context of the meal. As we just heard, in John, everything happens before the meal begins. But what is the Passover meal? Yes, we know its origins are in God’s instructions to Moses for an everlasting ritual of remembrance as Israel is about to embark on their Exodus journey. But what Exodus describes, doesn’t fit da Vinci’s picture. So, what’s up?
It is likely da Vinci’s painting is of a Seder Supper, which is part of the 7 day Passover celebration. A Seder is a celebration, even if it is a very scripted meal. In the middle of the meal, the youngest able child asks four questions why do we only eat matzah bread tonight? why do we only eat bitter herbs tonight? why do we dip food in water twice? why do we eat reclining tonight? The answers connect the family to the Exodus story. we eat matzah because our ancestors could not wait for bread to rise when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt we eat only bitter herbs, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery the first dipping symbolizes replacing our tears with gratitude, and the second symbolizes the sweetening of our burden of bitterness and suffering we recline because a person who reclined at a meal was a free person (Wikipedia). The Q & A gives us a sense of what God wants Israel to remember, but not a sense of the feeling to the meal. The three articles did.
The first was about Israel closing Jewish entry to Red Sea resorts because of a terrorist threat. It is a reasonable action. The learning is that people go to a resort to celebrate Passover; it is a holiday. The second article was about stories of the youngest child asking the 4 questions and family support and good times that the families enjoyed. The last article was about festive foods for the remaining of the 7 days of Passover; the pictures were tempting. It all sounds as if Passover and Seder are much closer to holiday and holiday meals. I was thinking about Christmas and Easter holidays and those fantastic feasts. I believe the disciples are expecting a festive, celebratory meal that celebrates Israel’s freedom from slavery. It is not what happens on this night.
All four gospels are something like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. A family is in middle of a festive grand meal when someone makes a surprise announcement. Sometimes it is an unexpected marriage or engagement; other times the announcement is of some business decision or an overseas adventure. In every case people leaving in an angry huff; and occasionally amidst threats, it is an Agatha Christie story. No matter the announcement, it is a real bummer that kills the festive mood.
In Matthew and Mark, during the meal, Jesus tells them that one of them will betray him. That will break a festive spirit. Later he breaks bread, then blesses bread and wine to be his body and blood of the new covenant. We celebrate this as the institution the Eucharist. I don’t think the disciples are celebrating; they are more likely thinking What! Luke puts Judas’ decision to betray Jesus before the Passover meal, so, we don’t know what the disciples know. However, we do know Jesus includes a woe to the one who will betray him. That has got the disciples wondering about each other, and maybe about themselves. John has Jesus start washing the disciples’ feet before the meal ever gets started. Right time; wrong action. Then he goes on say: you should do for each other what I have done for you (John 13:15); and a little later this is how others will know that you are my disciples (John 13:34). None of these scenes are celebratory. Everyone is wondering who is going to betray Jesus? and hoping it is not them. Everyone is wondering about Jesus giving them his body and blood to eat and drink to give them new life. We get it, but we have had 2 thousand years to come to terms with it, and they were not all easy years. Think about hearing this for the first time, without any kind of preparation or notice, in the middle of a celebration dinner. Surprise!
Everyone is surprised. Jesus is dashing any dreams of grandeur or imperial station. Everyone is wondering how to be a servant and do I really want to wash my colleagues’ feet? Think about the hesitation you experienced when having your feet washed was first introduced.
I am beginning to wonder if 2000 years of tradition, with all its wonderful artwork, inspirational music, and ancient liturgy have taken an unintended toll. It was about 1500 years from Israel’s exodus to Jesus’ last Passover Seder. It is just short of 2000 years since then. Where is the surprise? Where is the shock? Where is Jesus turning it all upside down?
He is still here. We have just gotten good at not seeing. The Gospel stories are framed by the twin forces of internal and external oppression. Though in different forms the same is true for us. As blessed as my family and I are there are internal forces, some government, some social or community, some financial, some family, that from time to time are oppressive or at the least constraining. I’d shed them if I could. As blessed as we are as a country there are external forces, some economic, some violent, that have a restrictive feel. If your family is of recent foreign national origins, those forces may really be oppressive. We are enraged by babies killed by deadly gas. Some are enraged by action to stop that, as the same officials ignore babies from the same country that drown as their parents are trying to get them to safety. Just the passage of time, and the emergence of new generations’ coming to power with their own devices and desires that are not ours, sometimes pushes too hard. We are every bit as surprised, as the disciples were. Just not at the dinner table, and not as much by internal expectations as by external disruptions.
However, Jesus still teaches us to be servants and to love despicable aliens, and the threatening ‘thems’; if in no other way than by loving each other as examples.
And we can love each other in how we live into humanity’s first calling to till and keep the garden/ the earth (Gen 2:15) which today is caring for all creation not consuming it out of the desires of our hearts or the profits we seek.
We can love each other by walking humbly, loving kindness and doing justice, (Micha 6:8). We can love each other by leaving vengeance to God (Deut. 32:35, Romans 12:19) not to powers of the State that continually seeks favor (think votes) by proclaiming it is protecting lives by threatening lives, directly in executions, or indirectly through biased social – economic structures that oppress the poor, the widows, orphans and the aliens (Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3, Zech 7:10, Interpreters’ Dict) We can love each other by learning to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defending the orphans, and pleading for the widow (Isaiah 1:17)
We can love each other in rendering true judgments, showing kindness to those of different persuasions than we are; in showing mercy to those we judge to be undeserving; by not oppressing those who live at the edge of existence, the alien, or the poor; whose work we often unknowingly depend on, (have you eaten this week?) and by not devising evil against one another (Zechariah 7:9-10).
We can love each other as we let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). We can love each other by trusting the peace of God that is beyond our understanding yet leaves us mysteriously whole within ourselves and with one another both friend and stranger.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Olivetree. Olivetree Cross Reference. n.d.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Wikipedia. “wikipedia.org.” n.d. Passover Seder. 11 4 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passover_Seder>.