Not Seeing the Surprise

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. “” n.d. Passover Seder. 11 4 2017. <;.




Jesus’ Hosting, Serving and Cleansing Presence.

A sermon for Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:14, (5-10), 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35, Psalm 116:1, 10-17


We are a people who generally like traditions; really old traditions. Like 4th-century traditions. Well most of the time, tonight I’m glad we have the traditions we have. In the 4th century, we would have begun at two this afternoon, with Eucharist in a church at the site of the true cross. At 4 pm we would move to the courtyard, the site of the crucifixion for a second celebration, and then prayers at Jesus’ tomb. Then we scoot home for a quick dinner before heading off to a meeting on the Mount of Olives, for hymn singing, reading, prayers and Gospel readings until 11 pm; then we would listen to Gospel passages of what Jesus said to his disciples in the very cave we were in. At midnight we would go to Imbomon, the site of the Ascension, for another service until cock-crow; then process down the mountain to Gethsemane for prayers, hymns, lections at the various stations. At daybreak, we would return to the site of the crucifixion to hear the Gospel account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Then we would go home until it is time to go to the first Good Friday service  (Hatchett 228).

I’m glad we’ve less to do; maybe we will have some energy to direct toward gleaning what the readings have to share with us this evening. By the time I actually got to writing, I’d come to think that the gleanings are not so such from the words, as they are from the context. The reading from Exodus is the detailed instructions about the Passover sacrifice before the angel of death passes through Egypt taking the life of all the first born. The homes whose door post is properly marked will be spared. The final verse tells us this will be a remembrance for Israel, forever. This story may be about the first ritual established for Israel. It emphasizes God’s desire for Israel to remember what happened, indicating the divine desire for an eternal relationship.

The first verse Psalm 116 refers to one or more times that God has done something for the Psalmist. The Psalmist wants to repay God’s devotion and comes to the decision the way to go is to live the way God is calling the Psalmist to live. The decision honors and respects their relationship. The division is effecting how they gather for The Lord’s Supper. It may be helpful to understand that the word Paul uses for ‘Eucharist’ means thanksgiving. Its cultural context comes for a patronage social system in which you gave thanks to your benefactor. There was also a religious tradition of giving thanks to your local god. (Sakenfeld). At least some of the Corinthians are not remembering the relationship Jesus calls all followers to have with each other. Some, mostly wealthy families arrive early, eat their dinner meaning the late arrivals, seemingly the poorer, without sufficient food, go hungry. This dining habit is adding to the division in the community. Paul will not stand for this behavior. In describing the origins of the Lord’s Supper, he quotes Jesus “do this in remembrance of me.” He also notes Jesus’ gift is for “you” ~ all Jesus’ followers. Again we can see Paul’s and Jesus’ concern for relationships, between Jesus and the Corinthian Church, but also between the members of the church. If their relationship with each other is corrupt, so is their divine relationship (Gaventa and Petersen).

John’s account of the last supper is about foot washing, which has a long history. It is an act of hospitality for a host to provide water and a servant for guests to wash their feet (Gaventa and Petersen). We see it in Genesis. There is a cultic sacrificial discipline for priests to wash their feet before approaching the altar as an act of spiritual purification, that implies the importance of the relationship between God and the priest making the sacrifice, and I suspect between God and the person offering the sacrifice (Sakenfeld).

Jesus combines all three. He is the host, by washing the disciples’ feet he acts as the servant, and in his role as the priest, he is tending to the disciples’ spiritual life (Harrelson). Jesus’ use of the term ‘hour’ indicates his imminent return to The Father. The next sentence tells of Jesus love for his disciples, which his motivation for all his actions. Jesus has modeled how the disciples are to treat each other, and how they are to treat everyone else. He has also cleared the way for them to be at one with him and God, as he and God are one (Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus’ desire is for all disciples, including us, to be in the fullest relationship with God.

In tonight’s gathering, I invite us to listen to Paul’s cry for a community that lives in divine relationship with each other. I invite us to open ourselves to Jesus’ hospitality by allowing him to serve us and to cleanse the way to the fullest relationship with our creator God. Finally, I hope we see how it’s all about relationships. There are only a few days left in this Lenten season of penitential fasting. May we delve into how Jesus accepts us as we are and offers us a way to be who we are called to be. May we delve into our own duplicity in the tomorrow’s tragedy so that it may be cleansed. May we delve into our own behaviors towards people in, around and beyond the church. How do we relate to them? How do we offer them hospitality? How do we serve them? How do we invite them into Jesus’ hosting, serving, and cleansing presence?




Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hatchett, Marion J. Commentary on the American Prayerbook. HarperSanFrancisco, 1980.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.