St Barbara’s 02.04.15
Jesus was known for his meals and his love of parties. John introduces the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with a feast – the wedding of Cana. Many of Jesus’ encounters happen in people’s homes, over meals. To the shock of the religious establishment, he eats with sinners and tax-collectors. He beckons Zacchaeus down from his tree and goes and has lunch with him. Many of his parables involve banquets and feasts.
And yet this meal, the last meal he eats with his disciples before his death and resurrection, is the only one that we re-enact, the only one that countless Christians all over the world will be gathering together to reflect on, this evening.
Why? What makes this meal so special, so important?
It is in part that it is his last supper that gives it such poignancy and significance, though Jesus will in fact eat again with his disciples. Indeed, many of his post-resurrection appearances also involve food – he sits down to eat with two disciples at Emmaus, he cooks breakfast for his disciples by the lakeshore.
But it is in this evening before his death that Jesus provides his disciples with two of the most powerful symbolic acts of his whole ministry, by which they will come to understand his life, his death and his resurrection.
Lets take the second act first: the sharing of bread and wine.
The words from our epistle are so well known. They are the words that are spoken every week in church: “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Over the coming months we will explore a bit more deeply about what Christ meant by these words, but just a few thoughts now.
This was the Passover meal, the meal celebrating God’s great act of liberation, freeing the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It was the meal that celebrated that God was their saviour, the one who looked after them, cared for them, protected them, called them to be his own. And now Jesus was saying, “I am that passover meal. Just as God brought freedom to his people then, so God will bring even greater freedom for his people now, through me.”
Christ’s sacrifice, his suffering and death on the cross, that we think on tomorrow, is the means of our liberation from sin, and death itself.
When we share in this meal of bread and wine, we celebrate the wonder, the hope, the joy, that we have been set free, that Christ has brought us life. We remember the Exodus, we remember the last supper, and we “give thanks”. Indeed eucharist is the greek word for thanksgiving.
The meal is not only a looking back. It is a looking forward too. Looking forward to a meal that is to come – the Messianic banquet, the meal that we will share with God in heaven, with all the saints and angels at the end of the age.
These events – two in the past, one in the future – are brought together in the now, the present, and in doing so, our participation in them transforms us. We are changed as we participate in them.
None of us can fully understand the power and significance of this act of remembrance and participation, but God touches us through it. In this meal we touch on something of the holiness, the self-givingness of God, and we cannot be left unmoved.
The second symbolic act of this last supper is one that is equally powerful and arresting. In identifying with the Passover meal, Jesus is saying that though he is man he is also God, our liberator and redeemer. In washing the disciples’ feet, he is saying that though he is God, he identifies with the humblest of humans. It was an act, within the context of his day, that was shocking and disturbing. Sandalled feet unavoidably got covered with dust and mud amidst the crowded and chaotic streets of Jerusalem. Add to that the hundreds and thousands of animals led through the streets on their way to be temple sacrifices, and all the animal dung that went with them, and the act of feet washing when arriving at a house, became a deeply unpleasant but necessary act.
Not surprisingly, no one wanted to do it. It was such a despised job, that not even Jewish slaves could be compelled to do it – only Gentile slaves. It was a job that came with real social stigma. A job for the lowest of the low.
And yet here is Jesus, the one who is being proclaimed as Messiah, as king, the one we know is God himself, stooping down and doing this worst of all jobs. No wonder the disciples’ first reaction is one of horror.
But just as with the meal, it is an action that points beyond itself. Here is Christ living out a life of self-sacrificial humility, of doing whatever it takes, to show us his love, a love that within the next 24 hours will take him to death itself. It is an act that shows what God is truly like, a God of mercy, gentleness, compassion, humility. A God who serves.
It is a deeply uncomfortable act. The disciples certainly found it so. Maybe its why so many of us in churches find the act of having our feet washed so difficult. We become vulnerable, naked, just as the disciples became naked and vulnerable before the utterly self-giving love of Christ. It puts us in the place of receiving, of admitting a need. We are no longer so self-sufficient, so in control.
The theologian, Paula Gooder, wonders whether it is this discomfort that has led the once a year act of the Passover meal to become celebrated on a weekly or even more regular basis in churches, whilst the daily act of feet-washing has become an act done at most once a year and then, only by a few. I instinctively shy away from the challenge of self-sacrificial humility it gives.
Christ, through this act, leaves his disciples in no doubt: greatness is in humility; love is in service; Christ is the servant king.
Tonight, just as you may want to participate in our act of communion, so you may want to participate in the act of feet-washing, physically remembering this extraordinary act of love and devotion, by having your own feet or hands washed. Before the choir sing, there will be a pause of silence for any of you to come forward. And even if you would prefer not to do so, do use this time to reflect on the God who would do anything to show you the depth of his love.