Last supper

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

These are familiar words for Christians, recited week in, week out in churches all over the world as believers gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper. They are even more poignant today, Maundy Thursday, as we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. However, as is often the case, it may be that our familiarity with the text makes us blind to certain aspects of the reality it describes.

Because we often rightly take great comfort and encouragement from the sacrament of communion, I think we tend to imagine that not only the disciples but also Jesus himself took similar comfort and encouragement from the meal they shared at the Last Supper. In truth, it’s probably much more likely that the disciples’ reaction was one of bemusement and confusion – What IS he talking about? – and that Jesus himself was in something of a state of emotional turmoil as he broke the bread and poured the wine.

Think about it: Jesus knows that his “hour has come”. I don’t for one moment believe that he knew this by divine omniscience; he knew it because he understood that “love is just a recipe for getting yourself crucified”[1]. He knew that his words and actions had set him on a collision course with the religious and political authorities at a time when Jerusalem, amid the patriotic fervour of Passover, was a tinderbox of unfulfilled revolutionary expectation. And, as a fully-fledged human being, the knowledge of his impending suffering must have filled him with the most intense apprehension and anguish.

So, as his hour approaches, what does Jesus do? Does he withdraw into solace and bemoan his fate? Does he rail against those who not only mean him harm but are going to deliver him over to the worst possible fate in a few short hours? Does he finally lose his nerve and run for the hills? These would all have been very understandable reactions – perhaps even expected reactions in such circumstances.

And yet, faced with the enormity of what is about to befall him – betrayal, denial, public humiliation, torture and an excruciating death – here is what Jesus does: he shares a meal with his friends.

He knows that one of his closest associates will betray him to the authorities and that another will publicly disavow him. He’s pretty sure that most of the rest of them will desert him at the last, fleeing in fear as he dies, forsaken and alone. And, knowing this, he shares a most intimate meal with them, breaking bread with the one who will deny him and offering the cup of blessing to his betrayer.

And then, undeterred, he strides out to the Garden to meet his fate.

There are two very simple things I think we can learn from Jesus’ example here.

First, even in these most dire of circumstances, Jesus did not act out of fear. Note that I’m not saying he didn’t feel afraid. Son of God or not, I find it impossible to believe that he didn’t experience deep, heart-pounding, bone-crushing fear. But he did not allow the fear he felt to determine his actions. Scripture tells us that he had earlier set his face like flint to Jerusalem, and he maintained his resolve to the bitter end.

But it’s not just that Jesus doggedly persevered in the face of fear. More important still, he did not allow fear to stop him living out the kingdom of God. At the height of his fear, on the cusp of his darkest moment, he not only talked about but demonstrated extraordinary grace and inclusiveness.

Which brings me to the second point: even in his darkest, most troubled hour, Jesus treated no one as an enemy. Of course, he had plenty of enemies, including some very powerful ones… and others who, in spite of having shared the intimacy of day-to-day life with him, would conspire to bring him down. But he treated all of them with open hands and an open heart. Even when his very life was at stake, he refused to give in to the human impulse to condemn and blame.

So what does this mean for us today?

The world has always been a place of fear, to a greater or lesser extent. But for those of us born in the relative peace and stability of the latter half of the twentieth century, it is perhaps a more fearful place right now than we have ever known it to be. Everywhere we look, there is reason to fear: war, disease, political instability, social and racial turmoil, unemployment, financial insecurity… and, hanging over all of it, the grisly spectre of terrorism, ready to deal indiscriminate death without warning. The fear of death is everywhere; there is no place to hide.

What does Jesus say to us at such a time as this? I imagine, even though he knows how afraid we are, he says “Friends, don’t be afraid”. And he spreads out his arms and invites us to sit at the table and share a meal with him.

Psalm 23, a favourite Psalm of many, also speaks of a table overflowing with goodness. But let us not forget that this is a table prepared for the Psalmist in the presence of his enemies. It is a table found in the valley of the shadow of death: a table at which we share in the ridiculous, boundary-breaking, all-inclusive love of the Father even as the fear of death hems us in on every side.

I said earlier that there were two very simple things we could learn from Jesus as we consider his final hours of freedom. But of course, they are not simple at all. To refuse to act out of fear and to refuse to treat anyone as an enemy: these are mighty challenges at the best of times, let alone when we’re backed into a corner and fighting for our lives. But as we eat the bread and drink the cup this Holy Week, let us take courage from Jesus, our master and our friend, trusting that by his Spirit he will give us all the resources we need to be able to live out the kingdom he came to proclaim and embody.

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[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart

[ Image: Waiting for the Word]