On Sunday Steve spoke with us about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: it had powerful symbolic associations for Jesus’ Jewish community. The supper we remember tonight is equally laden with powerful associations for the early Christian community who remembered and re-told the story of Jesus’ passion, and who struggled to understand its meaning in the light of his death and resurrection, and in the context of their relationship with God.
It was not just a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples: it may well have been the Passover Seder, or if not, was a sabbath meal shared in close proximity to the Passover celebration. The Seder meal, which is still practiced by Jews throughout the world, recalled the liberation of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt, some twelve hundred years before the Last Supper.
We can assume that Jesus and his disciples included at least some of the traditional rituals of the Seder –
As we heard in our first reading tonight, the Exodus story tells us that the Hebrew slaves were able to leave Egypt because of the final plague with which God afflicted their Egyptian overseers, in which the firstborn of every household was struck down by the Angel of Death passing over the land. According to scripture, God called for a lamb to be sacrificed by each household, and the blood of the lamb was to be put on the doorposts of the houses: when death then passed through the land, the homes of the Hebrew slaves would be spared, and while the Egyptians were in disarray because of the plague of death, the slaves would be able to escape.
It seems clear that as Jesus’ followers recalled the events of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, after his death, resurrection, and ascension, and as they struggled to understand his perplexing choice to submit to crucifixion, the imagery of the Passover story that figured so prominently in his final gathering with his community provided them with a means of understanding. They came to see Jesus’ death in the light of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs, whose blood saved their ancestors from death: just as the Paschal or Passover lambs’ death saved the people of Israel and brought them freedom from bondage, just so Jesus’ death saved and brought the new Israel freedom from the bondage of sin and death.
John tells us that “Jesus knew his hour had come to depart from this world,” and that “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John tells us that Jesus was making a choice. Jesus knew that his friends still did not really understand his life or his actions or the truths he taught, but he had given them enough that, in time, through faith and the presence of the Spirit, they would come to understand. His final gifts came in the form of the two commandments conveyed to the disciples at that supper in the upper room.
The first is the gift of the eucharist (from the Greek eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving”). Jesus commanded his followers to remember him in the sharing of the bread and the wine. The breaking of the bread in that context, and with the words with which Jesus described his action, must have been very powerful for his friends. You’ll recall that after his death and resurrection, two of his disciples met a traveler on the road to Emmaeus. The traveler walked with them, reflecting to them on the meaning of scripture, and although they marveled at his insights, they did not recognize him. The traveler agreed to join the disciples for supper afterward, and it was only at the moment when he broke the bread for the meal that their eyes were opened and they recognized him as the risen Christ.
The sharing of the bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus self-giving love has been practiced by Christians since the first days of the church, and it remains the means by which we touch and are touched by that love every time we come to God’s table: it is a profound gift indeed.
Jesus second gift/commandment came in an action that shocked his disciples. During the supper he garbed himself in a towel and began to wash their feet. Foot washing in that culture was considered to be an act of such humility that servants were not even required to carry it out if they didn’t wish to do so. That the one whom the disciples knew as the master and teacher should take on this role was incomprehensible to them, and Peter initially voiced his refusal to have any part of it.
Jesus response was clear and explicit: his action was an example of how they should love one another.
Jesus’ act in washing the disciples’ feet clearly called them “out of their comfort zone,” as the popular phrase goes. Jesus was once again turning their expectations upside down. The disciples were still fixed on their hopes for glory. They had not objected, it appears, to being sent forth as preachers and healers. They must have felt gratified by being in the inner circle with the one who was being hailed as the Anointed One. But this was something unexpected, something uncomfortable, even unacceptable, that the Master should actually take on the role of personal servant.
Just as Jesus chose to exercise his love and spiritual wholeness in an act of humble service to the disciples, they, and we, are called serve the needs of one another.
Jesus actions back up his words – that caring for others is not a matter of having the right sentiment, and not just for when it is comfortable, or convenient, or easy. Jesus reminds us that love is not about pats on the back in which we help one another to feel good – it is about getting down where it is personal, and intimate, and sometimes even messy and unpleasant.
Tonight we recall Jesus’ Last Supper in actions as well as words. In a few minutes we will have the opportunity to take Jesus’ commandment literally, and to wash one another’s feet. We will also take part in the ritual of anointing that Bishop Doug has introduced. In the Eucharist we will once again re-enact Jesus’ Passover meal, remembering his love and his courage.
We are set free and we are healed by Christ’s love.
Nurtured by the sacrament and by the grace we receive in the community of Christ’s followers, may we be strengthened and inspired to become the lovers, the liberators, the healers of the world.
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