THURSDAY OF THE LAST WEEK
The Last Week of Jesus’ life was spent in Jerusalem among hundreds of thousands of Jews who traveled there to celebrate the Passover. He arrived on Sunday on the back of a young donkey to the cheers of peasants waving palm branches, all to make fun of the grand arrival of the Roman Governor happening the same day on the other side of town. On Monday Jesus led another demonstration at the Temple, turning over tables and chairs, due to the lack of any true worship happening in that place. Tuesday Jesus debated Jewish leaders in the Temple Courtyard making them look like fools. Jesus spent Wednesday in Bethany with his friends at the house of Simon the leper where a woman anointed his head with very expensive perfume, while Judas went to the authorities with his plan of betrayal.
Today is Thursday of the Last Week of Jesus, the gospels of Matthew and Luke, follow Mark by recording the accounts surrounding Jesus’ Last Supper, which was a celebration of the Passover with his Disciples. These three gospels along with the Apostle Paul give us what we call the Words of Institution, the words over bread and cup that are said each time we come to the Communion Table. The Gospel of John does not follow Mark and instead tells us about Jesus washing the disciple’s feet and then commanding them, and us, to love one another as he has first loved us.
This past week, one of the Saints of our denomination was buried. Fred Craddock was a pastor, a preacher, a Bible Scholar, and a teacher. He has been deemed by many to be the best preacher of our time. One of the best gifts of his preaching was that he opened our hearts to hear very familiar passages from the Bible as if for the first time. In that spirit, I invite you now to follow along in your Bibles and to listen for something new in this very familiar story, as I recount the Last Thursday of Jesus’ life as told in the Gospel of Mark.
“On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover’” The details in this section remind us of the preparations for Jesus’ entry into the city on Palm Sunday. Both times, Jesus sent two disciples, told them what to look for, and what to say. Following Jesus’ instructions, preparing for the Passover meal took the disciples all day.
Verse 17 begins, “When it was evening, he came with the twelve.” They took their places and began to eat the Seder Meal together and Jesus told them that the one who dipped his bread into the bowl at the same time would be the one to betray him.
Verse 22 says, “While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup and after giving thanks he gave it to them and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’”
Verse 26, “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” It was there that Jesus told Peter that he would deny him 3 times before the cock crowed twice. Then they went to Gethsemane and Jesus took Peter, James and John to be with him while he prayed. In verse 34 Jesus said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death, remain here and keep awake.” And then Jesus fell on the ground and prayed,” Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want.” But the disciples could not stay awake even when their friend was told them he was overwhelmed with sorrow, even when they could see him on the ground.
Jesus then took them and returned to where the rest of the disciples were waiting. Judas arrived followed by soldiers and people sent from the chief priests, scribes and elders and they were weapons.
In verse 48 Jesus said to them, “’Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.’” All of the disciples then deserted Jesus and fled except a certain young man who followed wearing nothing but a linen cloth. Those arresting Jesus tried to seize him grabbing his cloth but he got away and ran off naked. The Greek word translated as linen cloth is sindon – which is the same word used for the burial cloth that on Friday will be wrapped around Jesus’ body in the tomb.
Verse 53 begins Jesus’ interrogation by the high priest where, “many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree.” Jesus was silent until the high priest asked him, “’Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ to which Jesus said, “‘I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’” The high priest tore his clothes and called it blasphemy. “All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him and to strike him saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.”
Peter was below in a courtyard while all this was happening and was recognized by a servant girl and a bystander. He denied knowing Jesus 3 times. After the cock crowed a twice, Peter remembered what Jesus had said “and he broke down and wept.”
The importance of this day, and of the shared meal cannot be understated. It was Jesus’ last day of freedom and it contained his last hours with his friends, his last opportunity to teach, to share wisdom, and to share God’s love with those who were closest to him. His last meal would be the Seder. It was Passover – the biggest and most important celebration of the year. The Passover included a large meal with symbolic foods like lamb, wine and flatbread, a fruit salad, herbs and bitter root. They would have dipped their bread in olive oil or hummus or honey. They might have also eaten olives, almonds, dried figs, vegetables and goat cheese. Before and after the meal, they would have gone through the ceremony remembering the first Passover that occurred in Egypt. The youngest person present would have asked four questions about the meaning of the night. Jesus would have recounted the story of the Exodus when Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. After they finished eating, Jesus would have led the singing of Psalms and after each section, the disciples would have sang Alleluia in response.
This Seder meal, this meal of the Passover, Jesus’ Last Supper was a lived out symbol of all that Jesus stood for, of all he had taught – of all the time they had spent together, all the pain and all the joy, the Last Supper was a lived out symbol of the kingdom of God. Jesus wanted his disciples to take this symbolic act and remember it all.
Meals were very important to Jesus. Meals were the most distinctive feature of Jesus’ public activity. He taught at meals, banquets were topics of his parables. He ate with everyone. He ate with poor people and rich people, tax collectors and religious leaders. He ate with sinners and lepers, family and loved ones. He ate with those who would desert him, deny him and betray him. Jesus’ meal practice was one of inclusion in a society with sharp social boundaries. Jesus presented a very different vision for the world through his eating habits.
The meals of Jesus were not simply rituals, they were real meals, with real food. Food symbolizes the material foundation of our shared existence. For Jesus’s peasant audience, bread – enough sustenance for the day, was a central to their survival. The Last Supper continues and culminates in Jesus’s emphasis upon meals and food as part of God’s justice. In Leviticus 25 God says, “The land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” God created and owns the world and demands that all people get a fair share of God’s blessings, first and foremost in the form of food.
The point of the final meal is an invitation to participation with God – by blessing all with enough food. The point of the last supper is an invitation to participation with Jesus in building the kingdom of God. The point of the Lord’s Supper is an invitation to participation in Christ through his broken body and shed blood, in death and resurrection – into new life and a new way of living – into a new realization of the gift of each day, of each meal, of each moment.
“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters.” Judas would betray him, Peter would deny him and they would all leave him when he was arrested.
And haven’t we been deserters too? We have denied Christ, more times than Peter – because we do not understand him, because we let the culture define him, because we think that smart people can’t really believe in him. We have betrayed Christ through our greed for money and material possessions while ignoring the injustice that is all around us. We also have been deserters running from the cross, unable to face what it requires of us – sacrifice, forgiveness and love?
The Last Supper was a Seder Meal where Jesus and his disciples remembered how God through Moses led the Hebrew people to from slavery to freedom. They remembered the faithfulness of God, of safety, enough to eat and water to drink. And then Jesus gave them a new understanding for that sacred meal. That God through Jesus leads all people from slavery to freedom and that through Christ we are invited to participate in leading others from slavery to freedom; we are invited to participate in justice for all; we are invited to participate in forgiveness; we are invited to participate in life and light and love.
We are people of the table. Every time we come together for worship we celebrate the Last Supper. We take the symbolic elements of bread and wine from a big, full meal and through it we remember Jesus’ humanity. We remember that he celebrated with his friends, that he enjoyed good food, that gave thanks for the meal that he knew would be his last. We remember that he was scared, that he did not want to suffer, and that he took his distress to God in prayer.
We are people of the table who through that ritual act remember what God’s kingdom looks like. Through the ritual of taking bread and juice into our bodies we remember and affirm Jesus’ covenant to us, a covenant of love – a promise of love.