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Thank God It's Thursday
Encountering Jesus at the Lord's Table As If for the Last Time
By William H. Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
We owe to the Jews our custom of saying "grace" before we eat. Israel worships at the Temple, the synagogue, and even at the family dinner table. To pray before engaging in ingestion is to claim eating and drinking—thoroughly necessary, utterly human activities—as acts full of divine signification. To pray the simple "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food" is to say a great deal about God and about food as a gift of God.
Many of us Methodists like to follow the Wesleys in praying, "Be present at our table, Lord, be here and everywhere adored." To invoke God's presence, asking God to come to the table, opens the simple act of sharing food and soothing our hunger to even greater meaning. We hunger for more than food, thirst for more than water. Thus, each of the sections of this book about Maundy Thursday's meal opens with a table blessing. I'm sure John would have me add that any time you say a prayer at the table, any table, hold on to your hats. Something about the Trinity loves to show up at dinnertime.
How typical of Jesus to save his whole point, his grandest moments of revelation, for the dinner table. When we hear the word Incarnation, we tend to think of Jesus' birth, the true meaning of Christmas—the Eternal Word became flesh and moved in with us. And yet, Maundy Thursday is a reminder that the Incarnation is more than the birth of Jesus; the Incarnation is also the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; everything Jesus did with us and was to us; and his speaking and acting and especially his eating. He met us on our own turf, coming to our workaday world in which there are hungers to be assuaged, food to be prepared, dishes to be washed, and guests to be invited; and although some of us gorge on too much, others are sent away from the table sorrowful and empty. Maundy Thursday is an affirmation of the everydayness of our God: God in the present tense and a God who refused and even now continues to refuse to leave us be, especially at dinnertime.
You already know that no meal is merely ingestion. The table is a place where the consumption of food is miraculously transformed into occasion for conviviality, conversation and revelation, communion and reunion. At table, mundane bodily function is given spiritual significance. Mealtimes tend to be life's highlights. The family meal, even breakfast, becomes a kind of sacrament of family life, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In every meal, there is always more, and the more is that which makes life worth living.
What you may yet discover is that in every meal with Jesus, there is even more of more. The augmented significance that Jesus always brings to the table tends to be at the heart of the Christian faith.
I hope that you find reassurance that, if you want to commune deeply with God, you need not climb some high mountain (like Moses when receiving the Ten Commandments) or journey out into the wilderness (like the Israelites during the Exodus). You simply must pray a prayer of blessing—say grace—at your breakfast table. God will do the rest.
Unlike the Synoptic Gospels that portray Jesus presiding over the Passover Seder, John says that Jesus' climactic meal occurred before the Passover. Jesus saves his best teaching, not for a sermon in the synagogue or inside the Temple at a high-ritual moment, but rather for an evening meal among friends.
His hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.
We awaited this hour throughout the Gospel of John. Some of us thought that his hour would be an hour of grandeur, a high moment when Jesus would at last throw off his humble humanity and begin to act like the Messiah we wanted him to be. But no, his hour will not be a triumphal march into Jerusalem, during which he seizes power, takes over the government, and kicks out the Romans. His hour will be spent with friends around the dinner table, patiently giving us the core of his teaching.
John says that Jesus' "last supper" was on the eve of the celebration of Passover, which is Israel's celebration of independence from slavery. Jews know by heart the great prayer, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the LORD alone (Deut. 6:4). God's people are not free to bow before other lords and lord-lets, even one so ruthlessly presumptive as Caesar. How bitterly ironic that on Passover, Israel's grand day of independence from slavery, some of God's cherished people collaborate with pagan Caesar to put to death God's Son. When all Jerusalem celebrates the actual feast, Jesus will be lying in the tomb (John 19:38-42), and Caesar's gods will think they are victorious.
Jesus had spoken rather ominously of "his hour" (John 2:24; 7:30; 8:20). "His hour" is a decisive moment. Here at the table we are told that at last his hour has come. Luke speaks of Jesus' death as a kind of exodus (Luke 9:31), clearly evoking Passover and deliverance. John calls his hour a departure (metabaino, a "cross over," John 13:1). In John, Jesus is crossing from this world to another, making a crossing before us, returning to where he had come before the Incarnation (John 1:1-5, 14). When someone dies, we say that person has "passed away." Jesus is passing over. Thus John gives heightened meaning to Passover. Jesus is passing over not just from slavery to freedom but also from death to life, passing over from this world to another.
And yet, here at table with his friends, in celebrating a meal, the most social and communal of human acts, Jesus shows that he has no intention of crossing over alone; he will, in some sense, take us with him. As he lifts the cup and passes the bread, he is leading us to a place we would not have—could not have—gone without his taking us there.
Descent and Assent
At this table, on this night, we are at a turning point from the incarnate Jesus' ministry here among us. He begins a crossover through his death to resurrection and future life with us in the community of love. The one who descended to us from the realm of light and life (John 1:1, 9; 3:13) is preparing to ascend to the Father who sent him. In him, heaven has done business with earth; now in him earth shall be exalted heavenward. The Son of God, the Eternal Logos, the One who was with God at the beginning, the One who is God, strips for work and kneels before us.
And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
On another night, ancestor Jacob had seen in a dream a great ladder let down from heaven with angels ascending and descending (Gen. 28). Tonight is the eve of "the hour" when there is once again heaven-to-earth traffic. Something about the Father refuses to be confined to heaven, God in heaven alone. God so loved the world that God gave God's Son for the world (John 3:16). The Son descends in order to reclaim a world in the grip of night; soon the Son will ascend in order to bring the whole world back to the God of Light.
C. S. Lewis depicts Christ's ascent and descent as an image of all that Christ did and said:
In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity.... But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.... One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in midair, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water in black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover.
This is the dramatic, paradoxical tension that John sustains throughout his Gospel: the divine has become human. Eternity has entered time. And when God shows up as the Word Made Flesh, at table or anywhere else, be prepared to have your boundaries of the human and the divine, of eternity and time, shattered.
We couldn't come to God, so God came to us, meeting us where we live, in the most mundane of locations—at the dinner table. Because our attempts at righteousness always went bad, Christ climbs down to the unrighteous (2 Cor. 5:21) then ascends a bloody cross, not only demonstrating the depths of our evil but also plumbing the unfathomable depths of God's love. And because God elected to be God for us, God with us, God in Christ could not return to God the Father without bringing us along, offering back to the Father the whole, beloved, yet deeply forlorn and lost human race.
Beginning with the Deed
Sometimes, while reading John's Gospel, my eyes blear and everything fades into a vague misty blue. The Fourth Gospel can have that effect on people. John's Gospel is packed with many high-sounding, spiritual words that tend to float upward. Some tire of John's long, religious-sounding speeches. I loved the Canadian film The Gospel of John, in which the Fourth Gospel is vividly rendered word for word in some stunning scenes. But it takes the film over three hours to do it. A friend who watched this movie said that he grumbled in frustration toward the end (surely in one of those long, redundant discourses in the last half of the Gospel), "Will Jesus ever shut up?"
But note that once we get to the table, after a rather intricate, thick theological introduction in John 13:1, words are laid aside and things unfold through haunting gestures done in silence: "during supper Jesus ... got up ... took off ... tied a towel ... poured water ... began to wash ... and to wipe."
You see every move in your mind. Not a word is spoken; it's all in the action.
And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
Some years ago, the errant Jesus Seminar made much mischief in their voting on which words, if any, Jesus actually spoke. Not many, said the voters in the seminar. Who told the Jesus Seminar that Christians worship the words of Jesus? We worship Jesus as the Word Incarnate, which means that we are attentive not only to what Jesus says but also to what he does. In Jesus, the Word Made Flesh became the Word as Deed. Having said, down through the ages, "I love you," God turned love into action and showed up as the Son (Heb. 1:2).
How sad that many of us are conditioned to think that when we go to church to be present with Jesus we are supposed to sit and listen to words. In many so- called contemporary services, the congregation doesn't even sing, because of unsingable songs, as would-be communal Christian worship degenerates into a spectator sport in which the passive many watch the performing few at worship.
I therefore think there are few things more important than the restoration of the Lord's Supper as an every-Sunday activity for every congregation. Let's remind ourselves that we Protestants who attempt noneucharistic worship on the majority of Sundays are decidedly in a minority of the world's Christians. At table (at least as the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell it), Jesus clearly said, "Do this," not think about, meditate upon, or have deep feelings for this. In going against centuries of church practice and the majority of Christians at worship today, we not only in effect have excommunicated millions of God's people from the Lord's Table but also have given many the false impression that we would rather talk about Jesus than to be present with Jesus, and that following Jesus is a matter of what we think or feel rather than what we do.
"So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."
In John, Jesus is big on words. But tonight, at the table, he doesn't only say the good news; he shows us as he enacts his gospel, embodies his sermons with basin and towel, simply and directly commanding us to do the same. In other Gospels, Jesus tells some memorable parables; tonight he performs parabolically by kneeling at his disciples' feet and enacting the gospel.
When Peter breaks the silence by blurting out his surprise that Jesus would act like a slave (yes, the actual Greek word is slave rather than the softer servant), Jesus responds (in John 13:6-11) with an enigmatic explanation alluding to the Lamb of God and the metaphor of washing. Peter is horrified to see his Lord on his knees before him, washing Peter's dirty feet, and responds in much the same way as he rebuked Jesus in his first prediction of his death and suffering in Mark 8:32.
Jesus answers with a more detailed explication of his foot washing, concluding with, "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them" (John 13:17, italics mine). Yes, that's often just the problem, isn't it? We know, but we fail to act upon our knowledge. The challenge with faith is not only knowing about Jesus but also doing as Jesus.
Many modern people complain that their problem with Jesus is that they lack sufficient knowledge about Jesus. There are so many gaps in our information about him, and some of the information—say when one compares the story of Jesus in Mark with that told in John—seems ambiguous and conflicting. I suspect that Jesus is easier to handle if we turn him into an intellectual problem. We await the results of more historical research on Jesus. We assume that if we just had more verifiable, uncontested facts about Jesus, we would know for sure about Jesus.
The modern world was, in great part, an intellectual quest for sure and certain knowledge. History became a science as scholars methodically peeled away the accumulated layers of myth and fanciful, credulous fables and dug down to the absolutely certain facts. Dare to think!
I remind you that Jesus never said, "Think about me." It was always, "Follow me." Or more typical of John's Gospel, Jesus says even more engagingly, "Love me." Love that is only knowledge of love is not yet true love. As Jesus says, it's blessed to know him, but more blessed is to do as he does (John 13:17), transforming his enigmatic action at the table into an example for us to follow throughout life, a command for us to obey.
Sometimes we preachers unwittingly imply that the greatest challenge of the Christian faith is in right thinking. Jesus is presented as a sort of folk philosopher who is tough to understand without the explication of a preacher. The Christian faith is a set of sometimes-challenging, frequently baffling ideas or principles. The sermon begins, "Three biblical principles for a more fulfilling life are ..." or, "Now I will attempt to explain confusing Jesus to you."
The intellectual love of the faith is indeed a blessed thing. We are enjoined to grow in our knowledge of the Lord; indeed, I hope this book will help you do just that. Yet even more blessed is active following of the faith—not thinking but doing the faith.
Still, John's Gospel is best thought of as a sermon. Try reducing the Gospels to biography, or merely to a report on history, and they will come across as botched, boring history. John doesn't just want to inform you about the past facts of Jesus; John wants to convert you into present faith in Jesus so that you will be enticed to follow Jesus.
Among the lessons that I as a preacher learn from preacher John is that my job as a preacher is not to dumb Jesus down. How many times have I as a preacher read aloud to the congregation some biblical text and watched listeners squirm. Then I begin my sermon, in effect, "Settle down. I can see that Jesus has made you confused and uncomfortable. Well, here is what Jesus was trying to say if he, like me, had the benefit of a seminary education."
I thus imply that, after my skilled explanation of Jesus, you will cease to be bothered by Jesus. Rather than encounter Jesus, you simply repeat what you have always thought about Jesus before you really met him. You can go home having had some sort of vague spiritual experience rather than being challenged by the living, demandingly present Christ.
Excerpted from Thank God It's Thursday by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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