Today is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday and, as such, the day in the cycle of the Passion story when Christ gathered with his friends and followers for his last supper.
What happened that night is now the basis for the central sacrament of our spiritual tradition – the breaking of bread, the sharing of wine, the remembrance of what Christ accomplished for us and for the world.
But it is interesting to “strip back” all of the meaning that we have invested in this story, and instead ponder it in simpler terms.
To do so, it is interesting for any one of us to ask ourselves a simple question – if we knew that tomorrow was our last day in the world, with whom would we spend a last evening, a last gathering?
For many of us, the people who we would want to share that final meal with would be those who mean the most to us, our most beloved friends and family members. Perhaps we would make arrangements to travel to them if they are far away, perhaps they would travel to be with us. We would choose our favourite foods, we would make a special effort to set aside any other commitments that we had, we would probably want to share thoughts and memories of good times that we had spent together, we would laugh, perhaps shed a tear or two, and know that we were surrounded by loved ones.
That’s what we would do.
But Jesus’ last supper was different.
Yes, he chose to spend that time with friends, or those who he had considered friends. But the Gospel writer is quite clear in suggesting that Christ knew, all the while, that those with whom he was sharing that meal were not the types of friends that any would truly want to have.
“When it was evening, he took place with the twelve, and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’”
Jesus seemed to know, full well, that those with whom he shared that meal, those who joined him at that table, would betray him, they would abandon him, they would deny that they even knew him, they would hand him over to those who would kill him, and then they would flee into the night.
And yet, those were the ones who he chose to eat with on that last night of his life.
Not exactly who I would want to choose to share my last meal with.
But then again, I’m not Jesus.
And what he chose to do is actually good news for each and every one of us.
Because we, too, are called to join him at the table, just as his erstwhile, fairweather friends were called. We, too, are called to join him at the table, not because we’ve been faithful to him, any more than his first disciples were faithful to him, but because we haven’t. We, too, are called to him at the table, not because we have done anything to deserve to be there, but in spite of the fact that we do not deserve to be there.
It is fairly easy to judge Judas Iscariot for his actions, or to point the finger at Peter for his three-fold denial, or to wonder how Jesus’ supposed friends could so quickly and so easily desert him. But it is better for us to see our lives in light of their actions – to realize that we betray him, and his call and claim upon us; to realize that we deny him, not only in our actions but sometimes even in our words, our priorities, our allegiances, our commitments, our attitudes; to realize that we – like those first followers – love following Jesus when his power is at work on our behalf, or when things seem to be going well; but then, when things are not going as smoothly, or when he does not seem to be doing what we want or what we expect him to do, we are as likely to walk away from him, to pretend that we do not know him, even to deny our supposed call to be his followers.
And he knows that. Just as he knew what was going to happen to him, and what those who shared that first table with him were about to do.
And yet, he called them to be with him at that table. Just as he calls us.
Because what we are called to remember, when we come to this table, and break bread, and share the cup, is that he did all of this out of love for the undeserving, not for those who merited or who had earned his love.
He did all of this to reveal the forgiving grace of a God of love, and forgiveness can only be extended to those who have sinned.
He did all of this to show to his disciples, and to the world, and to each one of us, that betrayal, and denial, and fear, and suffering, and sin, and death itself, could not – and cannot – undermine the power and the reality of God’s love.
I would like to conclude, today, with words of invitation that are drawn from a book called “Devotional Services for Public Worship” written by John Hunter, who served as a Congregationalist minister in Glasgow and London in the late 18th and early 19th century. His words remind us, in a beautiful way, that the invitation to this table is not because of our goodness, but because there is one who prepared this table – for his followers so long ago, even as he prepares it for us today.
Come to this sacred Table, not because you must, but because you may: come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ, and desire to be His true disciples: come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on Heaven’s rewards, but because in your frailty and sin you stand in constant need of Heaven’s mercy and help: come, not to express an opinion, but to seek a Presence and pray for a Spirit.
And now that the Supper of the Lord is spread before you, lift up your minds and hearts above all selfish fears and cares; let this bread and this wine be to you the witnesses and signs of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Before the Throne of the Heavenly Father and the Cross of the Redeemer make your humble confession of sin, consecrate your lives to the Christian obedience and service, and pray for strength to do and to bear the holy and blessed will of God.
And this message is confirmed by the end of the story. The bridegroom arrived, albeit unexpectedly and far later than anyone would have anticipated, and led the attendants who were ready to celebrate into the wedding feast. The doors were closed and locked, leaving the foolish bridesmaids out of the party. Those who had not kept their lights shining were not ready to join the party.
And the consequences were difficult. The bridegroom claimed not to have known them – in words that bear a distinct echo of Jesus’ earlier words in this same Gospel in which he stated that there would be some who would call him Lord but would not do as he commanded, leading him to respond that he did not even know them.
And then, the final words in today’s reading – keep awake, therefore; for you know neither the day nor the hour.
It can be good for us to realize and to remember that the Gospel texts, as we now have them, were compiled many decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is good indication, from both the New Testament epistles and from the Gospels, that the earliest Christians had a very keen sense that Jesus’ return was imminent. Some texts had stated that some of his friends and earliest followers would not die before he returned. But days had turned into months, months into years, and years into decades. Like the bridegroom in today’s story, Jesus’ return – though still anticipated – was taking much longer than anyone had anticipated.