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Maundy Thursday: Last Supper

Few of us know when we are at a final, last something with someone we love.  We live with the expectation that tomorrow will be like today. We assume our friends and family will be with us tomorrow. Almost none of us have had a family member on death row knowing what the last supper/final meal was. Many of us have had a last talk, visit, snack, drink with someone we love and see no longer. That reality may be an important insight into the supper Jesus shared with his friends and disciples.


Who was present? Was it only the 12 named disciples? Or were others there, like Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and Mary, the woman from the well, Nicodemus, blind now seeing Bartimeaus? Were his brothers and mother and father present? The occasion is not entirely clear: one Gospel account says it was the feast of Passover, another says it was the night before the feast of the Passover. Does that detail matter?

What did they talk about during dinner? Did they regale one another with scenes from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Were the shouts of hosanna still echoing in their ears? Have they come to understand Jesus better after walking all over Galilee with him? Has his teaching made a difference in their lives, in their faith? Are they united in their love for him?

Peter shows us how much our words can hurt, how fragile are most of our promises. He suffers the shame that follows when he realizes his strength is not equal to his words. He grieves over his denial. We may question our own commitment, when we side with the powerful, when we avoid claiming our faith in the face of the world’s cynicism. We should not be too hard on Peter or ourselves: we fail and that is not cause enough for God or Jesus to stop loving us.

Judas left as if he was on call for some important job. He was, it turns out. He took payment to betray Jesus to the ones who plotted his death. Why? Did Judas think he would force Jesus to overthrow the harsh yoke of the Roman overlords and establish a kingdom on earth where he and the other disciples would have position and influence? Was he so sure that Jesus was Messiah that he did not believe anything bad could happen to him? In my mind, there is a chair at the table with Jesus. It belongs to Judas. He has left, so it is empty, but it is still his.

What would you say or do if you were present? Would you vow to stand by him no matter what? Would you want to force his hand to act because things are so hard on so many? Would you be silent, observe, take it in, and wonder later about all he did and said: what sticks in memory?  Was it the way he took and bread, broke it and gave it to them? Was it the cup of wine, blessed and given to all present?

For centuries the church gathered has continued to take bread, bless, break and give it in re-membrance of HIM. It became for us the uniting sacrament of Christ’s body that feeds our spiritual essence to become transformed into his likeness so that we as his body here and now is witness to who he truly was. This night invites us to come to the table, to share a common cup, to be friends of Jesus, and allow his declaration: “you are my friends” to seep deeply into our consciousness.

Jesus gave them one command: love one another just as I have loved you. That command to love is more than a feeling of friendliness or favorable opinion of another. It requires a conscious choice to love as we are loved by Jesus, the Christ. We may shrink away from this command, thinking it impractical or impossible, outside our ability or interest, but we can’t change his expectation of them or us. I don’t think Jesus suffered any illusions about the ability of the first disciples, nor does he has illusions about us. He knows whereof we are made. He loves us as sinners. His love triumphs over all our sin, personal and collective.

In commanding them to love one another as he loved them Jesus asks for commitment.  Scripture does not tell us if everyone nodded ascent, or said yes we will, or just looked down at their hands thinking how hard such a commandment might become. They knew as we do that the love we receive from Jesus is greater in quality and quantity to anything we can manufacture. So that leaves us to question, how can we do it?

The key I think is that the people gathered around Jesus were his friends; he was their friend; he called them friends.  Family is a core value for our culture, even as the definition of family changes. Friends are selected, they are those with whom we are really ourselves without pretense, disguise, or projection. We take off the masks. We have the courage to be honest. We don’t edit so much. We may be more thoughtful and share some conflicting opinions, our ambiguities and doubts, rather than put on the happy face of all if fine.

Friends extract from each other the highest and the best within them.

Is this why Jesus called them friends?

Love is holy. It is not uncommon to hear a person refer to a friend as a soul mate. They are describing a transcendent element in the relationship, mirrored by the divine/holy/spiritual essence of the physical human person. Thinking about this a while offers a glimpse into what it would have been like to be at the table with Jesus when he broke bread, shared the cup of wine, and gave them the one commandment that would/could solidify the church community for generations to come: love one another as I have loved you.

This type of love is more than feeling, it is transforming, it is holy. It comes from Christ and it conveys Christ-love to self and others. It includes the least, the last and the lost. It is symbolized in the humble act of washing feet and it is conveyed in the bread and wine, blessed, broken and given.

Tonight at this table, listen and hear Jesus call you friend and be filled with his love to overflowing. The overflow is the way we learn to obey the love command.

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