It would be nice if we could imagine the Last Supper as an occasion of peace and fellowship. Wonderful if we could create in our mind’s eye a picture of harmony and concord among Jesus’ companions and friends – his disciples – his little school of learners.
And yet the stories we hear about the Last Supper in the Bible tell us something different, and frankly more human. Certainly this occasion in an upper room seems to be well set up and traditional. The Passover is being remembered in a regular and respectable way. And there is no doubt that Jesus made the occasion very much his own with some transformative gestures and a declaration that there was here a new covenant. The gospels vary in their details, and John doesn’t even have any sharing of bread and wine, but the idea is clear: Jesus is doing something profoundly new that is intended to represent and realise his understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.
There was a religious revolution going on at that meal, a redefinition of the human relationship with God that is on the cusp, as it were, of the kingdom of God. But it is only the cusp. It is near, but the gap between the ‘here’ of the gathering and the ‘there’ of the kingdom is very wide indeed.
If we look at the simply human side of it closely, we are inclined to get a bit of a shock. Rather than take their communion reverently, or have their feet washed obediently, the disciples seem to be very easily distracted. Peter’s reluctance to have his feet washed is famous and typical – not least when he quickly changes his mind and asks for a whole bath. Then there is the Judas aspect. First the anxiety caused by Jesus saying that there is betrayer at hand but not saying who it is, and then Judas, finding all this to be the last straw and disappearing into the night to hand Jesus over for money.
In Luke’s version that we read tonight we note with some surprise that in this context, of all places, and among these, of all people, a dispute about ‘greatness’ breaks out. It is of course the opportunity for Jesus to give a little speech – the rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects and they call their most powerful people ‘benefactors’. He goes on to say, by contrast, that leadership and authority among God’s people or, we might say, within God’s politics, is exercised by service. The mightiest must be as the weakest, the leader as one who serves. This is the Christ-like example, the briefing memo from the Jesus of Nazareth Institute of Management and Leadership.
Clearly it is an intentional inversion of the accepted norms. Luke is true to form here, and you can see the echo of the Magnificat’s famous reversals in this passage – setting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble and meek. The principle of reversal continues in Jesus’ very improbable suggestion that this motley crew of out of fishermen will end up judging the twelve tribes of Israel. It seems an odd promise to make – when these same people have just been disputing about their relative greatness.
Jesus in particular, and Christianity in general, is consistent in teaching that humility is the core virtue, and service the most fundamental action. The disciples are not given future roles that befit their status, because ‘status’ in the normal meaning of the word, the meaning to the nations where the leaders lord it over them, is irrelevant here. All power and authority belong to Jesus and that power issues not in status, but in service and sacrifice. And that mode of living – in which serving and giving are the most important things we could possibly do – are as close to the heart of the gospel as are the transformed bread and wine of the Eucharist, or indeed the cross and resurrection of Jesus himself.
There is no form of Christianity that involves merely assenting to certain propositions – let’s call them doctrines – or having certain spiritual feelings – no matter how much we value them or how piously we label them. Christianity is ultimately the most down to earth religion that there can be because it involves nothing more or less than opening ourselves to the love of God so that we might be transformed by that love into God’s companions and servants.
This means that it is also the most heavenly religion too: it is the religion that gives the fullest, best and most reliable understanding of the kingdom of God, and the means whereby this fallen and broken world might be mended, healed and restored to the fullness of joy for which it was created.
The name of the means of that most transformative journey is grace – and everything that we can possibly do in life, whether as organised religion or informal religion, as a joint venture with others or on our own, is, at best, some kind of means of grace, and, at worst, something from which the grace of God is absent.
To put it at its most stark, the fellowship of the Last Supper is grace, and the dispute about greatness and the decision to hand Jesus over for a bribe are anti-grace. In this life these things are for ever intermingled. The pursuit of purity is pious escapism from the realty into which Christ was born, by which he was betrayed and crucified and which, by his risen life and the power of the Holy Spirit, will ultimately and finally be transformed.
This service is a holy Eucharist – a celebration and reclaiming of the Last Supper for us, in our time, in our messy and anxious reality with all its mixed motives and complex agendas. It is one of thousands being celebrated across the world this evening. It invites us to draw near with faith and to receive the most reliable means of grace available to us after our baptism. For our own benefit? Well, yes. But that’s just the start. The meal works, so to speak, when we let the grace that we receive become the driving force in our lives. When we let it drive us not to disputation or anxiety, but to confident and humble service, and to modes of self-giving that have that selfless and graceful quality that can make all the difference to the lives of others because they are, in fact, manifestations of gracious love.
We are called to the Eucharist not only so that we can receive, but also so that we have something to give; we are called to the Eucharist so that our lives too can be means of grace. The next three days will both show us the horror and the glory involved in walking the path of grace. Let us pray that it also renew us so that we may lives of generosity, service, and sacrifice and come more fully to know and share the true hope that is at the heart of this meal called Eucharist and this faith called Christianity.