Matthew 26:17-19, 26-30
17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?”
18 He replied, “Go into the city, to a certain man, and say, ‘The teacher says, “My time is near. I’m going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.” ’” 19 The disciples did just as Jesus instructed them. They prepared the Passover.
26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” 27 He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven. 29 I tell you, I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 Then, after singing songs of praise, they went to the Mount of Olives.
Churches do food and feasting really well. Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church, where I preached this today, is no exception. Pam and Kate prepare and serve some of the best church meals I have ever eaten. As Christians, and as human beings, we like to eat. We eat after we worship. We eat for happy events, like baptisms, confirmations, graduations, birthdays, and weddings. Families of origin or of faith gather to share a meal in honor of a momentous occasion.
We also eat when we are sad. Some of us may do that alone, with a pint of ice cream or whole block of cheese. But for communal mourning, we eat as a community of faith.
Some churches have grieving committees or hospitality teams, who prepare a meal for those who are too tired to cook for themselves, physically, mentally, and spiritually fatigued. And this blessed ministry served my family last week as we said goodbye to my grandmother. It was greatly appreciated. Our bodies need good healthy food to sustain us for the emotional stress that comes before, during, and after of any life changing event, happy or sad, birth, wedding, or death.
There is a biblical mandate for gathering for a meal, of course, as a sign of hospitality, when the people are just plain hungry, and to commemorate a special event. Remember Sarah, manna, Cana.
Passover is one of those traditions. After the Exodus from slavery, Jews gathered (and gather still) to remember how they were freed and to whom they owe gratitude. There are traditional elements present at a Seder meal, each deep with meaning.
In the text above, we know that Jesus is celebrating the Passover with his disciples. But unlike some other gospel tellings of this evening, the specific dishes are left unlisted. All we know is that Jesus was with his friends, his closest allies and one betrayer, to have a bite to eat, to drink wine, and be filled. He was reclining, as was custom, with his companions, which literally means, “one who eats bread with another.”
For most Jews, this annual meal represents a time of commemoration and celebration, a meal to recall what their ancestors had suffered and to honor their freedom from oppression. It makes sense that Jesus wished to be with his people to share the Passover meal by breaking bread.
When the disciples were sent to prepare the Passover meal, they may not have known that they were about to experience something simple, yet profound. They may not have realized that they were acting as the grieving committee or hospitality team. They were unaware that they were participating not only in Passover, but a “wake.”
Some of you may be familiar with the definition of a wake as staying round the clock with the body of the deceased, between death and burial. Although this dinner could be viewed as that, the traditional wake, originating in Ireland, as I understand, is a time after the funeral full of feasting and merrymaking. This may be especially true if the service is celebration of a life well-lived and lived long. Memories are shared, and laughing is not discouraged. People eat and drink, sing and dance perhaps.
However, the wake, we read about today, is hosted by the very person who is to die. Like planning a funeral before getting sick (which is a smart thing to do), Jesus plans his own wake and presides over the meal.
He gives his disciples a clue to the purpose of the meal when he says, “My time is near.” He’s not talking about it being close to sundown, when Passover begins. This is not chronos (what we know as linear time), but kairos, God’s time.
We say things like, “It was just her time,” as the 88-year-old grandmother departs from this world into the next. Perhaps, this is where the phrase originated. I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus’ time is near.
And so it is. Today, it is near. But it is not here. Not yet.
No, today, we recall the wake that Jesus arranged and attended.
He is not only present, but he himself becomes part of the meal.
Usually at Passover, the head of the household tells the story from Exodus. Today we hear Jesus, who acts as host, even though it’s not his home, say something different. When holding the bread, unleavened, we assume, he commands, “Take and eat. This is my body.”
A better translation of the word body may be myself. “Take and eat. This is my whole self I give to you.”
And then he took a cup of wine, traditional to a Passover meal, (but really for any meal for Jesus – or me).
Red wine at Passover represents the blood of lambs sprinkled on the doorposts of Israelite homes, meaning an angel has “passed over.” This might symbolize the covenant made at Mt. Sinai. Yet, Jesus says, this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
The ordinary elements of bread and wine thus become extraordinary symbols, renewed in light of Jesus life, ministry, and imminent death, and resurrection. Such simple words, such a simple meal, and sometimes, that is all it takes in order to be memorable and meaningful.
Last week, my parents’ neighbors brought over the most delicious tortellini soup and green chili cornbread, hot and ready to eat. They also included a note with Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet on death. Compassionate and thoughtful, yet not over the top.
The simplest of actions take on the deepest of significance when delivered at the right time.
However, Anglican Bishop and theologian Rowan Williams says, “The Last Supper is not a simple, primitive fellowship meal; as far back as we can go in the tradition about Jesus, it is seen as ‘intending’ meaning . . . Maundy Thursday means Good Friday and Easter, the sealing of the everlasting covenant . . ."
A basic piece of bread and a cup of wine shared by the host take on new meaning, complex yet relatable, when Jesus does so just at the right time. “My time has come.” God’s kairos, is at hand. Simple action, deep meaning, and the time is now, but not yet.
We have begun our vigil, waiting for our loved to die. We gather and pray and tell stories and eat. This is what we do. This is what Jesus did with his friends; only he is the one to die. And he is one who gives his very self, hands over his body, that those who remain, may continue the wake. To celebrate what they have had, to mourn what they will lose, and anticipate the kin-dom that is to come.
Today, we have already begun planning the funeral ceremony and post-service meal. Yet, our host has decided to stay with us long enough to make sure that we are not alone. That we will always have a community of companions to come together in times of joy and in times of pain. When we gather around a table or recline on couches, ready for the feast of any occasion, we have been shown how the ordinary is made extraordinary, the simple imbued with “intended” meaning.
And after the meal, we may live into the tradition of Jesus and his friends, by lifting up our voices, singing hymns of praise, (dancing perhaps?), giving thanks for the life that was, that is, and is to come. Thanks be to God.
Former international fashion model Rev. Sarah Renfro seeks to boost the body image of young women by educating them on the myths of media and focusing on divine within. She also preaches and teaches about marriage and divorce, motherhood, ministry, and mental illness.