Grace Presbyterian Church
April 2, 2015, Maundy Thursday B
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Mark 14:17-25
Betrayal At the Table
Sometimes the dinner table is the place to share big news. Julia and I have used it that way before. Once we used a dinner with her mother and sister down at Disney World to spring on them the news that I had finally landed my first non-temporary teaching job, and in West Palm Beach to boot – not quite two hours from her parents. Springing the surprise and sharing the good news was fun, although perhaps not for other guests at the restaurant, since the shriek let out by her mother was such that it probably disrupted radar buoys in the Gulf of Mexico.
Even in this age of meals on the go or devoured in front of the television or distracted by other electronic gadgetry, I suspect most of us probably can understand the idea of a meal shared together as a place for sharing good news, celebrating a special event, or simply enjoying the company of those with whom we are sharing the meal. Sharing food and drink lends itself well to that kind of exchange with one another.
On the other hand, we may have also known the experience of more difficult or stressful meal occasions. Perhaps it was a holiday gathering, in which family that has moved to different places across the country starts to chafe under the strain of unaccustomed togetherness; or maybe it’s a gathering that includes an unexpected and unwelcome encounter with an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend or even ex-spouse; or possibly the somber meals that follow in the wake of the loss of a loved one.
Although the gospel of Mark does not describe it as often as other gospels do (he tends to tell stories about things happening when they were traveling), this kind of fellowship around a meal was a common part of the life of Jesus and his disciples. Only a few verses earlier in this chapter Jesus was “at table” in the home of Simon the leper when an unknown woman broke open that container and anointed Jesus. And it is the gospel of Mark that records not one, but two feeding miracles – five thousand are fed in chapter six, and four thousand in chapter eight. As early as chapter two Jesus is disparaged by the scribes and Pharisees for “eating with tax collectors and sinners” (2:15-17), for dining at the home of the tax collector-turned-disciple Levi. At least it’s enough of a history to suggest that things happened at the table.
Nothing like this, though.
Nothing like this announcement – “one of you will betray me”. Nothing like the frenzied, panicky reaction of the disciples, each one trying to convince himself the he wasn’t capable of that sort of thing. Nothing like the pall of gloom that kind of announcement casts over a room, knowing that a traitor is in their midst and not knowing who it is.
We, the readers of this gospel, have the advantage. We know, because Mark told us so back in verse ten of this chapter, that Judas has already conspired with the religious authorities to betray Jesus to them. We know, because Mark has told us that all twelve of the disciples are there, that Judas is among those around the table, maybe even among those crying out “Surely, not I?” We know what’s going to happen, in a way that the disciples do not and cannot know, even though Jesus has told them at least three times over the course of this gospel.
And yet, even with this weight of uncertainty and fear hanging over the room, the word of betrayal is not the last word in this last meal together. The last work of Jesus in this place is to bind the community together, even as one tries to tear it apart.
Amidst the commotion of the meal, and amidst the observance of the meal associated with the first night of Unleavened Bread, or Passover, Jesus reached out to the disciples with one last sign, one last gesture for the disciples to hold on to in the days and weeks and years to come, one last way to bind these fractious and sometimes rather dense followers into a family.
The means by which Jesus does this are pretty ordinary, especially in this context. It’s not as if Jesus has never broken bread or shared wine with the disciples before; as we’ve already noticed they’ve seen Jesus do an awful lot of bread-breaking in at least two settings, and the company of disciples and other followers has probably lost count by now of the number of meals they’ve shared. Loaves of bread or cups of wine have passed among the group plenty of times.
It is this commonplace, even routine gesture that Jesus gives to the disciples, but in doing so in this place, on this occasion, these ordinary objects are given a new life, invested with new meaning. They become the markers both of something they’ve heard before, and of something new.
In one way this is one last foretelling of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus has already done this three times, in chapters eight, nine, and ten of Mark’s gospel. Each time the disciples failed to understand; once Peter rebuked Jesus for even suggesting such a thing, and got called ‘Satan’ for his trouble; the second time the disciples fell to arguing among themselves who was the greatest; and the third, James and John had the nerve to asked for preferred seating at Jesus’s side in glory. This time, the disciples won’t have a lot of time to misunderstand; events have already been set in motion that would bring the crucifixion to pass. Even so, in verse 25 Jesus also points beyond the crucifixion to a time “in the kingdom of God” when he would taste of the fruit of the vine again.
But there is also something new in Jesus’s words; a “covenant, which is poured out for many.” The language of “covenant” itself is not new; it echoes all the way back to Exodus, to the covenant God made with Moses and the Hebrew people, even to the events that are marked in the observance of Passover itself. For Jesus to speak of a “covenant” here points to something new, something different about the way God would be among and with humanity. It was still not something that the disciples were ready to understand yet, but it would not be too long before they were living in it.
With time rapidly sliding away, with the specter of betrayal looming, with the unspeakable agony of crucifixion drawing ever nearer, Jesus’s last gesture to his followers was one meant to forge a bond between them, one in which Jesus’s own life and traveling and teaching with them, meals shared and miles walked, would continue to be lived out among the disciples and all of Jesus’s followers and those who would join them in later days and later years, all demonstrated with the simplest of elements, bread and wine.
And even to this day, it is in this act that the church in worship is most the church in worship. For all the other things that happen in a worship service, nothing else quite captures what it is to be followers of Jesus, the body of Christ, than this simple act instituted by Jesus among his followers.
And remember, Judas was there. In a time when so many calling themselves “Christians” cannot wait to show the world their belief by refusing to do business with someone, or by harassing persons of different faiths, or by otherwise pushing people away, we are confronted in this text with the fact that Jesus extended this covenant, shared this final act of grace and fellowship and binding together and, yes, love, with his own betrayer seated at the table. Knowing that Judas was going to go and betray him, that his disciples would run away from him in fear, that Peter would deny him, not just once or twice but three times, Jesus pulled them all together in this act of communion, pulling them back together even before they had fallen apart.
And it’s not as if we’re immune. As the novelist and pastor Frederick Buechner put it, “Judas is only the first in a procession of betrayers two thousand years long.” We followers have turned to betrayers too frequently and too easily for those two thousand years, and there are many followers out there as betrayers even today.
And yet the table is still spread, and the bread is still broken and the wine still poured, and all of us, followers and betrayers alike, are still called to come to the table. All our denials, all our failure to live in anything like the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit cannot and will not ever cause Christ to dis-invite us from this table. The new covenant poured out for many will not be defeated by hatred, by jealousy, by anger, by shame, or even by death itself. No matter our failures, Jesus bids us come and dine.
And this is, in short, the good news on this heavy, sorrowful night.
For a table always spread for us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “An Upper Room Did Our Lord Prepare” (94), “For the Bread Which You Have Broken" (508), “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" (101)