Dr. Steve Lindsley
Matthew 26: 17-29
For the rest of the month of January, Rebecca and I will be preaching a four-week sermon series titled “The Great Gathering.” We’re looking at instances in the Bible where the people of God gather together, how they gather together, why they gather together. We felt this was a worthy topic to dive into given the challenges of gathering in this extended Covid season we’ve been in for almost two years now, but at the same time convinced that the idea of “gathering” is not something that’s limited to in-person or Sunday morning. What exactly are the ties that bind us together in whatever life brings our way, and how do we best embody the community of faith in that?
And today, on this communion Sunday, we begin our gathering journey here, at this table. Not an altar, as it’s sometimes referred to. Thankfully as Presbyterians we don’t have altars. We have tables. And here at this table on roughly eight Sundays throughout the year, we celebrate a very special meal, as we will later this morning.
And as we do this, it should be noted that gathering around the table and mealtimes are found throughout the Bible – over a hundred accounts, in fact – with both ordinary and amazing things happening at them. Think of Jesus and the Pharisees. Think of Jacob orchestrating his father’s blessing. Think Passover. Ruth and Boaz. The feeding of the 5000 – what a meal that was. Even some of Jesus’ parables were set around the table. Meals were – and in large part still are – instances where the world around the table slows down but doesn’t totally fade away. Which means they often wind up being very authentic moments. Truths are revealed at the table. Biases are confronted at the table. People are made real at the table.
Things got pretty darn real at the table in our scripture today. This Last Supper, as its commonly referred to, is one of a handful of Jesus stories recounted in all four gospels, each one giving a slightly different take, looking at things from a different angle. And whenever this happens in the Bible – whenever a particular story or event is recounted in more than one place – we should recognize that often the reason for this is less about trying to convey history and more about conveying theology. That is to say – this account of the Last Supper was not written merely to chronicle a meal Jesus had with his disciples on the night before he died. More importantly, it’s trying to tell us why he had the meal. Not history, but theology.
Now – we get three verses in our passage that describe the actual meal. Three short and familiar verses; words that resonate because they are in large part words that Rebecca and Jodi give voice to from the table every time we celebrate communion: that while they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant.
There is a reason we evoke this language every time we gather at the table – and that is that language is liturgy; and what liturgy does is transport us out of ourselves in some significant way. And here, every time we gather at this table and the pastors say those words, it is as if we are gathering not at this table but at this table; gathering with the disciples and gathering with Jesus himself. And there is deep power and significance in this gathering, in this reliving of the meal; so much that we have made a sacrament out of it, one of only two in the Presbyterian church. And sacraments, like liturgy, are designed to take us out of ourselves to somewhere else – around the table with Jesus and the others on the night before he died.
All of that we get from three short verses.
And I’m struck by the fact that so much can come from so little; that we take these three verses that are doing nothing more than giving us the play-by-play of a meal and design it in such a way that we relive it over and over and over again and make it such a central part of our Christian practice and understanding of our faith.
But if I’m honest with you, what strikes me even more than that is that this isn’t even the bulk of our scripture today. What jumps out at me is that the larger section – five verses in total – cover all the craziness that took place when they gathered at the table before the meal, when Jesus decided for whatever reason to begin the occasion with this shocker: one of you will betray me.
Now it’s a given that dinner tables – especially when it comes to family – are rarely without some element of underlying tension or conflict, because people are people and that’s just the way of things. Sometimes it’s low-level friction that’s easily varnished over; other times it’s more cutting and great effort has to be taken to keep it at bay for the sake of the gathering and the meal.
Unless, apparently, your name happens to be Jesus, in which case it’s okay to breach all table decorum (which is something Jesus was known for, actually). One of you will betray me, he throws out there. That’s how he welcomed them to the table – that’s the first thing he says to them. What did he think would happen? Not surprisingly, this sets off a huge fracas, everyone asking each other and asking Jesus, It’s not me, is it? Which I’ve always found a little curious because one would assume they’d already know if it was not them – right? So why ask? Were they afraid that they may have betrayed Jesus unaware? Or in this highly-charged emotional moment did they simply need to hear Jesus assure them that they were in the clear? We only know his answer to one, and even his response to Judas seems a little cryptic.
So again: three verses of the actual meal; five verses of the chaos leading up to it. Three verses of the menu – bread and wine; five verses of the conflict and confusion. Three verses of the what of the meal: my body broken for you, my cup poured out for you; five verses of why it was needed in the first place.
I like to think this imbalance was intentional on Matthew’s part; that it was and is theology over history. That, as lovely a prospect as mealtime with Jesus is, as great a gift as it is for Jesus to share himself with us and give us something to hold onto, the thing that makes all that mean something is what brings us to the table in the first place. The recognition that there is always tension, be it low-grade or full-on, always something undefined or unresolved. And it is not for us to sidestep or avoid or ignore. In fact, true healing takes place at the table not when we avoid the brokenness of things but when we choose to embrace them fully. And to do less than that, to come to the table and hold back from being the truest and most authentic version of ourselves, is to deny Jesus the chance to give himself so fully to us; to make it so that the bread is just bread and the cup is just a cup – two stationary objects resting on a flat wooden surface, instead of his body broken and the cup poured out.
Now to be clear, I’m not suggesting that we save our tensions, our disagreements, our brokenness until we come to the table and then lett it all blow up. I’m simply saying that it’s those things that make this meal so critically important. We literally couldn’t live without it.
Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who devoted decades to gang intervention and rehabilitation on the streets of Los Angeles, shares this story in his book Tattoos On The Heart:
I had a twenty-three-year-old named Miguel working for me on our graffiti crew. As with a great many of our workers, I met him years earlier while he was detained. He was an extremely nice kid whose pleasantness was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had been completely abandoned by his family. Prior to their rejection, they had mistreated, abused, and scarred him plenty.
He calls me New Year’s Day. Happy New Year, he says.
Thanks, I say. You know, Miguel, I was thinkin’ of ya on Christmas. So, what did you do? I asked this knowing that he had no family to welcome him in.
Oh, you know, I was just right here, meaning his tiny little apartment, where he lives alone.
All by yourself? I ask.
Oh no, he quickly says, I invited homies from the crew—you know, vatos, like me who didn’t have a place to go for Christmas.
He names five who came over—all former enemies from rival gangs. Really, I tell him, that sure was nice of you. What did you all do?
Well, he says, you’re not gonna believe this…but…I cooked a turkey. You can feel his pride coming through over the phone.
Wow, you did? That’s great. How did you prepare it?
You know, he says, Ghetto-style.
I tell him I’m not familiar with the recipe.
He says, You just rub it with a gang a’ butter, throw a bunch a’ salt and pepper on it, squeeze a couple of lemons over it and put it in the oven. It tasted proper.
I said, Wow, that’s impressive. What did you have besides the turkey?
Just that. Just the turkey. he says. His voice tapers to a hush. Yeah. The six of us, we just sat there, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done.
Father Gregory finishes his memory with this thought: “One would be hard-pressed to imagine something more sacred and ordinary than these six orphans, these six former enemies, staring at an oven together.”
That is the kind of gathering that happens at the table, beloved. And it is most sacred indeed.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.