Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17,31b-35
Tonight’s readings all have to do with a meal and some instruction in carrying out life in community.
The ancient Israelites are about to escape slavery in Egypt, and they are given instructions on final preparations before their departure.
Jesus shares his final meal with the disciples and gives them instructions on life without him.
Paul learns about some abuses in the way the Eucharist is being shared and sends some instructions to correct the practices.
First, Exodus: Passover is a celebration of the night in which God passed over the houses of the Israelites and left unharmed their first-born children. They were to sacrifice and roast a lamb, eat it, and spread its blood on the doorway of their homes. They were to eat it in a hurry, because on the next day, they would begin their departure from Egypt.
I notice that this plan was for everyone, for all the Israelites. They would work together to cook and eat the meal, and they would leave together. Even today, the Passover meal is a communal event, with family and friends, even non-Jewish friends included. Everyone has a role in the Seder ritual.
… Next, Jesus’ last meal. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this meal is the Passover supper, and during the meal, Jesus gives new meaning to the elements of the traditional meal. But here in John, this is not a Passover meal because John views Jesus as the Passover Lamb. Jesus dies at the same time as the lambs are being sacrificed at the temple for the Passover supper, making Jesus the Lamb of God.
So, instead of the focus on the elements of the Passover, in John’s Gospel, Jesus put the focus on servanthood. Jesus shows himself to be the servant of all, who will give up his own life to demonstrate God’s love for all people. Throughout his life, Jesus has modeled what his followers are to do. They are to heal, cast out demons, and share the good news of God’s love with all people. They are to be servants, just as Jesus is a servant.
To demonstrate how to be servants, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. This task was normally done by the lowest servants of the household as people entered the home. After walking through the dusty and soiled streets, feet needed to be washed. Normally, people of this time ate their meals while reclining on low cushions, propped on the left elbow. Their faces were quite close to the next person’s feet, so clean feet made for a more enjoyable meal.
Jesus tells the disciples they are to serve all people in the same way that he is now serving them. Naturally, there is resistance to this offer by Jesus. Peter balked at having his Lord wash his feet. We are just like Peter. Many churches offer a ritual of foot washing on this night, but we balk at having people even see, much less touch our feet.
… Third, let’s spend some time with Paul. His letter to the Corinthians has the tone of scolding. Looking deeper into the letter, we understand what he is talking about. As we do today, when we have a large crowd in our homes for dinner, some people sit at the table in the dining room. Some people sit at the “Children’s table.” Some people sit at the kitchen table. And some people sit at card tables in other rooms. They all eat the same food and there is normally plenty of food for all people.
In the situation Paul is addressing, the class structure decided who sat where. The wealthiest, most important people sat in the dining room and got the best food. Other people sat in the other rooms and ate whatever people in their class got. The poorest, lowest class people often got nothing to eat.
Paul objects to this practice. Jesus made it clear that all people are equal in his eyes, so there should be no class distinctions during their gatherings. To resolve the meal issue, Paul recommends that everyone eat at home, and then come to worship.
Then, in our text tonight, he clarifies the ritual words that should be used, so there are no strange practices with the Eucharist, either. Some people were taking unorthodox approaches to the meaning of the meal, and Paul wants to correct that. Paul claims that these are the words that he has received from Jesus himself, and they are the words the Corinthians should use as well.
Essentially, Paul is saying that all people should be welcomed at the table; people of all classes, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women – as he writes in Galatians. We could add, people of all ages and races and legal status.
Visitors at Hope are often amazed and delighted that we make it clear that all people are welcome at the communion table. We want everyone to know that the bread and wine / body and blood are God’s gifts for us, for all of us. Jesus made no rules about who is welcome at the table. He merely said, come and dine. Even Judas was welcome at the table!
… So, what pulls all three of these stories together? God’s desire for God’s people to be treated well. God’s desire to share God’s gifts with all people, regardless of who they are. God’s desire for us all to welcome all into God’s community, regardless of human rules and social structures.
One story: in my first congregation, there was a practice of giving raisins to children who came to the altar for communion. The children knew the difference. They knew they were not receiving communion! When I arrived, I made it known that all children were welcome to receive communion. They all knew it was God’s gift, which is all we adults can sometimes figure out.
Five-year-old Emma shows up that first Sunday and beams as she puts her hands out to receive the bread from me. A few weeks later, Emma brings a friend who has been on a sleep-over with her. Angie comes to the altar and stands next to Emma. I watch as Emma elbows Angie and shows her how to put her hands out. I have no idea if Angie is a believer, or if she has been baptized, or if her parents approve of her receiving communion. But it is not for me to deny her the gift of God’s love and grace, so I put the bread in her hand and move to the next person. In that moment I know I am Jesus’ hands, sharing his love with a little girl.
It is good that we, God’s people, have been given instructions about how to enjoy and serve meals. It is also good that we have received the instruction to be graceful and flexible about who is to receive those meals. It is also good that Jesus has reminded us to be servants to all, so we know how it feels to give as well as to receive gifts.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, we ask for your blessing tonight as we receive your gift of bread and wine. Nourish us and send us out to give your gifts of love and grace to those we meet. Amen