Last Supper in Luke
Jesus’s last meal was a Passover meal. Most people who know they are facing their own impending torture and death, would probably not arrange to host a meal right before it happens. But, when we think of the last supper, we tend to imagine a kind of black tie feast with everyone parked on one side of high table leaving room on the this side of the table for Glenys, and for Leonardo Da Vinci’s artistic antics and his easel. And with that kind of image in mind, it’s easy to picture Jesus as a kind of god-in-disguise figure, a blue-eyed serene figure with his halo, cleanly shaven good looks, and his hair smelling like fresh summer meadows.
In that way, we tend to dehumanize Jesus. On the night when he to be arrested, in reality, it is highly likely that Jesus is terrified, beset with stomach cramps, and slightly distracted. I think the image is helped by a story I have shared with some of you, about the evolution of the Greek language. Where in a Greek class in Oxford 20 years ago, our tutor - Larry Kreitzer - told us of a student from modern Greece who subconsciously revealed that the word for break in ancient Greek, nowadays in contemporary Greek, means to break wind. So you can picture what happens when you apply that change in meaning, to the passage we heard read: “after they had eaten … Jesus farted, gave it to his disciples and said, this is my body. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Why is it funny? Or to others, why is it offensive? Surely, it’s because our picture of Jesus is that he was never fully human, not really a normal bloke, not someone who laughs, and jokes, rolls his eyes, and burps and breaks wind. No – we have a Da-vinci-ised picture of Jesus – floating around ancient Palestine with a slightly patronizing sense of calm, a porcelain face, and a supernaturally offensive degree of self-assurance. The meal he shares with his disciples is not simply a formal ceremony, nor is he doing it to pose for renaissance artists – this is a real meal. And in that real meal, Jesus makes a set of outrageous claims.
It is, after all, a Jewish Passover meal, at which the host is responsible for making sure that those present are drawn into the story of how God saves his people. And it has its roots in the story we heard from the Old Testament reading: That for four centuries, the Hebrew people had provided the Egyptian dynasty with an incredible human resource. And that is all the Hebrews were. Human resources, not people – slaves, not human beings. Hebrews – or according to the Egyptian documents, Apiru.
And we know the story. Of how Moses returns to Egypt, and pleads for his people to be freed. Until, after a series of contests, plagues, the decisive move is made. The angel of death descends on the land, and kills the firstborn of all who have not sacrificed their lamb and put the sign on their door. You might say it was divine genocide, as the dark angel passes over the homes of the Hebrew families targeting only the Egyptians. Traditionally, that is where the Passover meal gets its name. So Pharoah, having lost his own son, reluctantly releases the Hebrews.
But he seems to have changed his mind before he has changed his clothes. So off he races with his army, in hot pursuit of his recently released human resources. And the Hebrew people see them coming. An entire light infantry division behind them; an expanse of water in front of them! And in that moment, what are they supposed to do? What is going to happen next?
Well, we know from the chapter we heard from Exodus, that God delivers the people. For those who shared the Passover meal, this was not just a good story. It is our story. But in Jesus’s day, there was a problem with the Passover meal – because so many of the people were not living in freedom. There was, after all, a pagan empire occupying the promised land. For many, sharing this Passover meal was a bitter, frustrating, hopeful experience, meant longing for God to bring liberation from Rome. So what happens when Jesus hosts it? He offers an apparently blasphemous retelling of the whole Exodus story. He promises that he won’t eat again until there has been regime change, which sounded dangerously like the suicide pacts of first century Palestine. But it gets worse.
Firstly, he takes up this unleavened bread: unleavened bread, symbolizing that there was no time, no time for bread to rise – we have to up and leave because our liberation is at hand. And Jesus claims that the bread here, is his body! He is making the Passover story about him!
If you were a first century Jew, at this stage you might reach for a stiff drink. But then he beats you to it. As you drink wine at Passover, there are four different cups that speak of four distinct aspects of the freedom that God promises in Exodus 6:6-7. (1) "I will take you out of Egypt", (2) "I will deliver you from Egyptian slavery", (3) "I will redeem you with a demonstration of my power", and (4) "I will acquire you as a nation". Since each of these cups of wine symbolize an action that was performed by God, Jews fill a small cup with wine at four different points in the Passover and drink each cup of wine.
So, when Jesus picks up a glass of wine, wine that already means the fourfold saving action of the covenant God, what does he do with it ? He says, ‘This wine that you’re drinking is the new covenant in my blood!’ If you are a Jewish follower of Jesus, the Passover meal would never be the same again.
It’s difficult to imagine how shocking these claims are: it is the equivalent of Russell Brand pitching up to today’s mass patriotic party celebrating the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe – and then barging his way onto the stage, grabbing the mike, and saying – “Yeh, it was all very good for Europe to be liberated 70 years ago. But this day is really about me, and about what I’m about to do to bring about real revolution.” It is hardly surprising that the day after this, Jesus was crucified.
And crucified not by a lynch mob in some dark corner, but by the great and the good. The most sophisticated legal system in the world, and the most complex religion in the world, combine to condemn this Jesus.
Christians will often look at these authorities, shake their heads, and ask how they could have killed this innocent Christ, the Son of God. But Jesus was not the long awaited Saviour anyone expected. He was intolerably human, a fragile outsider, a northerner, a trouble maker, a revolutionary. Jesus was not God wandering around Palestine in disguise, with Liam Neeson’s voice. This is not C.S. Lewis’s Aslan figure. The god revealed by this all-too human, all too fragile Jesus is not what most people expect from a God.
The doctrine of the incarnation suggests that Jesus of Nazareth is God in human form – and tend to view Jesus as a kind of high-tec divine selfie. But if this Jesus really does reveal who God is, then this is a god who experiences fear, and hunger, and pain – a god who shares a meal with his friends. A fragile, annoying, outsider – intolerably human, and intolerably weak. Of course, that is not all that the Gospels reveal about Jesus – because that image of god’s powerlessness will be thrown into disarray at the final meal story in Luke’s Gospel, so you have to come back at the end of term to hear the end of the story!