A Different Vision for Memorializing the Last Supper

last supper

Herb Montgomery | April 8, 2022

 

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.

 


“Next week is Holy Week leading up to Easter for many in Western Christianity. This time of year always amplifies several passages from the passion liturgy that are important for Jesus followers who care about justice to interpret in life-giving ways.”


 

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:14-20)

Next week is Holy Week leading up to Easter for many in Western Christianity. This time of year always amplifies several passages from the passion liturgy that are important for Jesus followers who care about justice to interpret in life-giving ways. So it was difficult for me to settle on which passage to write on this week.

I love the story of Jesus’ protest and demonstration in the temple courtyard against the economic exploitation that was taking place there. I believe both his protest and his burden for those being harmed by systemic injustice have much to teach us. I love the story of Jesus humbly washing his disciples’ feet, which Christians now celebrate each year on Maundy Thursday. I also believe it’s important to interpret the holy week narrative beyond death and dying, even though at the end of the week Jesus is the victim of state violence in response to his protest, calls for change, and growing popularity with the exploited masses in his society. It’s more life-giving to interpret Holy Week as a story of how life overturns death and death-dealing, how everything accomplished through the execution/death of Jesus was undone, reversed, and overcome through the resurrection. The cross was not Jesus’ saving act, but the state’s attempted interruption and halting of Jesus’ saving life-ministry. The resurrection reversed and undid the state’s violence, and Jesus’ life-saving ministry lived on in the actions of his followers.

So as we begin this holy week, I’ve chosen to address Luke’s version of Jesus’ last shared meal with his disciples. I’ll begin with an important point from Delores Williams’ womanist theology classic book, Sisters in the Wilderness.

On page 131, Williams reminds us that “The cross is a reminder of how humans have tried throughout history to destroy visions of righting relationships that involve the transformation of tradition and transformation of social relations and arrangements sanctioned by the status quo.” She goes on to point her readers to the resurrection and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ life ministry as the salvific conduit that teaches humankind how to “live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.” She lists Jesus’ beatitudes, parables, moral directions, and reprimands. She reminds us of Jesus’ healing ministry of “touch and being touched,” and how Jesus ministry was militant, too, expelling evil forces that harm people including during his temple protest.

This is how she characterizes Jesus’ saving life: a life grounded in the power of faith “in the work of healing,” compassion and love. She demonstrates with multiple examples how Jesus conquered sin in life, not in death. Considering the persistence of evil and oppression (and sin) still centuries after the life of Jesus in our world, she wonders whether or not most people can believe that Jesus’ death on the cross overcame evil and sin. I agree with her assessment that it seems “more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life” (p. 131).

A major theme in William’ work is the surrogacy of black women and how various atonement theories and ways of interpreting the cross substitutionally have historically supported that surrogacy rather than subverted it.

She concludes:

Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesusministerial vision of life and not through his death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience. Neither can Christian faith affirm such an idea. Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist GodTalk, p. 132)

And this leads me to the tension in this week’s passage. Jesus’ last meal in the gospels seems to lead Jesus followers to glorify the cross through the rite of the Eucharist and by glorifying the suffering of the exploited, render their suffering and exploitation sacred.

But as with everything in our sacred text, it all depends on how we choose to interpret the story.

The early Jesus community was not monolithic in how they remembered and interpreted Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Paul transformed the last supper into a ritual reenactment of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), but there were many Jesus followers who didn’t connect the last supper with the passion of Jesus at all, so much so that the first Christian document to explicitly instruct Jesus followers in celebrating the last supper doesn’t mention the passion of Jesus. This document is the Didache. To the best of our knowledge it was composed at the end of the 1st Century or the beginning of the 2nd Century. In it we read:

“Concerning eucharist, this is how you are to conduct it:

First, concerning the cup, ‘We thank you, our Father, for the sacred vine of David, your child, whom you made know to us through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.’

Then concerting the fragments of bread: ‘We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever. Just as this loaf was scattered upon the mountains but was gathered into unity, so your church should be gathered from the ends of the earth into your domain. Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.’

No one is to eat or drink from your eucharist except those baptized in the name of the Lord. Recall what the Lord said about this: ‘Don’t throw what is sacred to dogs.” (Didache 9:1-5)

This tradition has led quite a few modern Christians to reinterpret how they memorialize Jesus’ last supper, especially at this time of year when our attention is drawn to it once again. Many Christians today, given what we just read in the Didache, see Jesus’ last supper as the same kind of meal he frequently ate with his disciples and with anyone else who desired to eat with them. Jesus’ open table practice in a culture where whom one ate with had social and political meaning was another example of the inclusiveness he practiced every day. Most scholars today believe that the earliest rituals around Jesus’ last supper took the form we see described in the Didache. The supper was later attached to Jesus’ death as we read in Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), a connection that is then picked up by Mark, Matthew, and in our passage in Luke. In John’s gospel, however, Jesus’ last supper is not associated with the imagery of his death (the passion) but rather with images of his life.

Whereas Mark and Matthew follow Paul’s eucharist order (bread then cup), in our passage this week from Luke, we see signs of early Jesus followers memorializing his last supper both ways: we see both the form found in the Didache and the form found in Paul blended together. This would make sense as Luke’s gospel repeatedly attempts to tell the Jesus story in a way that provides a big tent view of following Jesus. Luke is telling a narrative so that it can be valued by the largest number of Jesus followers. Regardless of which Jesus community readers belonged to, they could nonetheless find what they believed to be meaningful and sacred in Luke’s version of Jesus story.

So let’s take a look at our passage once again.

First, the form found in the Didache:

“’For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.’ After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them’”

Then the form found in Paul:

“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”

Because Luke’s trying to include both forms, Luke’s version of the last supper is the only version to include two cups. In the Didache’s order, you have cup then bread. In Paul’s order, you have bread then cup. And in Luke, which blends both ways of memorializing Jesus last supper, we have a cup (Didache), then bread (Didache and Paul), then a cup again (Paul). Mark and Matthew repeat the form found in Paul, and thus only have one cup.

Why all this “nerding out” over the story detail differences in the gospels, Paul, and the Didache? What’s the point?

The the point is that there is no one right way to celebrate or memorialize Jesus last supper. If you, like me, have come to find more life in a story that isn’t about someone dying, but about how life and love overcame and reversed everything the state attempted by executing Jesus, how love and life overcome death, fear, bigotry and hate, then you also have options in how you remember Jesus’ last supper. We don’t have to remember Jesus’ last supper in a way that glorifies death, even if it’s Jesus’ death. We don’t have to perpetuate the harms pointed out by Williams above and others.

Jesus most certainly broke bread and shared cups with people from all social and economic locations, those at the center and those on the margins. The egalitarian inclusivity he demonstrated with his meal practice of sharing resources, specifically food, was at the heart of the vision Jesus had for human community. And it also can become a ritual for us, when we interpret it as such, that transforms and shapes us into people who share resources with one another in our own ways and contexts today. How we celebrate rituals determines the kind of humans those rituals shape us into being. I like the shared table way of remembering a Jesus who, realizing what was coming, chose to share an open table with his disciples one last time.

Ritualizing this reminds me of the kind of world I want to be creating every day.

It’s a world where our bread and wine are not hoarded but shared. A world where we are all connected. A world where no one is fully thriving till we are all thriving.

 

 

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Does this way of interpreting Jesus’ last supper change the way you engage the Eucharist? If so how? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Whoever Takes You in Takes Me in

Church front

Both the positive and negative implications.

by Herb Montgomery

“Whoever takes you in takes me in, and whoever takes me in takes in the one who sent me.” (Q 10:16)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:40-42: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Luke 10:16: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me*; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

Since the 11th Century (1094 C.E. to be exact), thanks to Anselm of Canterbury, some Christians have thought that Jesus’s death was a vicarious substitution that satisfied something in God that needs us to die. The seeds of Anselm’s views existed before him, and his views were further developed by Calvin and Luther, but Anselm was the first to systematize this way of “believing in” Jesus and not just “believing” him.

This week, Jesus’ saying from Q describes a different kind of vicarious substitution. Jesus isn’t standing in for you: you are standing in for Jesus! Jesus was so committed to this idea that he taught his disciples that the way a village responded to the community Jesus sent out was a response not just to them but to Jesus as well.

Oppressive History of Christendom

When we look back at what we have been seeing this year in Sayings Gospel Q, it seems clear to me that the version of Christianity I was raised in and Jesus could not be more different. Religion, including Christianity, is so often employed to offer security rather than what is true.

And because of the way we Christians have acted, great swaths of the human populous immediately shut down any time we even mention the name “Jesus.”

Whomever received the people Jesus sent into the world received Jesus, and also, whomever, in the two thousand year since, witnesses racism, exploitative wealth, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, violence, or any form of oppression by Jesus’ followers witnesses it being done by “Jesus.”

For many, only when they discover for themselves the Jesus we are seeing in Sayings Gospel Q do they realize there is a Jesus that’s radically different than the Jesus they encountered in the religion that formed around him.

This discovery is an ongoing process for South Americans, Africans, African Americans, Women, Transgender people, and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning. In those encounters, Jesus of Nazareth is often reclaimed. That looks very different than how we originally presented Jesus to them.

There is a difference between how those with power and resources present Jesus and how those on the fringes and the underside of our societies experience him. That difference must not be dismissed.

Continuing Need for Rediscovering the Jesus of the Disinherited

Today, I often meet folks who resonate with what I believe Jesus taught. They subscribe to inclusivity, nondiscrimination, nonviolence, interdependence, and radical resource-sharing as their way of life. They see the ugliness of many of Christianity’s various forms. And as soon as I mention Jesus or they find out that I teach the Bible, the walls between us immediately go up.

I long to be able to help people see a Jesus who is not just for the religious, but for the non-religious too. Because Jesus has been so abused, part of reclaiming Jesus is simply agreeing on the set of values and ethics attributed to him in the gospels.

This love for a set of values, the same values taught by Jesus, in combination with a low tolerance for any mention of Jesus is the fruit of the dynamic that the author of Matthew’s gospel saw in his own day. For a millennia or two, those who’ve called Jesus “Lord” have not “done” or “practiced” Jesus’ actual teachings (see Matthew 7:21-24).

This is the inverse of the reality in this week’s saying: the community formed around Jesus and Jesus himself are so connected with each other that what happens to one also happens to the other, and what happens to Jesus’ followers happens to him.

Positive Connection

There’s also a positive side to the connection between Jesus and the Jesus community that we read in this week’s saying. When we are promoting the teachings of Jesus, and people respond, it is not only us that they’re responding to. They’re also responding to Jesus!

The early Jesus community talked about “the kingdom” or the “empire of God.” More contemporary folks who have uncovered its egalitarian quality have referred to it as the beloved community. Whatever we call it, we are a part of something that includes us and is also much bigger than our individual efforts. As with all power, whether isolated in one individual or shared by all alike, power can be used for great evil or great good.

This week, let’s use our community power for good, using our choices to put on display the beauty of a world transformed by Jesus’ teachings, teachings that include non-discrimination, inclusivity, egalitarianism, nonviolence, social justice, love, healing, and more in our present world today.

Remember that when we choose these teachings, when we embrace and practice them, not just as individuals but also as communities centered around these values and the value of listening to the most vulnerable, we too are listening to and embracing Jesus. Those who resonate with these values and choose to join us, they too embrace Jesus as they embrace us. This is about becoming a part of what has the potential to heal our world. What Jesus taught can heal the world we are living, moving, and breathing in today.

As we press together this week, as our relationships with each other continue to reflect the values and teachings we have been looking at this year, others will take notice. They may never say a special prayer. They may never become more “religious” than they presently are, and may never join an organization. But if in their hearts and lives, they embrace the beauty of the universal values that the Jewish Jesus also taught, and they strive within community to apply those values in their own context, much more has taken place than what institutional, religious, and too often surface judgments can see. This is a beautiful change, much more substantive than what it means for many today to simply take on the name “Christian.”

Thomas Merton MemeBecause of the classism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism that has become associated with the name of Jesus, some people may never be comfortable referring to themselves as a “Jesus-follower,” either.  I understand.  I, too, wrestle with this. I continually want to disassociate from rather than own my own complicity in injustice. Yet if a person embraces the values we have discussed, for example, methods of nonviolent conflict resolution, voluntary wealth redistribution, mutual aid, and anti-kyriarchical sharing of community power and resources, that’s what Jesus was trying to encourage within his own society as well.

I can’t help but believe that the historical Jesus understood that it was never so much about him as it was about what he taught: the beloved, humanity-affirming community. As his followers went out, sharing the values they had discovered through this Jewish teacher, what people responded to and embraced was a path, a set of values and ethics, informed by the stories of the most vulnerable. It was, in the end, a choice to embrace the risk of what it takes to heal our world. So this week, let’s contemplate both the negative and the positive implications of what it means in our day and multiple contexts to hear the following words:

 Whoever takes you in takes me in, and whoever takes me in takes in the one who sent me. (Q 10:16)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go back through this year’s eSights and pick a value or principle that we have found in Gospel Sayings Q.
  2. Discuss how this principle was applied in a 1st Century Jewish context under Roman oppression.
  3. Discuss possible applications of this same principle today, and choose one of those applications to lean into together. Begin to put it practice.

Thank you so much for joining us for another week.

Keep living in love, wherever this may find you, together, making the world a safer, more compassionate, more just home for us all.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. I love each of you, dearly. I’ll see you next week.

*There is a qualification that must be made with this passage in Luke. Just because someone is rejecting you does not always mean they are rejecting Jesus. At times, that may be true, but at other times it might be your presentation of Jesus that people are actually rejecting, even if you may be claiming Jesus’ name all the while.