The Reverend Seth Ethan Carey
March 2, 2008
First Congregational Church,
Introduction to the Scripture:
This passage from the Gospel of Luke needs little introduction. It is appropriate to read it on a communion Sunday, because this story is the origin of our communion ritual. It is the tale of the Last Supper, a legend immortalized in images and words. It is the final night of Jesus’ life. He spends it around a table, in the company of friends. It’s no secret that Jesus enjoyed a good meal, particularly when he was sharing it with others.
How else would you imagine he would spend his last night on earth?
Scripture: Luke 22:14-30
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will never eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’ Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
I’d like to share a story with you. It is a recent story, and yet it echoes from a distant era of human history. It is a story of honor and glory, a recollection of unimaginable treachery and unsurpassed valor. It is a memory of Medieval Times®.
Yes, I am referring to a chain of theme restaurants that bear that distinguished name. By a show of hands, how many of you have eaten at Medieval Times®? It’s alright; there’s no need to be ashamed.
Last fall, I finally decided to fulfill my long held dream and purchase tickets for a magical evening there. The experience doesn’t come cheap, but it’s worth every cent. The great feast is held in an arena-style hall, with long wooden tables stretched out before the stadium-seating in regal fashion. The arena floor churns with a mysterious fog, and multi-colored lights glide along the walls, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of an Iron Maiden concert. The evening would progress much like one, too, with a great deal of cheering and fists being thrown up in the air with gusto. My fiancée and I took our seats at the majestic table and the show began with a booming voice that I will never forget—
“Welcome to Medieval Times.”
That voice belonged to the captain of the King’s royal guard, who would play a role in the epic saga that unfolded before us, a tale to rival the best and worst that the World Wrestling Federation has to offer. I don’t recall the details, but it involved a tournament between a handful of knights, and a treacherous mutiny by the captain of the royal guard. The knight we were supposed to be cheering for—the Yellow Knight—was knocked out in the first round of the tournament. Imagine my elation when he charged out into the arena in the final act like a man come back from the dead, bravely defeating the evil captain and saving the kingdom from certain doom. My heart swelled with pride.
The best part of this heroic extravaganza, I have to say, was the food. I watched the drama before me with a goblet raised high and a crust of bread in my hand, my mouth filled with savory chicken that spilled onto the table as I cheered loudly for the Yellow Knight.
It was delicious. It was, I think, one of the greatest meals of my life.
Another great meal in history—perhaps the greatest—was the last supper of Jesus and his disciples. It wasn’t the menu that made it so memorable, but rather the significance of the event itself. For this was no ordinary meal. It was the last time Jesus would sit down at the table with his closest friends. It was the last time he would enjoy the taste of bread. For in the dread hours to come, he would taste nothing but blood.
It was on the Passover, in the dim candlelight of that mythic room that Jesus took a crust of bread—and after giving thanks, he gave it to his friends, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” We don’t know what they talked about while they ate. Maybe no one said anything at all. When they had taken their fill, Jesus raised a cup and toasted to their good health: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” These words are familiar to many of us. They are the words that we say whenever we gather around the table that is laid out before you this morning. These are the words that we hear as we come to the table, together.
The scriptures place a great deal of emphasis on the act of sitting down at a table with our friends and enemies alike. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus—knowing full well that Judas Iscariot would betray him—nonetheless shares his final meal with him.
Jesus also tells the twelve disciples—including Judas—“You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you might eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.” This seems to be a reference to the ancient belief in a messianic banquet, a feast of celebration that will be held in Heaven at the end of time. Judaic tradition teaches that a great battle will one day take place between the immortal sea-demon Leviathan and the mighty monster they called Behemoth, a clash that will end in their mutual destruction. It is further held that both of them will be thoroughly salted and served as the main course at the messianic banquet.
These awful manifestations of fear and terror will be consumed, as all of humanity gathers in celebration around a single table—together. No matter what we feast upon, there’s something sacred about putting aside our differences and eating at the same table—either in this world, or the next.
When you’re growing up, however, the real issue on the table has little to do with who’s sitting at it. The real issue is whether or not you’re going to finish your vegetables. When you’re a kid, doesn’t it often seem as though adults harbor a strange obsession with the wasting of food? If you lose interest in your vegetables, they’ll start to get nervous. They’ll probably say something to the effect of, “Don’t you like your lima beans?” And the moment you try to slide some of those lima beans into the trash, normal dinnertime conversation will turn into an impassioned plea for justice on behalf of the starving children in Ethiopia. I think we’ve all heard speeches from our parents about the evils of wasting a perfectly good pile of mashed potatoes.
Nobody―nobody takes wasting food as seriously as the esteemed faculty of St. Joseph’s, where I attended school as a child. In their eyes, throwing away food is a cardinal sin, right up there with adultery and murder, an affront against man and God. Though shalt not steal. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not throw away a half-eaten bag of potato chips. In the first grade, I tossed out an unfinished ham sandwich. When Sister Irene found it in the trash, she extracted a confession and then forced me to eat it in front of the class.
The faculty’s determination to teach us the value of food reached its climax, I believe, in the tragic Milk Inquisition of 1987. You see, every day at lunch, we were furnished with a small carton of milk. That year the faculty had discovered that some of the students weren’t drinking all of it, opting instead to leave a little pooled at the bottom of the carton in a most wasteful fashion. Thus began the Inquisition. Cartons were rounded up after lunchtime like suspects. Each of them was carefully searched. If so much as a single carton was discovered to contain a little milk, an interrogation would commence to determine the culprit. Classes were suspended for the rest of the day as we were forced to sit with our heads down until someone broke down and confessed. Those found guilty were quietly led out of the classroom, crying over their spilled milk, ushered towards an unknown fate.
In time, these dairy raids became so frequent that I stopped doing my homework for the classes following lunch, since they were usually cancelled on account of the controversy. I didn’t learn much that year, but I did drink a lot of milk. And milk does a body good; but man does not live on milk alone. What the administration of St. Joseph’s failed to realize, I think, is that there is more than one way to waste a meal. I clearly recall yet another fear tactic of the faculty, this one designed to make us eat our lunch in absolute silence. Our desks had been arranged to face one another in small clusters, creating a sort of round-table effect. This was conducive to a pleasant lunchtime conversation with our peers. Even during lunchtime, talking was discouraged. In an effort to purchase our silence, our teachers promised us a small piece of candy for every boy and girl who remained silent during the entire lunch period. If even one of us said a word, the rest of the class would pay the price, and get nothing.
I immediately recognized this for a cheap gimmick, and would have preferred some good conversation with my friends to a piece of candy anyway. To my dismay, the rest of the class fell for it hook line and sinker. Every day they would try to be quiet, try to get that candy. Attempts to engage them in dialogue were met with cold stares. Inevitably, someone would murmur something to a friend, and the sick game would be lost. No candy. I’m not sure if there ever was any candy to begin with. Regardless, the class heaped their scorn upon the one who cost them their sugary prize. In the end, the tactics worked. Not only did it put an end to conversation at lunchtime. It also divided us. We sat at the same table, but we didn’t speak. We dared not even look at each other, for fear of the consequences. Like Judas, we sold our best friends for a piece of candy.
Now that, my friends, is a wasted meal.
Holy Communion is a sacred ritual. But while the elements on the table are important, it’s the people gathered around the table that make this ritual so holy. Jesus was known for sitting down to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes, saints and sinners alike. It didn’t matter how good the food tasted. It didn’t matter if someone didn’t clear his plate. The only thing that mattered was that they were sharing a moment together, in community—in communion.
Over time, people have had a lot of different ideas about what Holy Communion is. Some believe that the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood. Others believe that Jesus is spiritually present in the elements. In the United Church of Christ, we believe that Jesus is present at the table, alongside us, sharing in the same meal that he ate so long ago. We believe that the table that stands before us is symbolic of a far larger table, where saints of ages past and sinners yet to be born are gathered—with us, with Christ, and with one another.
Next month, we will be hosting guest clergy from the Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions, and we will be celebrating communion in the Lutheran fashion. By gathering our brothers and sisters in Christ together at the table, we demonstrate our commitment to unity. For in the United Church of Christ, we believe that the true essence of communion lies in the hearts of those who gather around the table. That’s why no one is ever turned away. It would be a waste, not of food, but of fellowship. That’s also why communion is served by one person to another. That relationship guarantees that we never eat alone. For as Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there with them.”
We’ve all had unpleasant meals in our lives. Whether it was our parents fighting at the dinner table, whether we were being bullied in the school cafeteria, or whether we decided to eat at White Castle, those memories will always haunt us.
We also carry memories of love, companionship, and laughter that revolve around a table. Some of those memories are our own. Some, like the last supper of Jesus Christ, belong to a far away time. All of those memories live on in our hearts like legends.
They call us back to the table, where we shall raise a cup together at last.