Bonus sermon for Maundy Thursday on Mark 14:12-31 originally heard in the context of a Tenebrae service of shadows.
There are some big differences between our culture today and that which we find in the story of Jesus’ Passover meal. For example, in our culture today people do not carry jars of water and the roles of different genders are not as clear. So it is understandable that we miss how unusual it would be in Jesus’ day for a man to be carrying a jar of water – usually it was the women who carried the jars of water. Yet Jesus sent two of His disciples into the city to find a man carrying a jar of water and to follow that man to a house. And then there is the way that people at that time looked at table fellowship and betrayal. When you ate together at that time it was evidence of forgiveness and peace, trust and brotherhood, and so to betray someone who had given you his bread was absolutely atrocious – thus everyone who read this story would be horrified that one of the twelve was going to betray Jesus. And yet it was not uncommon in the early church for someone to betray their brothers and sisters in Christ to those who wanted to harm them. No matter how betrayed you or I may feel because of the actions of others who claim to follow Jesus, we simply do not know what that is like here in our context. But I think that we will find the most fruitful application for today’s Christian culture on the theme of unity. Even though the disciples appear somewhat united as the passage opens with them asking Jesus where they will eat the Passover and it ends with them all saying the same thing, we will discover that they were actually very divided.
When you eat of the Lord’s Supper you do so not only as an individual but as a community.
With Jesus as their host, the twelve shared table fellowship that night and yet they were already scattering while gathered together. Table fellowship at that time was more than just sharing food together – it was sharing their lives together. And the Passover in particular was not some private devotional exercise between the individual and God but a family or community meal with God. Thus from the beginning the Lord’s Supper was not something that each disciple was to do alone but to share together. And it is in that context that Jesus revealed that one of them was to betray Him and the disciples began to scatter. That they were prone to scatter is apparent already during the meal as they began to say to Jesus one after another, “Is it I?” But their scattering began in earnest when Peter speaks for himself instead of for the twelve saying, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And then when Peter and each of the other disciples all said, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you,” they were competing with one another, with the emphasis on “I” instead of themselves as a group. The physical scattering of the disciples would only be a matter of time.
The disciples of Jesus today are also prone to eat the communion elements together while at the same time scattering each in our own separate ways. If anything, things are worse today because of the influence of our individualistic culture. Individualism encourages you to focus on yourself at this Supper to the exclusion of eating the Supper as a community. So it is no surprise when scattering begins even before we get to the door to leave. Our culture today also encourages a competitive spirit which if brought into the church might sound like saying to Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not – if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Note the tone of criticism of other Christians who also are part of the one body of Christ. We hear that someone will deny Jesus or worse betray Jesus and we each think – it couldn’t be me. Thus congregations can gather together for the sacrament while scattering away from one another through their words and actions. It does not take much then for physical scattering to follow. (This is a scary diagnosis to hear but it is not enough for you to simply know that communion is a community exercise. What changes everything for you is that you did die with Christ – you have participated in His death on the cross – and by His Spirit you eat of His body and drink of His blood – you share in His life.)
The Supper then gives you the strength to love one another as one.
But the disciples were selfish at the first one. None of the disciples expressed concern for Christ that He was going to be betrayed. None of the disciples expressed concern for the traitor and how he would come to an awful end. They instead focused on self. The traitor couldn’t be me, could it? I will not deny you Jesus. And remember that this is in the larger context of the disciples seeking to have thrones on the right and left of Jesus in His glory. They had no interest in serving one another or the world but only in serving themselves and their goals and ambitions. This is why they are competing for a place of preeminence among one another and trying to outdo one another in their devotion to Jesus – “even though they all fall away, I will not.” They want earthly power and authority and riches. The disciples as they are seeking power and honor and wealth give us a picture of the old age, which we still struggle with today, but which is being crucified with Christ.
Thus by the Holy Spirit we can begin to truly love one another as one. We can love those in the church who have denied Christ by their words or actions. Remember that this can be any of us. Rather than trying to outdo one another in our devotion to Jesus we can, as Paul said to the Romans, “outdo one another in showing honor to others” (12:10). As Paul said to the Philippians, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others” (2:4). It is the Holy Spirit who brings this unity and this outward focus on others in place of our inclination to scatter. Alone it is hard to see how anyone could take up their cross and follow Jesus, but together we can encourage one another to put to death the old man within us and live to God. These are certainly not things that we can do on our own strength – left to ourselves we would always look like the disciples in these Gospel passages – but Jesus gives us His Spirit and He gives us grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.