Encountering Jesus at the Lord's Table

March 22nd, 2013

Sometimes, while reading John’s Gospel, my eyes blear and everything fades into a vague misty blue. The Fourth Gospel can have that effect on people. John’s Gospel is packed with many high-sounding, spiritual words that tend to float upward. Some tire of John’s long, religious-sounding speeches. I loved the Canadian film The Gospel of John, in which the Fourth Gospel is vividly rendered word for word in some stunning scenes. But it takes the film over three hours to do it. A friend who watched this movie said that he grumbled in frustration toward the end (surely in one of those long, redundant discourses in the last half of the Gospel), “Will Jesus ever shut up?”

But note that once we get to the table, after a rather intricate, thick theological introduction in John 13:1, words are laid aside and things unfold through haunting gestures done in silence: “during supper Jesus . . . got up . . . took off . . . tied a towel . . . poured water . . . began to wash . . . and to wipe.”

You see every move in your mind. Not a word is spoken; it’s all in the action.

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

Some years ago, the errant Jesus Seminar made much mischief in their voting on which words, if any, Jesus actually spoke. Not many, said the voters in the seminar. Who told the Jesus Seminar that Christians worship the words of Jesus? We worship Jesus as the Word Incarnate, which means that we are attentive not only to what Jesus says but also to what he does. In Jesus, the Word Made Flesh became the Word as Deed. Having said, down through the ages, “I love you,” God turned love into action and showed up as the Son (Heb. 1:2).

How sad that many of us are conditioned to think that when we go to church to be present with Jesus we are supposed to sit and listen to words. In many so-called contemporary services, the congregation doesn’t even sing, because of unsingable songs, as would-be communal Christian worship degenerates into a spectator sport in which the passive many watch the performing few at worship.

I therefore think there are few things more important than the restoration of the Lord’s Supper as an every-Sunday activity for every congregation. Let’s remind ourselves that we Protestants who attempt noneucharistic worship on the majority of Sundays are decidedly in a minority of the world’s Christians. At table (at least as the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell it), Jesus clearly said, “Do this,” not think about, meditate upon, or have deep feelings for this. In going against centuries of church practice and the majority of Christians at worship today, we not only in effect have excommunicated millions of God’s people from the Lord’s Table but also have given many the false impression that we would rather talk about Jesus than to be present with Jesus, and that following Jesus is a matter of what we think or feel rather than what we do.

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” —John 13:14-17

In John, Jesus is big on words. But tonight, at the table, he doesn’t only say the good news; he shows us as he enacts his gospel, embodies his sermons with basin and towel, simply and directly commanding us to do the same. In other Gospels, Jesus tells some memorable parables; tonight he performs parabolically by kneeling at his disciples’ feet and enacting the gospel.

When Peter breaks the silence by blurting out his surprise that Jesus would act like a slave (yes, the actual Greek word is slave rather than the softer servant), Jesus responds (in John 13:6-11) with an enigmatic explanation alluding to the Lamb of God and the metaphor of washing. Peter is horrified to see his Lord on his knees before him, washing Peter’s dirty feet, and responds in much the same way as he rebuked Jesus in his first prediction of his death and suffering in Mark 8:32.

Jesus answers with a more detailed explication of his foot washing, concluding with, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17, italics mine). Yes, that’s often just the problem, isn’t it? We know, but we fail to act upon our knowledge. The challenge with faith is not only knowing about Jesus but also doing as Jesus.

Many modern people complain that their problem with Jesus is that they lack sufficient knowledge about Jesus. There are so many gaps in our information about him, and some of the information— say when one compares the story of Jesus in Mark with that told in John—seems ambiguous and conflicting. I suspect that Jesus is easier to handle if we turn him into an intellectual problem. We await the results of more historical research on Jesus. We assume that if we just had more verifiable, uncontested facts about Jesus, we would know for sure about Jesus.

The modern world was, in great part, an intellectual quest for sure and certain knowledge. History became a science as scholars methodically peeled away the accumulated layers of myth and fanciful, credulous fables and dug down to the absolutely certain facts. Dare to think!

I remind you that Jesus never said, “Think about me.” It was always, “Follow me.” Or more typical of John’s Gospel, Jesus says even more engagingly, “Love me.” Love that is only knowledge of love is not yet true love. As Jesus says, it’s blessed to know him, but more blessed is to do as he does (John 13:17), transforming his enigmatic action at the table into an example for us to follow throughout life, a command for us to obey.

Sometimes we preachers unwittingly imply that the greatest challenge of the Christian faith is in right thinking. Jesus is presented as a sort of folk philosopher who is tough to understand without the explication of a preacher. The Christian faith is a set of sometimes-challenging, frequently baffling ideas or principles. The sermon begins, “Three biblical principles for a more fulfilling life are . . .” or, “Now I will attempt to explain confusing Jesus to you.”

The intellectual love of the faith is indeed a blessed thing. We are enjoined to grow in our knowledge of the Lord. Yet even more blessed is active following of the faith—not thinking but doing the faith.

Excerpted from Thank God It's Thursday by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2013 by Abingdon Press

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