Dinner with Jesus

March 4th, 2013

It’s odd, even for the odd Gospel of John. Jesus is in Bethany entertained by his good friends Mary and Martha. (John 12:1-11.) John casually remarks that Lazarus, whom Jesus has just raised from the dead, is there at the table.

Lazarus whom he has just raised from the dead? Are you kidding?

Imagine being seated at that dinner table. “You know our rabbi, Jesus, don’t you?  And seated next to him is our brother Lazarus, who died last week. Thanks to Jesus, he’s back among the living. No tell tale grave stench, even. Please make yourself comfortable between them.”

Settling uneasily in your seat, just being polite, you ask the table companion on your right, “Had a good week?”

Your fellow dinner guest replies, “Well, I was sick unto death, my sisters were frantic with worry, then I died, was entombed for three days, wrapped like a mummy. Jesus graciously stopped by the cemetery, shouted, ‘Lazarus come out!’ and raised me from the dead just in time for my sisters’ dinner party. How was your week?”

The guest to your right, the young rabbi, says, “Unfortunately, no sooner had I raised Lazarus, than my enemies vowed to kill me. I give myself no more than a week before they succeed.”

Where are we? Welcome to the wonderfully weird world of the Gospel of John and to the holiest week of the church’s year. And welcome to the truth about what God in Jesus Christ is up to in the world. God isn’t just good and great, God is on the move toward us. Jesus joins us at the table and, whenever Jesus shows up, hold on to your hat; corpses rise from the dead and we are shocked that God is more active than we imagined. The predictable, dull world is rendered strange, and even at a meal Jesus, though unarmed, is extremely dangerous.

In intensifying his whole ministry at a meal, Jesus leads us into a world that is thick with subtle, secret meaning. A meal in which a piece of bread is called “my body broken for you,” a cup of wine designated as “my blood shed for you” is almost too rich a metaphorical feast.  We can spend a lifetime attempting to plumb the depths of such a mystery and never exhaust, much less consume the meaning. This book on Maundy Thursday’s mysteries is meant to increase enjoyment of this holy mystery rather merely to explain it.

The liturgy of the church generally lets Luke, Matthew, or Mark handle Holy Week through Maundy Thursday, then turns to John for Good Friday and the Passion. I propose to allow John teach us on Thursday.

In four long chapters (John 13:1-16:33) the Word-Made-Flesh, God-With-Us turns away from instruction of the world to host a farewell supper with his disciples where he tells them how to live once he is physically absent from them.

John’s gospel is a rich, almost too rich, for the interpreter. To get one’s good news from the Fourth Gospel is willingly to enter a luxuriant figurative world where few things are as they first appear. Our world has been made strange by the advent of a God whom almost nobody expected. In heaps of symbols, metaphors, similes and images, John teaches us how to read the world as Christians, gradually, sign by sign, leading us into a reality we might have missed without John’s words.

Augustine described his own conversion to Christ as a long process of learning how to read the Bible. His teacher, Ambrose, helped Augustine to see that in the odd, thick, mysterious world of Scripture “bread” means more than what you had for dinner, “fish” more than fish, and things like vines, water, women, and men on crosses are almost never as they first appear.

I have had to learn to love the Gospel of John and the way it refuses to be managed by my intellect. Jesus, as John recalls him, reminds you of the Jesus we meet in the Synoptics—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—but this is Jesus as Christ taken up to the tenth degree. Somehow John’s Jesus manages both to be strange and remote and also intimate and close at hand. I have found Jesus to be paradoxically no more distant from us and no nearer to us than when he is at table with us.

The gospel that begins with, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory….” (John 1:14) is a supremely Eucharistic, table-talk gospel where Jesus saves some of his best stuff until the end when he settles down at the dinner table with his twelve best friends (who are also his worst betrayers) and unpacks his significance for them, having a bite to eat with them just before he is tortured to death for them.

God’s incarnation, Jesus’ act of redemption, our grand reconciliation, all these weighty, true but unfathomable mysteries are on the table on Thursday. The Lord’s Supper is always a demonstration of God with us, none other than the great glorious God present with none other than the lousiest sinners. If you can’t be safe from God at a carnal, mundane fleshly, ordinary gathering of friends around the supper table, well, where can you hide?

Excerpted from the author's new book,Thank God It's Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Lord's Table As If It's the Last Time.

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