I know it is a bit late, but I want to commend the most recent book by United Methodist author, preacher, scholar, Bishop William Willimon. Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Lord’s Table As If for the Last Time (Abingdon; $13.99) is a great read, interesting and helpful. Some of it is just fantastic and, I’ll admit it it had me at the first sentence: “It’s odd, even for the odd gospel of John.”
In a colorfully imagined dialogue of Jesus and Lazarus, describing a dinner with Mary and Martha in John 12, it is noted as if in passing that Lazarus “whom he had just raised from the dead” was seated for dinner. Willimon quips, “Lazarus whom he had 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 telltale 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 sister’s dinner party. How was your week?”
The guest to your left, 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 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.
And then, this, sort of a preview of the ever-interesting topic of this fabulous book:
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 your enjoyment of this holy mystery rather than merely explain it.
Willimon wrote decades ago a book that is still one of my very favorites on the last supper, called Sunday Dinner: The Lord’s Supper and the Christian Life (Abingdon; $14.00) and it remains a great study book for small groups, a great refresher for pastors or elders. More recently, he did an good book on the last words of Jesus from the Cross called Thank God It’s Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words from the Cross (Abingdon; $14.00). I guess this one is sort of a follow up to both.
In a few rich paragraphs, Willimon tells of his love for the “luxuriant figurative world” of the gospel of John where few things are as they first appear. “In heaps of symbols, metaphors, similes, and images, John teaches us how to read the world as Christians, gradually, sign by sing, leading us into a reality we might have missed without John’s words.”
Augustine, you may recall, was taught by his teacher Ambrose, how to read the Bible well, and as he learned to do this, he became a Christian leader. We must work and pray, using reason and imagination, to grow into this, too. As Willimon writes, “God’s incarnation, Jesus’ act of redemption, our grand reconciliation — all these weighty, true, but unfathomable mysteries are on the table on Thursday.”
So, in this easy to read, creatively written, but exegetically thoughtful study, we really are invited to the table, to the table where God’s love is shown, and we are invited — and challenged — to be a part of it all.
Here is another excerpt, that will give you a sense of what is going on in this fine study.
Feet are literally the lowest, earthiest part of the body. “To put under the feet” was a humiliating gesture of the victor over the vanquished. (Ps. 8:6) In the ancient world, feet got dirty on dusty roads (Mark 6:11). Washing a guest’s feet was an act of highest hospitality (Genesis 18:4; Luke 7:44). Moses removed his shoes in a holy place in order not to defile (Ex. 3:5). To “fall at the feet” of someone is an act of humility and self-abasement (1 Sam. 25:24; Mk. 5:22). Just a few days before Maundy Thursday Mary anointed Jesus’ feet (Jn. 12:1-8).
It’s a touching gesture, washing of feet. It’s nice to see the Pope kneel and wash the feet of a young priest Maundy Thursday at the Vatican. But when Jesus arrives at the feet of Judas, I react with revulsion. Amid all of Jesus’ high sounding and loving words at the table, I almost forgot. At the table with the Twelve, there was Judas who a short time from now will by a kiss send Jesus off to a diabolical death.
In scripture, vanquished enemies are put under the victors’ feet (Josh. 10:24; Mal. 4:3). Here at table, Jesus does a shocking reversal, placing himself under the feet of his worst enemy who also happens to be one of his good friends.
How much easier this gesture if it had been offered to the rest of the Twelve but not to Judas, if Jesus had drawn the line between the passive acquiesce with evil of the Eleven and the active betrayal of Judas. At least the others got not a dime from their disloyalty of their master. We wish that Jesus had waited until Judas made his exit before Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet.
No, there’s Jesus tenderly caressing the feet of Judas as if he were the Beloved Disciple at his bosom. Judas will shortly use those same feet to walk from the meal to sell out his Savior. Is the foot washing John’s version of Jesus’ abrasive command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Or it’s John’s way of having Jesus say, as he says elsewhere, “I’ve come to seek and to save the lost”? (Luke 15) How much easier for us, the remaining Eleven, if Jesus had not given his life (only) for sinners and if he had not stooped down and lovingly washed the feet of Judas Iscariot.
When the Alabama legislature passed a law that penalized our citizens for giving aid, comfort, food, housing, jobs or transportation to undocumented immigrants, many churches of Alabama knew that the immigration law as an attack upon our Christ-assigned work.
As I argued with the governor (and a retired Methodist pastor turned politician who shamelessly defended the law), “Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t allow his people choose between the deserving and the undeserving poor, the documented and the undocumented homeless and hungry. He commands us actively to love all those in need.”
Some legislators replied, “But these people are illegal. The church shouldn’t be aiding and abetting law breakers.”
Hey, before Jesus Christ, so far as our relationship to God
was concerned, we were all illegal! His New Covenant, given at table, documented a bunch of illicit sinners as God’s beloved. At the time I was dooking it out with our right wing, ill-advised Governor I didn’t think about this Judas-foot-washing episode from John 13, but I wish I had. If Jesus had reason to wash Judas’ feet, in effect aiding and abetting his own murderer, harboring the worst of criminals at his own table, well, he’ll wash anybody’s feet. Anybody’s — even mine, even the Governor’s, even yours, no matter where your dirty feet have taken you.
Judas receives more attention (13:1-30) than any other person in the story other than Jesus. Is this a warning to contemporary disciples? Thus that great Catholic apologist for the faith, G. K. Chesterton dared to call Judas the very first Christian: “Judas Iscariot was one of the very earliest of all possible early Christians. And the whole point about him was that his hand was in the same dish; the traitor is always a friend, or he could never be a foe.” Sorry, if your idea of “Christian” is someone who has overcome the problem of sin and now sits at Jesus’ table with clean hands and a spotless conscience. Watch Jesus wash Judas’ feet and repeat after me: Jesus Christ came to seek and to save sinners, only sinners.
If Judas can be thought of as the first Christian, then that also makes this supper our earliest glimpse of the church.
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