This Lent Abingdon Press has published my book, Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Table. The book is a sort of companion to my Thank God It’s Friday, which received a gratifying reception from the church.
Thank God It’s Thursday utilizes the last chapters of John’s Gospel to reflect upon the significance of our mealtimes with Jesus. I hope that you will enjoy these meditations during this holiest time of the Christian year. And I hope you will check out Thank God It’s Thursday.
Beginning with the Deed
Sometimes, 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 words, 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 watching the movie that I loved, said 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 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 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 non-eucharistic 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 have not only in effect excommunicated millions of God’s people from the Lord’s Table but also 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 13:14-16)
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 (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 his 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 footwashing concluding with, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (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 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 (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; indeed I hope this book will help you do just that.
Yet even more blessed is active following of the faith, not thinking but doing the faith.
John’s gospel is best thought of as a sermon. Try reducing the gospels to biography, or merely a report on history, and they will come across as botched, boring history. John doesn’t just want to inform you about the past facts of Jesus; John wants to convert you into present faith in Jesus so that you will be enticed to follow Jesus.
Among the lessons that I as a preacher learn from preacher John is that my job as a preacher is not to dumb Jesus down. How many times have I as a preacher read aloud to the congregation some biblical text and watched listeners squirm. Then I begin my sermon, in effect, “Settle down. I can see that Jesus has made you confused and uncomfortable. Well, here is what Jesus was trying to say if, like me, he had the benefit of a seminary education.”
I thus imply that, after my skilled explanation of Jesus, you will cease to be bothered by Jesus. Rather than encounter Jesus, you simply repeat what you have always thought about Jesus before you really met Jesus. You can go home having had some sort of vague spiritual experience rather than being challenged by the living, demandingly present Christ.
Rather than attempt to explain Jesus, John presents him in all of his wondrous mysteriousness. Rather than close the gap between you and Jesus, John opens up the gap so that, once you see John’s Jesus in action at the table with his disciples, you say, “I guess I didn’t know Jesus as well as I first thought.”
We don’t preach about Jesus; we preach Jesus. In the sermon, I’m not to work on Jesus as an intellectual problem but rather to allow Jesus to use the sermon to work on you through his stunning, challenging, real presence. What you most want is not a set of simple ideas about Jesus; you want Jesus. Thus the martyr Bonhoeffer said that the purpose of a sermon is to allow the risen Christ to walk among his people.
I tell you, looking out from the pulpit while I preach, some Sundays I can almost see Christ roaming the aisles, stopping unexpectedly, often at a pew where some innocent person is listening passively, and tapping them on the shoulder, or whopping them up beside the head, enlisting them, calling them by name into his service, transforming a sermon from harmless information into risky vocation.
As a Christian communicator, I marvel at John’s willingness to let mysterious Jesus stay a mystery, to present Christ in a way that frustrates simple explication. John’s masterful, strange narration of say, the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night (John 3) is so much better even than my very best attempts to explain to you what John meant by his story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus.
In John, Jesus is the Word, the eternal logos, a loaded Greek word that can mean not only “word” but also “reason.” So the reason for John’s gospel, the rationale for telling the story of Jesus at the table this night with his disciples, the point, if you will, is not some idea about Jesus; it’s Jesus.
We frequently say that we “prepare a meal.” Jesus uses a meal to prepare his people, preparing them for their more lasting home, preparing them for his departure as he returns to the Father, and more to his exemplary point, preparing them for their work here and now in the world by being an example for them – with basin and towel.
These actions at the table are preparation. The table is not their final destination. That’s a good thing for us to remember any time two or three or more of us are gathered for worship. Something within each of us would love to snuggle close to Jesus at this table, there to linger with him forever in the serenity and conviviality of the meal. But when you are at table with Jesus, worshipping him, adoring his presence, you do so only to “arise, let us be on our way” (Jn. 14:31). He nourishes us at the table in order to strengthen us to walk perilous paths in the night beyond the table. He gathers us in church in worship in order to disperse us in service into the world. So we gather here in the warm camaraderie of the table on Thursday to send Jesus off into another world only to have him end the supper by sending us out in service to this world.