REFLECTIONS ON THE LAST SUPPER
“Jesus rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girdled himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel… . He came to Simon Peter; and peter said to him ‘Lord, do you wash myfeet?’….
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? …If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you’.” (John 13: 4-15)
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’. In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 1:23-6)
How often have you had your feet washed? I think most of us are used to washing our own feet, and only occasionally have them washed by someone else – either by a partner or spouse, or at a Maundy Thursday Communion (which sadly we are unable to do this time because of restrictions).
Having one’s feet washed and wiped clean is a very special experience, one which – provided you are not ticklish – both relaxes and releases energy at the same time. This happens too with reflexology, if you have experienced that: it is a very centring and healing treatment.
So what is the meaning, the significance of what Jesus does here for his disciples at the end of the Last Supper? And why in John, the only Gospel-writer to include it while saying little about the actual Passover-like supper and the ‘words of institution’ – “Do this in remembrance of me”? Well, maybe this foot-washing by Jesus, doing the work of a slave, was simply so shocking, even scandalous, to the other three evangelists that to include it would be one step too far… though one would think the torture and crucifixion of their Lord and Teacher equally, if not more, shocking.
But in this account of the foot-washing and his reflections on it, John, the ‘beloved disciple’ seems to be saying all he believes necessary to say on the meaning and significance of the Last Supper as a whole. For here we see Jesus giving himself totally for his disciples’ release and healing, and through them for ours “I have given you an example (or pattern) that you should do as I have done to you”.
Let’s go into this in a bit more detail and depth.
“Jesus rose…laid aside his garments, and girdled himself with a towel”. That is to say, Jesus laid aside, let go of his worldly authority as a Rabbi/Teacher, and put on the symbol of a powerless slave’s work – to wash and make clean the tired, dirty feet of people who come into the house. Indeed, we already have another text which speaks of this – Philippians 2: 3-8: give it a read. Alongside this, remember Jesus as the helpless new-born baby he once was, entering the world seemingly with no power or authority whatsoever! Or think of any new-born baby. And in this connection, too, I recall my late brother Anthony, who from birth had major disabilities of mind, body and emotion: yet, in time, through the loving care he was given, he came to know that he was accepted and loved – as soon does any well-parented infant. “You are accepted. You are loved”: so speaks a mother or father, so speaks an intimate friend or lover, so speaks a caring counsellor – and so speaks God, so are we addressed by God.
IT IS ONLY, YOU SEE, WHEN WE ARE PREPARED AND READY TO LAY ASIDE, TO LET GO OF THE PROP, THE DEFENCE MECHANISM, THE OFTEN SELF-SERVING DEVICE OF WORLDY AUTHORITY AND POWER – ONLY THEN CAN WE BE HUMBLE, OPEN AND READY ENOUGH TO LET LOVE IN – THE ENERGISING, HEALING AND LIFE-GIVING POWER OF GOD’S LOVE BY WAY OF JESUS CHRIST. AND SO WE BECOME A ‘NEW CREATION’, NOW ABLE TO BE ‘FOR OTHERS’, A FLESH AND BLOOD CHANNEL OF DIVINE LOVE AND PEACE.
So Jesus, by humbling himself and taking the role of a slave, comes to wash his disciples’ feet as a channel through which the renewing energies of God can come in, and their tiredness, their dirt and so their sin can be let go of, released, and the life-giving power of forgiveness take root in their lives.
This, for John, is at the heart of what the Last Supper, and so our Communion worship, is all about – our offering of our broken selves to God (and thereby to one another) so that we can be released from the captivity of sin and become what we are truly meant to be – a new, re-membered creation – nothing less than the Body of Christ in and for the world.
Finally, Jesus puts his garment back on, puts on the outward sign of his authority as the disciples’ Rabbi. And as such, their Teacher and Lord, he speaks with God’s authority – “I have given you this example, now you must do this for one another”. That authority, that ‘power’, will soon be tested to the limit in the powerlessness of Jesus, and so of God, during the trauma of the Passion. In John’s vision of things, the full Glory and Love of God is most truly revealed to us by that event – what a paradox!
THE SHARED LAST SUPPER AND OUR COMMUNION MEALS
“Do this in remembrance of me”
The full version of what we now call the Words of Consecration of the bread and wine, or Words of Institution, including ‘do this in remembrance’, appear just in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In John we have seen they don’t feature at all, and only in part in the other three Gospels.
Here again we act upon the example, the pattern Jesus gave to his disciples and so to us – “do this”. As Jesus breaks the Passover bread and pours out the wine, he means these elements – shared among the disciples – to be signs and foretastes of his total giving of himself for others, for us, in the breaking of his body and shedding of his blood on the Cross.
Again, we need to put some flesh on these dry words.
The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach once said “we are what we eat”. This certainly holds water biologically – all the nutrients & goodness in our food and drink become part of, and essential to, the functioning of our bodies and minds. But what about those words’ meaning at other levels? For we are, and we become, what we eat by becoming consumers in a consumer society – fixated on food, drink and material things! And in a more positive and need-fully healthy way we become very much a part of other people – giving and receiving hospitality, care, something of ourselves, our ideas and feelings, maybe our vision – when we share a meal with them: we are strengthened as ‘members one of another’.
During the Last Supper, and now every time we share together (and, ideally, serve one another with) the bread and wine, re-created as the body and blood of Christ, we ourselves are and become once more the Body of Christ. By ‘doing this’ we recommit ourselves to taking up our cross and actively being what we have here become – quite literally the self-giving Body….arms, hands, legs, feet, mind, costly love of Jesus Christ… for continuing his work, God’s work, through our daily life in the world. Hence another name for the Communion is the ‘Liturgy’, meaning ‘the people’s, i.e., our, work. But to ‘do this’ we need to let go of our selfish consumption of earth’s resources, let go of worldly values, so that Christ’s love and justice, mercy, forgiveness and compassion can flow through us into others – and most especially those most deprived of these things.
What about “in remembrance of me”- of Jesus Christ? Well, remembrance has at least three important meanings here. The first is familiar – remember, call back to mind, do not forget. The second less so: the Greek New Testament word for remembrance is ‘anamnesis’ – by recalling and re-enacting what Jesus did at the Last Supper, and thereby through all his costly self-giving work, we allow it to become present once more, here and now. In doing this we essentially commit ourselves afresh to Christ’s work as his Body. And the third meaning (intended by Jesus? ….. who knows?) is to “re-member”, that is, bring back together all the essentials, the constituent parts or ‘members’ of what ‘doing this’ is about, to remind us of what the whole thing is about so that we give ourselves to it knowingly.
And finally, the N.T. Greek word for ‘do (this)’ is ‘poieite’, which can also mean ‘be creative’. In doing this, we are invited to use all our God-given resources and skills, all our creative imagination (reflecting the image of God), mind and body, to build up and not destroy – to bring healing and ‘re-membering’ to God’ world, not yet more brokenness and devastation.
So, surely, a more fully informed understanding of what the Last Supper and Communion is about will give us more than enough to be getting on with as we slowly re-emerge from our captivity!
Paul Fisher Maundy Thursday, 1st April 2021