The dinner table is where sacred things happen. The dinner table is where food is served that can satisfy a hunger, can heal an ailing body, can delight the senses, and can invoke a nostalgia like no other. The dinner table is where stories are told, days are recounted, prayers are said, and laughter is had. The dinner table is where places are set, dishes are passed, plates are cleared, and remnants are cleaned. The dinner table is the host of all things mundane – like that frozen meal you threw together before you ran off to the next thing; and the dinner table is the host of all things momentous – like that gloriously planned and executed Thanksgiving meal that you hosted for your friends and family. Because the dinner table can do all these things, the dinner table becomes the place in our home where sacred things happen – a holy site for one’s everyday and one’s extraordinary moments.
The dinner table where Jesus and his disciples gathered for that Last Supper was no different. They had gathered at table hundreds of times in the three years they had spent together. There had been learning and laughter, stories and questions, arguments and celebrations. In many ways, all of these things seem to happen in the course of this one night during the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples are likely chatting up a storm, talking about the days events, when Jesus does something extraordinary. He gets up, takes off his outer robes, and washes the feet of his disciples. This kind of event is unheard of. Hosts and well-respected teachers do not wash others feet; that task was assigned to a household slave.[i] And some of the midrashic commentary suggests that not even a Hebrew slave was expected to perform such a menial task. Instead, the slave might bring out a bowl of water, but the guest would wash his own feet.[ii] So of course, a lively debate ensues with Peter, who does not understand what is happening. Jesus washes Peter’s feet anyway – and washes Judas’ feet – before returning to that dinner table to explain what he has done. He goes on to explain that not only will he die soon, but also that he expects a certain behavior after he is gone – that they love one another.
That is the funny thing about dinner tables. They can bring out the most sacred and holy of conversations. The dinner table is where one tells his family that he has terminal cancer. The dinner table is where one tells her best friend that she lost her job and has no idea what she is going to do. The dinner table is where the young couple announces that that they lost their pregnancy. The dinner table is where the college student tells his parents that he is dropping out of school. We tell these awful, scary stories at the dinner table because we know that the table can handle them. The table is where we gather with those who we care about and is therefore the place where we can share both the joys of life and also the really hard stuff of life. Though our table may have never hosted a dinner as beautiful as one of the tables Norman Rockwell could paint, our table is still a sacred place that can hold all the parts of us – the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. We can share the awfulness of life there because we know that those gathered can handle it, and can carry us until we can be back at the table laughing some day.
What I love about our celebration of this day is that all of those things – the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly – were present that night with Jesus and his disciples. So yes, earlier in the evening, there probably is a raucous conversation. The disciples are gathered at the table, in all their imperfection: those who love Jesus with a beautiful innocence and those who greedily hope to be at Jesus’ left and right hand; those who humbly understand Jesus and those who want Jesus to victoriously claim his Messianic power; those who profess undying faithfulness (even though they will fail to be faithful) and those who actively betray Jesus. At that table Jesus not only talks about how to be agents of love, Jesus also shows them how to love. On this last night – this last night before the storm of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and death – a sacred moment happens at the dinner table. And though we do not hear the story tonight, we also know that Jesus then breaks the bread and offers the wine, instituting the sacrament of Holy Communion.
We know the rest of the story. The disciples, who still do not really understand Jesus fully, muddle their way through footwashing and Holy Communion. Then those same dense disciples sleep their way through Jesus’ last prayers. One of those disciples becomes violent when a soldier tries to seize Jesus. And eventually, most of the disciples betray and abandon Jesus altogether. To this unfaithful, dimwitted, scared group, Jesus offers a sacred moment at the dinner table, inviting them into the depths of his soul and a pathway to our God: and encourages them to love anyway.
Our own Eucharistic table is not unlike that dinner table with Jesus. Tonight, we too will tell stories, sing, and laugh. We too will wash feet in humility, embarrassment, and servitude. We too will hear the sobering invitation to the Eucharistic meal, and will walk our unworthy selves to the rail to receive that sacrificial body and blood. We too will argue with God in our prayers, pondering what God is calling us to do in our lives and resisting that call with our whole being. We too will lean on Jesus, longing for the comfort that only Jesus can give. And we too will hear Jesus’ desperate plea for us to also be agents of love – not just to talk about love, or profess love, but to show love as Jesus has shown love to us.
In this way, our Eucharistic table is not unlike the dinner table in your own home. Our Eucharistic table has hosted countless stories, arguments, and bouts of laugher. Our Eucharistic table has witnessed great sadness and great joy. Our Eucharistic table feeds us, even when we feel or act unworthily. And our Eucharistic table charges us to go out into the world, being the agents of love who are willing to wash the feet of others – even those who betray us and fail us. This Lent, we have been praying Eucharistic Prayer C. In that prayer, the priest prays, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[iii] This Eucharistic table, like our own dinner table, can handle all of us – all our failings, sinfulness, and brokenness. This table can fill us up with joy, forgiveness, and peace. This table can be a place where we find belonging, identity, and security. But this table is also meant to build us up – to give us strength and renewal for doing the work God has given us to do – to love others as Christ loves us. Sacred things happen at this table. Those sacred things happen so that we can do sacred things in the world for our God. Amen.
[i] Guy D. Nave, Jr., “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 279.
[ii] Mary Louise Bringle, “Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 279.
[iii] BCP, 372.