The Last Supper
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” - The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This morning, we gather around the table yet again for this feast. Since the beginning of June, we have done so each week – and we will do so again next Sunday, in our chapel next door, as our summer worship series draws to a close. And as we do, we consider these words of Dr. King’s, about trusting in the path of God’s journey, even when we are unsure of the destination.
It’s hard to do so at times, in the wake of news cycles that draw our tribal divisions more starkly than they tend to exist in reality. Shootings in Chattanooga; Klan rallies in South Carolina; political campaigns ramping up, wars raging, environmental catastrophes looming…there are days when it feels like it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other.
Those are the days we would do well to listen to Dr. King, who faced brutal injustices and inhuman divisions, embodying the hope he knew in Christ, and passing on that hope in elegant rhetoric and action that continues to speak movingly to us today.
Dr. King was, before anything else, a Christian. He was taught at the foot of the pulpit. He was encouraged and challenged in the Sunday School classroom. And he was nourished at the table, the one that owes its origins to Jesus, to that ancient feast.
That meal took place the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. It was the last time he would gather with his disciples before his death. And so, as he broke bread and shared cup with them, this Last Supper was one final chance to be with them. It would be one last opportunity to encourage these faithful friends to continue what they had begun – and to do so, now, without him.
At least, we can see that now with the benefit of hindsight. We can see in their confusion that night that the disciples still had no clue what was in store. At this point, some of them were probably still convinced that they were on the verge of launching their armed rebellion against a corrupt, foreign regime.
Jesus, on the other hand, knew betrayal awaited him later that night. Beyond that lay torture, death, and burial. On the other side of the agony, resurrection awaited – and yet, for now, as he spoke of a broken body and spilled blood, it was crucifixion that loomed on the horizon. The best he could hope for was to point them in the right direction, to let them know that there was, indeed, a staircase; all they had to do was to take the first step, and to trust the rest to God’s holy wisdom.
It is that wisdom which our Proverbs’ lesson speaks of this morning. The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom sayings attributed to King Solomon. And the idea at the heart of it all is that there is this divine wisdom existing since the beginning of time. This wisdom was there creating alongside God: folding mountains, spewing oceans, leveling plains, carefully molding creation out of nothing.
The puzzling question is this: What is this wisdom? Is it another, but lesser, deity? Was it some form of God’s chief of staff? Was it nothing more than a poetic description of God’s own knowledge and skill? Or do we have an early glimpse of the later Christian theological concept of the Trinity?
We may never know what it was that Solomon had in mind. And yet, as we dig a little deeper, we find this odd little note about the Hebrew word for wisdom. For the most part, its meaning is straightforward. It means wisdom, skill, knowledge. And it also means, “becoming” – that is, I think, in the sense that we are never fully there. It points to us always being on the journey of wisdom and of faith.
You may have heard me speak of my grandmother on my father’s side before. She was a remarkable woman, who took a year of courses at Yale Divinity School back in the 1920’s. Female students were derisively referred to as “Spinster Ministers”, and one professor asked her and the other women in one class to sit in the balcony so that they wouldn’t be a distraction to the men. She later taught the large Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church here in Atlanta alongside my grandfather – well, actually, he was there to provide gender cover, since women wouldn’t be allowed such a place of prominence at the time.
When I went to seminary, it was all she wanted to talk about in our visits together. In some ways, it felt like she was living vicariously through me. She had a very specific assignment for me, though: “I want you to find out where I can learn Aramaic.” She was in her mid-90’s at the time, and to say that she was obsessed with this idea would be an understatement. Whenever I saw her, it was all she would talk about. Why? “Because it’s the language that Jesus spoke. And when I get to heaven, I want to be able to talk to him.” I told her that, by now, Jesus probably knew enough English to get by, but there was no dissuading her.
To be wise is to recognize that you’re never fully there. Instead, it is a becoming, a never-ending process of discovery and growth. It is understanding that life is meant to be filled with learning. And it is knowing that all you can do is to take that first step, and then the next, one step at a time, trusting that the staircase is there somewhere, even when you can’t see it.
This is what was at stake for the disciples, gathered for that Last Supper, there in Jerusalem – though they didn’t know it yet. That same pre-existing wisdom, the one Solomon of which wrote so poetically, was the same wisdom Jesus was handing on to them. It was holy wisdom that would give them the opportunity to become more and more the people it was that God had created them to be. It was that same Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised, who would be there to guide them. All they needed to do was ask, to take that first step in faith.
We know that they first stumbled blindly in the dark. If the next few days were a test, the disciples failed it miserably. Fearing for their own lives, they denied him and separated from him. They hid in terror, afraid of meeting the same fate. They forgot all they had been through: the miracles, the courage, the wisdom he had given them and those who gathered in crowds, seeking this man named Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to be too hard on the disciples. I would like to think that I would fare better than they did, which takes incredible doses of hubris on my part. They had the benefit of knowing Jesus first-hand. They were witnesses to the blind seeing, the lame walking, and they still gave into fear. If I am honest with myself, the truth is that I would buckle under the pressure, and fast.
That, to me, is the gift of the disciples. To put it mildly, in those first few days when their faith was tested, they blew it. In the wake of Jesus’ arrest and trial, the disciples failed spectacularly. If there was an opportunity to bear witness to the faith Jesus had entrusted to them, they were sure to miss it, and miss it boldly. And yet, as surely as morning follows night, life came out of death. Resurrection came out of crucifixion. And out of their impressive display of ineptitude came…forgiveness. Peace. Courage. Leadership. Martyrdom. These utter disappointments were transformed into builders of the body of Christ. The wisdom sank in. They healed and taught and spread the gospel, opening themselves and the world in which they lived to new possibilities, giving it the potential to become the world God had created it to be!
This morning, as I read news reports of the violence this week in Chattanooga, I came across the story of an interfaith gathering at Olivet Baptist Church. The final speaker was Dr. Mohsin Ali, representing the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga. He asked the Muslims in attendance to stand – they made up nearly half of those in attendance. And as they stood, he shared that though it was the final day of Ramadan, the day that the fast is broken in celebration. Instead of doing so, they chose to be at a Baptist Church, to be signs of peace and healing and hope.
Among the many lessons to be drawn from that moment, the one that stands out to me is simply this: there is always hope. In other words, the Last Supper wasn’t really the Last supper (spoiler alert). Instead, it set the model for all that was to follow! It was the moment where Jesus passed the baton to the disciples, so that they would know to pass it on to those who followed them, and so on down the line. And as we receive it, we would know that it is not ours to keep, but to share it down the line, one step of faith at a time, trusting the journey in the hands of wisdom that continually calls us toward who it is we have been molded to be.
So, what about us? How is it that we, as a community, make sure that we don’t become complacent, so sure that we have already become what God desires? How do we keep from allowing personal comfort to be our guide, or letting fear float us into stagnant waters? How is it that we continue to make room for those who are not yet here?
Or what about you? When you think back about the steps you have climbed thus far, who was it that gave you the wisdom to do so? And now that you are on the way, what are you doing to nurture that gift? What are you doing to share it? What are you doing to cultivate this inherited wisdom, so that you might be fearless in your faith, in your witness, in your generosity, in your living?
Or are you just looking to take that first step? Maybe there’s a new journey that awaits you: a new relationship, a new phase of life? Or maybe it’s just the end of an old one, without anything clear waiting on the horizon? Perhaps it’s nothing more than a simple restlessness, a wisdom hinting that is letting you know it’s time to move on, to stretch, to do something else, even if that something is fuzzy, at best.
Whatever the case, whether for us as a congregation, for you as Christ’s disciple, for you as someone who simply senses that there is more to life than meets the eye, then the first step, I believe, is to come to this table today.
This is not the same table where Jesus gathered with his disciples. This is not the same kind of bread. There was no unfermented juice there. They did not stand, or even sit at the table. And yet, none of that matters today, because our point is not to be historic re-enacters. Instead, we trust that this feast is yet another step toward becoming who it is that God has crafted us to be. And through the holiest of wisdoms, through the power and mystery of the Spirit, we are intimately connected to that ancient feast, to Christ himself, who is here with us, as we share bread and cup, signs of blood spilled and a body broken.
Today, as we take steps toward this table, we are fed and nourished so that we might move out from this table, continuing out into the world, stepping out with the wisdom and faith we have and in which we are called to grow and become.