The Ones That Really Matter (a sermon for Maundy Thursday)
We have come to the part of the story that we all know, to the part of the story that we tell each other every week, to the meal among friends, to the bread and wine, to the last moment of peace before the Passion. We have come to the beginning of the end.
It’s a small moment, comparatively. It’s quiet and loving and it’s going to be important later, once Jesus gives the new commandment, once he leaves this room to go and wait in the garden, once it sinks in for everyone else how high the stakes are.
But we’re not there yet. And I’m glad we’re here first. I’m glad that the disciples get to share one last meal together, I’m glad that Jesus can look around the table and see the love in his friends’ eyes now, in this moment of peace before things start to get really, really bad.
Because they’re about to do that. If you’ll excuse a Frodo Baggins quote, “You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: "Shut the book now, dad; we don't want to read any more.” I know I don’t. I know that I always have to try really hard to make myself look, from this point forward. The Passion is hard, it’s hard to watch Jesus suffer, to stand among the crowd demanding that he be crucified, to see him beaten and mocked and killed, and more than anything I find myself wanting to close my eyes and turn away and wait for Easter.
But the important part of that Lord of the Rings quote is that it’s not a moment of despair, it’s a moment of comfort. In that moment, Frodo and Sam are also telling each other stories, about how their suffering, even the most awful parts of it, will make a really good story someday, a story of love and steadfastness and courage against insurmountable odds and unspeakable evils. And that helps them to keep going forward. And we’ll go forward, too.
We’ll get up from the table and follow Jesus through the worst parts of the story, because as soon as this meal is over, then comes Gethsemane, then comes Calvary.
In the meantime, this. In the meantime, a lingering dinner, the kind where the lamps burn down to almost nothing before anyone can bear to start collecting dishes. Maybe people laugh too hard at a joke that isn’t that funny, out of love for the person telling it. Maybe the moments of silence aren’t awkward, but peaceful and thankful. Maybe someone’s trying to keep themselves from crying. This part of the story is familiar not only because it’s important, not only because we tell it every week, but because we do this too. This is the moment that we build our whole spiritual practice around.
I’ve been thinking about this every communion this semester, and it just feels right to be telling this story here, with you. Sometimes they blend together, like, when I try to imagine the last supper they might as well be eating bagel casserole. And then I start to forget that I already know the ending and I wish I could just stop it here, in the middle of dinner, when no one has to leave and no one has to die.
And then he passes around the bread and the wine, and he says to us, as though we could forget, “Do this to remember me.” He gives us a way to keep him with us, to sustain each other through the recreation of this last meeting of friends.
And we do, from that moment to this. That is why this is the part of the story we tell every week. And every week, afterwards, we say something else. “Send us now into the world in peace.” I love that moment every week, the drawing inward and then the turning outward, but it means something else tonight. Send us out to follow you to the cross. Send us out to bear witness. Don’t let us close the book. Earlier in that scene in The Two Towers, Sam says about the protagonists of the really good stories, the ones that really matter, “They had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.”
They didn’t. And we won’t either. And we’ll hope that this, the meal with our friends, the wine that is blood and friendship, comfort and sacrifice, will give us the strength to follow when he gets up and leaves, walking straight into the worst part of the story.