Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013. X + 110 pages.
By whatever name you know it – Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist – Christians have from the very beginning of their existence as a community gathered at the table to share bread and cup. Our names for this event, we call a sacrament, differ as do our theologies and even practices. Some observances are highly formal and others informal. Some believe that clergy are needed to make this meal sacred, others do not. Still, the meal is sacred because it connects us to Jesus.
On the Thursday prior to Easter, many Christians will gather for Maundy Thursday and remember Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. We call this the Last Supper, and the synoptic gospels, along with Paul, tell us that Jesus instituted this meal of bread and wine as meal of remembrance of a body broken and blood shed. The Gospel of John also has a final meal before Jesus goes to the cross. John’s chronology is slightly different – his meal falls on the eve of Passover, while the others place it on the Passover. But that’s not the only difference. Instead of commanding the disciples to take bread and cup, Jesus commands them to love one another, and then he demonstrates this love by washing the feet of the disciples. From there, Jesus begins a lengthy – five chapters – set of teachings on important faith matters.
With Maundy Thursday on the horizon, I found a copy of William Willimon’s new book entitled Thank God It’s Thursday in a stack of books. Abingdon had sent a review copy, but I’d placed it on a different pile and didn’t see it until late last week. Providentially, I found it. I realize that Willimon is United Methodist, and so we mustn’t take this in a Calvinist way, but the timing was impeccable.
This small, fast moving, book is vintage Willimon. It cuts to the quick and invites us to consider the meaning and purpose of this celebration. Willimon chooses to look at this meal through the eyes of John. Therefore, the picture is somewhat different than what we may be used to, but I think the reader will find it enlightening and challenging. Willimon is a Progressive Mainliner, but he’s a Barthian kind. He has little interest in sentimentality – whether it’s the sort peddled by Schleiermacher or Rick Warren. The Jesus we meet at table is open and welcoming, and challenging of the status quo.
Willimon chooses John’s portrayal of the Last Supper to base his exploration of Maundy Thursday, because of its theological richness. He speaks of John’s Gospel as being “supremely eucharistic.” It is a “table –talk Gospel in which Jesus saves some of his best stuff until the end when he settles down at the dinner table with his twelve best friends (who are also his worst betrayers) and unpacks his significance for them, having a bite to eat with them just before he is tortured to death for them” (p. viii).
Willimon explores the meaning of Maundy Thursday in five chapters. In the first of the chapters, entitled “Uncomfortable Supper,” he lays the framework for the conversation. He provides context – the purpose of the meal – exploring the elements of this story that give birth to our sacramental practice. There is, of course, in John’s rendering the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He comments on the shallowness that passes for much of worship today and suggests that centering worship in the Table might move us from a spectator sport to a more participative experience. In this meal, Jesus not only tells us the good news, but he also “enacts his gospel” with basin and towel. Jesus’ act of washing feet is a sign of humility and service, but it is also a sign of divine love. Willimon notes that Jesus washes the feet of all the disciples, even those of Judas. Jesus embraces sinners too!
Taking this conversation further, in a chapter entitled “Making an Example of Jesus,” Willimon points out the movement from bread and wine in the Synoptics to basin and towel in John. In both cases there is the command to “do this.” He invites us to follow his example and wash each other’s feet. It is a call to an embodied faith. Willimon writes that many of us would be glad to settle for Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, and leaving it at that, but the message of Jesus is that we too must take up a cross. Jesus isn’t only the worker of salvific ministry, he is the exemplar for us. If the entire Gospel is sacramental, then John 13 shows us how to live into that theology.
Continuing to build on this theme, in the third chapter he reminds us of the meaning of the night – that word Maundy is an anglicized version of the Latin word for mandate – the mandate being – love one another (John 13:34). Willimon writes that this is a command not a suggestion. Love is to be the “defining characteristic of [Jesus’] followers. And the love we’re called to embody is a cruciform one, defined by the cross of Jesus. Driving deeper, he connects the Great Commandment with the Great Commission. The greatest impediment to the Gospel, he reminds us, is the church. While he acknowledges that John’s love command seems restricted to those inside the community, this needn’t limit us to a parochial vision. At the same time, he points out that it’s not easy loving other Christians: “It is tough to love fellow Christians, especially when engaged in fierce disagreements with fellow Christians about doctrine or social issues” (p. 49). Indeed, he writes that as a bishop, he’s found that clergy don’t quit the ministry because Jesus is too demanding, but because of the folks they deal with in the church. This brings us to the spiritual but not religious trend:
“Spirituality” is all the rage – feeling religious, sort of, without the bother of having to be religious with people who are not as vaguely spiritual as you. Spirituality is Jesus without the messiness of having to live with the people Jesus loves! (pp. 50-51).
But Jesus doesn’t call us to love because it’s easy, but because it is the nature of God. Jesus defines the nature of God’s love, which is more than a feeling – that is, Schleiermacher may have gotten it wrong. Love isn’t a feeling; it’s an act of the will.
The fourth chapter, “Truth at the Table,” begins with an explication of the words “it was night,” which are found in John 13:30. We prefer the sunniness of the daytime for our worship, but with these words we’re reminded that we often live in the darkness of night. It’s not all fun and games. Remember that mixed into this story is betrayal – on the part of Judas, but others as well. Truth must be spoken, and communion, that event instituted in this time at table, is, Willimon believes, “the ideal locale for ‘prophetic’ preaching” (p. 68). Darkness is a time when we meet Jesus most fully and powerfully, because in the night we become vulnerable.
In the final chapter, “Bread from Heaven,” Willimon deepens our understanding of the meal by connecting it to John’s sacramental teachings in John 6. Willimon speaks of John 6 as “one of the most revelatory chapters in the Gospel of John” because it speaks of the feeding of the crowd, Jesus walks on water, and then Jesus engages the crowd in a conversation about bread afterward. What we learn here is that with God there is abundance – not just enough bread, but plenty of leftovers. Jesus also enlists his disciples to help him, inviting them and us to imitate him in this effort. But this isn’t all, Jesus gives definition to the experience by pointing them to the food of eternal life – himself. But, lest we think that the message here is that Jesus – the bread of life – is the solution to our problems, Willimon steers us in a different direction. The Bible may answer some questions, but not all of them. But it also raises questions. As we encounter the questions, we have been given, as Jesus declares, the Paraclete, who will lead us into the truth, including the meaning of those difficult words of Jesus about eating his body and drinking his blood. It is a difficult message, and few can abide it, but where else do we go?
In our desire to get the story straight, we often prioritize the Synoptics over John. Some might find John’s theology otherworldly and thus not connected sufficiently to the real world. Others may not like aspects of his theology. However, in Willimon’s skillful hands we discover the riches embedded in John’s description of that final Thursday evening. We are led into Jesus’ call to love and serve and recognize in this portrayal of the Supper and the teachings attendant to it the true presence of Christ in our midst. One warning-- Willimon doesn't pull punches. He calls it like he sees it, so beware -- he likely will step on your toes! But, if you want to understand Maundy Thursday, this is a good place to begin!