The conditions in which they ate this last meal together were quite a bit more comfortable than the conditions in which they had eaten most of the meals on their journeys. A wealthy, secret disciple (a wealthy disciple could hardly afford to go public) had provided them with a well-appointed room in his house in which to eat the first Seder of Passover and recount God's deliverance of his people.
"Let every person in every generation think of himself as a former slave, freed from bondage in Egypt" ran the words from the ancient text which they read that night. Remembrance is of the essence of Passover. Peter and James and John and the rest of the Twelve were remembering that night; they were remembering not only God's great acts of deliverance in liberating Israel from bondage, they were remembering other meals which they had eaten with the itinerant, self-ordained rabbi who had called them from their fishing boats with a voice which did not admit the possibility of refusal. Most of the time their meals had been simple fare shared by the light of a camp fire. Usually it was no more than some flat, hard dry matzoh and a handful of dried dates washed down with a mouthful of bitter wine. When they were lucky there was a piece of dried fish, too. But there had been other occasions, as well. Some of them had been present at the wedding in Cana at which the wine had flowed as freely as water. And what wine! It could have been the nectar of the gods. There had never been much, but what they had, had always seemed to be enough when they shared. Somehow when they passed around the matzoh and dates and dried fish there was enough whether there were twelve or twelve hundred or five thousand sharing the meal. All of them remembered occasions, simple and elegant, which gave them cause for gratitude. All of them except Judas, that is; Judas had other things on his mind.
Shadows thick and dark seemed to gather around Jesus' head as he presided at the ancient ritual. In the air were anxiety, apprehensiveness, expectation, danger, much as there must have been on the first Passover. On this occasion in Jerusalem, twelve hundred years after the night on which God had brought their forebears out of Egypt, none of the participants in the upper room were quite sure why the atmosphere was so thick with apprehension. Jesus had been threatened with arrest and even death often enough, but hadn't the people of the capital demonstrated their support for him in impressively large numbers less than a week ago? Who would dare touch a leader with such popular support? Nevertheless, the uneasiness would not go away.
The meal was beginning. Jesus took the matzoh and over it said the ancient words of blessing: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth." And then the disciples could hardly believe their ears when Jesus added to the sacred Hebrew words a sentence in everyday, secular Aramaic: "This is my body." The shadows in the room seemed to darken ten-fold. Jesus and the disciples continued the meal, conversing only in hushed tones. Quietly they continued the ritual, reciting God's saving acts and sharing the roasted lamb, the boiled eggs, the bitter herbs, and the sweet haroset, a mixture of nuts and dates and honey and wine. Somehow nothing seemed to taste quite right. Then, after the main course, Jesus lifted the festal cup of wine: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who createst the fruit of the vine." Again he shocked the more pious of the disciples (who after three years with this man should have been shocked by nothing Jesus did or said, however unorthodox) and added another Aramaic sentence: "This is the new covenant in my blood."
"The blood will be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you..." When Jesus had encountered the Tempter in the wilderness, Satan had unwittingly given voice to a prophecy about Jesus which on the night of this meal was in the process of coming true: "He will give his angels charge of you..." The shadow which hung over the table where Jesus shared the Passover with his friends was the shadow of the Angel of Death which had hovered over the children of Israel on their last night in Egypt. God's angels were faithful to Jesus on the night of his arrest and on the day of his death, but the angel who had charge of Jesus was the Angel of Death. The passersby who mocked Jesus, asking where his divine help was, could hardly have guessed that the Angel of Death hovered over them, too, and once again, the angel saw the blood of a lamb and passed over a people under the sentence of death.
On the night of his betrayal, arrest, trial, and conviction Jesus was not only wrestling with the Angel of Death, he was transforming an ancient Hebrew ritual. The words which he added to the sacred words of the Passover, "This is my body... this my blood," were so shocking that Christians have never forgotten them. At times Christendom has stretched and pulled Jesus' life and message almost beyond recognition, but these words we have never forgotten. They forever transformed an ancient rite of remembrance. At the Last Supper Jesus showed us once and for all how it is that God works. At Cana water became wine, but at the Last Supper wine became the very blood of God. The food with which Jesus fed his friends on the dark night of his soul is our food tonight and forever. Not only do the simple creatures of bread and wine communicate God to our souls and bodies, they knit us into the Body of Christ, a greater transformation than which I cannot imagine. What is it that gives this feast such power? Words and thoughts fail to explain, but powerful it is -- whether it is shared with loaf bread and jug wine at summer camp or with all the pomp and ceremony they can muster in a great cathedral. We have argued for thousands of years about the meaning of the Lord's words at that Last Supper with his friends, and we may argue for thousands more. But all we can say with assurance is, "Thou art here, we know not how... thou art here, we know not how."
One could almost write the story of God and his people as a story of transformations such as the one which Jesus wrought at the Last Supper. We take and transform what God gives us, and God takes and transforms what we are willing to give to God. The crowd transformed their praises of "Hosanna to the Son of David" into shouts of "Crucify him!" God gave us this world, and we have transformed it into a cluster of armed camps. God gave us our lives and we spend our days finding ways to hide from the Creator's hands outstretched in an embrace of love, eager to tell us how precious we are. God gives us wives and husbands, children and parents and siblings, and we play Cain to their Abel. God gives us bouquets of roses, and we turn them into wreaths of thorns with which to crown him. God gives us forests and from them we take trees, hew them with great care, and form crosses on which to crucify the Lord of love.
God's transformations are quite different. For one thing, God's transformations go deeper than ours. We apply band-aids; God heals. God does not simply repair; God renews. The wine he makes from water for a wedding feast is not a jug of Gallo; it's Chateau Rothschild of the very best year. God turns a meager meal for twelve into a feast for 5,000. The lame do not merely walk; they dance. Not only do the mute speak; they sing. "Behold, I make all things new."
The meal is over now. Using an ancient, mournful Hebrew melody they sang one of the Hallel psalms and went out, each to his own fate: Peter to deny, Judas to betray, and all the rest to abandon him whom they had called "Master". Judas could never come to terms with the fact that the one he had betrayed was willing to forgive him and, in an effort to escape from that awful love, he hanged himself. One by one, the others found their way back to that upper room, but they were never the same. The events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter had unmade and remade them. But one thing was the same; when they returned to that upper room, someone again took bread, blessed it with the ancient words, and with trembling voice, added the words Jesus had given them: "...and they knew him in the breaking of the bread."
We come to the Lord's Table tonight not only in the hope that God's transformations have not ceased, but with the certainty that they continue. God in his Son, Jesus, gave visions to blind eyes songs to speechless tongues, made water into wine, and wine into blood; he transformed eleven cowards into an army that turned the world upside down; he turned a wreath of thorns into the crown of the King of glory; and he turned a cross, one of the cruelest instruments of judicial torture ever devised by fallen human ingenuity, into the instrument of our redemption and sign of eternal hope. If God can take ignominious death and turn it into life, abundant and everlasting, just imagine what God can do with these hard old hearts of ours if we will only give him the chance?