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Sunday Worship 4 September | Jesus shares his last meal with his friends

Updated: Mar 3

Jesus shares his last meal with his friends (taken from the Children of God Storybook Bible)
Jesus wanted to celebrate Passover and share a meal with his disciples so he could say goodbye. By that time, many people looked up to Jesus as a great leader. This made some of the priests and the Roman rulers very jealous. Jesus knew that they wanted to arrest him and that his life was in danger. Jesus knew it was time for him to return to his Father.
As they all sat around the table, he picked up a loaf of bread. After thanking God, Jesus broke the bread and passed a piece to each of them. ‘This bread is my body,’ he said.
Then he took the cup of wine. Again he thanked God, and passed it around to his friends. ‘This is my blood,’ he said. ‘I am pouring it out for you. Whenever you break bread and drink wine like this, remember me and remember that someday God’s dream - of everyone sharing and caring, loving and laughing - will come true.’

For the next little while, we'll be looking each Sunday morning at a story from the life of Jesus. These will perhaps be familiar stories, but some of us may have the joy of discovering them for the first time, and I hope the rest of us will discover something new in them, because these stories never exhaust themselves. Earlier this year I described the Easter story as being a little like a diamond - we think we’ve seen it many times already, but then the light strikes it differently and suddenly we see new colours - and I think the same can be said of all of scripture. To help us shine a different light on these stories, all our readings will be from the Children of God Storybook Bible, written by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu and illustrated by artists from around the world.

 

We will be jumping about in the gospels a little, as I've chosen stories to fit what else is happening in the service or in the week, rather than working through chronologically. And so we start this morning with the story of the last supper. We will be sharing communion later, as we always do on the first Sunday of the month, and it is good to reflect on something we do regularly, so that familiarity doesn't lead to thoughtlessness. My intention is not so much to analyse the scriptural texts, or to lay out a systematic theology of communion - its meanings are too rich and varied to be reduced to a series of bullet points - but rather to shine a light on the diamond and turn it about a little, so we can see some of its fire and brilliance. The last supper is perhaps one of the most painted scenes from scripture, with depictions dating back to the earliest days of the church, and so the particular light we will be using is the medium of art.


When you think of the last supper in art, you probably think of Da Vinci's Last Supper, a fifteenth century mural painting found in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It must be one of the most recognisable paintings in history, and surely one of the most parodied too. I have seen versions recreated by characters from Marvel Comics and the Simpsons and Battlestar Galactica. I’m sure that much of the time the intention is simply to have some fun with a famous work of art, with little in the way of theological intent, but sometimes there is greater depth. I think in particular of an episode of the television progamme Rev, where one by one the main characters arrive at church, their plans for Christmas dinner thwarted, and for a moment as they gather around trestle tables and prepare to carve the turkey, their positions recall the arrangement of Jesus and his disciples. It seemed fitting that this slightly ragbag bunch of souls finding hope and love in one another should bring to mind Christ’s table and the redemption and relationship that were promised there.

 

Da Vinci’s Last Supper actually got a mention at house group recently. I can’t quite remember how it came up, but David spoke of reflecting on the movement and informality of the painting. This is not a posed group portrait but a candid shot, depicting the moment after Jesus has announced that one of his disciples will betray him, with all the shock and finger pointing that prompted. The dynamic painting invites us into the scene, as does the fact that the figures are only seated on one side of the table. There’s a joke that occasionally accompanies this painting about Jesus ordering a table for twenty six to the bemusement of the waiter who can only count thirteen guests, but the empty space leaves room for us to pull up a chair for ourselves, which is just what communion intends to do. Jesus has left room for us, because we are all invited to the table.


Moving on to other representations of the last supper now, the illustration that comes with this story in the Children of God Bible has Black figures, and my childhood church had a painting of the scene with Chinese figures. These depictions may seem strange or even shocking to those of us who have become accustomed to Western art, but the truth is that Jesus didn’t look European either. Every culture

paints Jesus to look like its own people, and while it may not be accurate I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong, because the essence of the incarnation is that Jesus came to be like us, and a bit of artistic licence to make him appear more familiar may help us to understand that instinctively as well as intellectually. It is important however that we remember we are only seeing an interpretation, that we don’t start to think that because he looks like us in the pictures, he is more like us and we are more like him than anyone else, because when we get that twisted we cause problems for everyone, as the history of Western imperialism bears out. And so I would encourage you to seek out paintings of Christ from all over the world, to understand more fully that Jesus came to be known by all people in all places.

 

In preparing for this morning, I came across many abstract paintings, generally recognisable as the last supper by the presence of a number of figures seated at a table. I find it really interesting that it is this composition that seems most consistent, not the inclusion of the bread and wine, which don't appear in every piece. In our liturgical reenactment of the last supper, it is these elements that are central, and yet in artistic depictions, it is the assembled figures that are the focus. Somehow the gathering and the sharing have been separated, and I wonder if they might be better integrated. How might art help us understand the significance of broken bread and poured out wine? And how might liturgy help us understand what it means to take our place with others at the table?

 

In comparing the many paintings I have seen this week, I do find myself fascinated by what is included, or indeed excluded. As I have said and you will have seen, the bread and wine are not always part of the picture. When they do appear, they are usually alone on the table. I did find one painting which had a fish at the centre, drawing on symbolism not usually associated with the last supper, and a good number featured only empty plates, as if the meal is over or has not yet begun. What I really wanted to find was a table laden with a full spread, of which the bread and wine form only a part. That seems true to the biblical account of the last supper, and better reflects the sense that the meal we partake in is a foretaste of the feast we will enjoy in heaven, and yet I drew a blank. If the meanings of communion are too rich and varied to be reduced to a series of bullet points, then the supper that inspired it is surely too complex and nuanced to be reduced to a single picture, and yet I can’t help feeling a little dissatisfied not to have found anything that comes close to the fullness of that evening. Perhaps you have a similar sense that something is missing. Perhaps there are things you would add, to these paintings or indeed to our own celebration of communion.


I am also interested in who is and isn’t in the picture. Most usually, paintings of the last supper include thirteen figures, Jesus and his twelve disciples. It is significant to me that Judas is included, both in art and in the biblical narratives. Jesus knew he would betray him, and still he included him, still he offered him the bread and wine and said “this is my body, this is my blood”. That for me is the end of any debate about who may or may not share in communion, and why I will always practise an open table. If Judas could receive then anyone can receive, and the communion table should always be a place of welcome and inclusion. Only a handful of paintings show anyone beyond the disciples and Jesus, but I was pleased to find a few that featured other figures, including women. It is clear that the named twelve played a special role in Jesus’ ministry, but there were others who followed him and may well have shared that last meal with him, and it is good to see them as well, to be reminded of how broad and encompassing Jesus’ invitation has ever been.

 

I’ll draw to a close there, but I hope there have been some flashes of fire and brilliance, some things which have caught your attention or sparked your interest in a new way, and I would love to hear your own reflections on the pieces of art we have looked this morning, or on others you have been struck by elsewhere. I also hope this might be an encouragement to seek out other familiar stories in art, holding other diamonds up to new light.



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