Holy Week | The Last Supper
So over the last few weeks, we have been exploring some of the events that take place during Holy Week--the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection. And we’ve been exploring some of the events that take place during Holy Week for a reason. Holy Week was one of the most difficult times in the history of our faith. Jesus was on the verge of being arrested, convicted, and executed. And Jesus knew that all of it was about to happen...but none of it keeps Jesus from following God.
So, through the events of Holy Week, Jesus shows us how we can continue to follow God even in difficult times by the way that he lives throughout that week. And we all need to know how we can follow God even in difficult times because we have been living through one of the most difficult times in modern history for more than a year.
I don’t know if you realize this or not, but last Monday, March 8, marked the one-year anniversary of the last time we met together in-person as a church. So it has now been more than a year since the last time we were all able to be together in the same room. And a lot has happened since then.
Over the last year, we have seen more than 100 million people contract COVID-19 across the globe. And we have seen this novel virus contribute to the deaths of more than 2.5 million people worldwide. And even if you or someone you love hasn’t contracted this potentially deadly virus, COVID-19 has made this past year incredibly difficult for us all. COVID-19 shut down our economy for months on end. COVID-19 caused us to social distance and isolate ourselves in our homes. COVID-19 caused us to cancel everything from birthday parties, to Christmas celebrations, to family vacations.
And even though there is light at the end of this tunnel, as more and more of us are able to get vaccinated, we continue to see this virus take its toll and keep us from living the way we want to. So, yes, we are living through a difficult time. So we need to talk about how we can continue to follow God during difficult times.
So we’ve been doing that by exploring some of the events that happen during Holy Week. And last week, we talked about an event that happened on Holy Week where Jesus cursed a fig tree because it wasn’t producing fruit. And, out of all of the events that take place during Holy Week, that event is probably the one that we’re all the least familiar with.
But today, we’re going to be talking about a scene that plays out during Holy Week that just about everyone is familiar with. The truth is that we may be more familiar with this scene than we are with any other scene from Jesus’ life outside of Christmas or Easter. And this particular event takes place on the Thursday of Holy Week--a day that we in the church usually refer to as Maundy Thursday, and we’ll talk about why we call it Maundy Thursday a little bit later on in this sermon.
But the event that takes place on Maundy Thursday is so familiar that one of the most well-known paintings in all of history is dedicated to depicting this particular event. This painting is a painting that was created in the late 1400s by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci. And it’s a painting that has been hung in just about every church’s entry area or fellowship hall since then.
Of course, I’m talking about The Last Supper. And even if we didn’t put this painting up on the screen right now, you pretty well know what this painting looks like because you have seen this painting so many times before. So you know that Jesus is peacefully sitting in the middle of this painting, while the disciples are engaged in various interactions all around him. You know that some of his disciples seem to be arguing and that some of them seem to be lovingly adoring Jesus, and the list goes on.
But even though this painting is considered to be a true masterpiece, there’s one big problem with it: the actual Last Supper didn’t look anything like Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting. So Da Vinci got it wrong.
Now, I know what you may be thinking, how in the world can I possibly know that Da Vinci got his painting wrong? I mean, it’s not like someone snapped a picture of the actual Last Supper on their smartphone and posted it on Instagram. And it’s not like I have a time machine that I’ve used to travel back to the Last Supper...everyone knows I used my time machine to save the universe from Thanos, oh wait, that was the Avengers.
But anyway, how do I know Da Vinci got it wrong? Well, there has been a lot of research done into the way that people would’ve dined in the first century. And this research shows us that Da Vinci’s painting isn’t right.
But what exactly did Da Vinci get wrong? Now the big mistake that a lot of people think that Leonardo Da Vinci made was putting Jesus and all of his disciples on one side of the table together. As a matter of fact, this meme has been making the rounds on social media for years poking fun at Da Vinci’s choice. It says:
“Wait staff has to set up a table for 26, so all 13 can sit on one side.”
But you know what? Da Vinci probably got that part right. In the first century the guests at a banquet or a dinner party, likely sat on only one side of the table to make it easier for servers to make their rounds. Think about it for just a minute. When you’re gathered around a big table at a restaurant with people crowded around both sides of the table, the server’s job is harder. The server has to reach over or around everyone to refill a drink or pass out your entrees. But if people were only sitting on one side of the table, the server could easily do everything they needed to do without reaching over or around anyone just by using the empty side of the table.
So if Da Vinci’s big mistake isn’t where Jesus and all of his disciples are sitting then what is Da Vinci’s big mistake? Well, his big mistake isn’t where they’re sitting, Da Vinci’s big mistake is how Jesus and his disciples are sitting. In Da Vinci’s famous painting, Jesus and his disciples are all sitting in chairs.
Now that’s something that probably doesn’t jump out at any of us because when we sit down for a meal we sit down in a chair, too. But that’s not how people in the first century ate. So let me show you another painting that has a more accurate depiction of what the Last Supper would’ve looked like.
In this painting, Jesus and his disciples are sitting around what’s called a “triclinium”. And the word triclinium literally means three couches, but it actually refers to three tables being put together in a “u” shape. And, if you look closely at this painting, you can tell that the tables are much lower than the tables we’re accustomed to sitting at today. This means that people would have sat or lounged on the floor around the table. So, even in this painting, everyone is sitting up a lot straighter than they would’ve been at the actual Last Supper. The truth is that Jesus and his disciples would’ve been lounging around the table. They would’ve propped themselves up with their left arms while they were eating, and they would’ve been reclined on pillows between courses.
So that means that their legs wouldn’t have been tucked up underneath them like you see in this painting. Their legs would’ve been stretched out beside them. And that’s another reason why people only sat on one side of the table. If people sat all around the table then servers would’ve had to climb over everyone’s legs to put food on the table.
But what’s the big deal here? Why did I just spend the last ten minutes critiquing one of the most famous pieces of art in human history? Who cares if Jesus and his disciples were sitting, standing, or stretched out at the Last Supper?
Well, let me explain why this matters. Before Jesus and his disciples had a single bite to eat that night, the Gospel of John--or John’s account of the life of Jesus--records a strange scene. This scene unfolds in John chapter 13. So let’s listen to how John starts the story of the Last Supper. John chapter 13, we’ll start reading in verse 1. It says:
13:1 Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.
2 Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God…
Now, this is where it gets weird, okay.
4 So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.
John 13:1-5 (Common English Bible)
So in John’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus is going to wash his disciples’ feet before the meal is served. Let me say that again so you can think about how strange that is: Jesus is going to wash his disciples’ feet. Jesus is going to wash his disciples’ feet. And that should sound strange to us. That should sound odd to us. The truth of that matter is that should probably sound a little gross to us. Because let me tell you something, I’m almost 39-years-old and I have never had someone wash my feet. And truth be told it would be dangerous for someone to even try because my feet are pretty ticklish and I tend to jerk when someone touches them.
But when you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. So let’s think about it for a minute. Before Jesus and his disciples get together to share the Passover meal, they have spent their entire day walking the streets of Jerusalem to get everything ready for their meal.
But the streets of Jerusalem weren’t like the streets of 21st century America. The streets of Jerusalem weren’t made of asphalt or concrete, the streets of Jerusalem weren’t paved at all. At best the streets might have been made of cobblestone, but in reality, most of the streets were just dirt that had been packed down.
So in this story, you have at least 13 guys who have been out walking these dirt roads all day. And none of these guys were wearing fancy shoes. If they were lucky the disciples might’ve had on sandals but most of them would’ve been barefoot. So the disciples were barefoot walking these dirt streets in a hot desert climate. That means that their feet were getting sweaty, and their sweaty feet were hitting the dirt streets, and that dirt was slowly turning into mud that would end up caked onto their feet.
And I know that sounds kinda nasty and it was…but having muddy feet was about as sanitary as Jesus and his disciples could’ve hoped to be. Because when Jesus and his disciples were out walking the streets of Jerusalem, they wouldn’t have been concerned with cars speeding by. Jesus and his disciples would’ve been concerned with the animals that were carrying people or hauling goods. And they would’ve been particularly concerned with what these animals were leaving behind if you catch my drift. But that’s enough of that. I think you’re getting the picture.
So, as Jesus is getting ready to share his last supper--his last meal--with his disciples, the disciples have sweaty feet. The disciples have dirty feet. The disciples have muddy feet. The disciples have feet covered with some stuff they stepped in on the road. And to top it all off, the disciples were lounging around the dinner table together. And that means that the guy who’s like two people down from you is going to have your sweaty, dirty, stinking feet all up in his face.
So Jesus takes it upon himself to get up and wash his disciples’ feet. Jesus is going to clean off their dirty, sweaty, stinky feet so that instead of being distracted by the odor right beside them the disciples could enjoy their time in Jesus’ presence.
And the really interesting thing is that Jesus didn’t have to do this. Jesus didn’t have to wash his disciples’ feet. That was typically a job that the lowest servant or the lowest slave in a household would be responsible for. So the lowest servant or slave in that room should’ve been washing the disciples’ feet. But Jesus and his disciples were eating in a borrowed room, they didn’t have a servant or a slave there to wash their feet.
So Jesus takes it upon himself to wash his disciples’ feet...and Jesus takes it upon himself for a reason. And it’s not just because Jesus doesn’t want to have somebody’s dirty feet in his face while he’s trying to have dinner. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet to teach them an important lesson.
And John will tell us what that lesson is a little later in the story. In John 13:12, John tells us:
13:12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.
John 13:12-15 (Common English Bible)
Now, I want you to think about what’s just happened in this story...and I want you to think about what happens right after the Last Supper ends. After the Last Supper ends, Jesus is going to go out into the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. And while he’s there, Jesus is going to be arrested. Within hours of being arrested, he’ll be put on trial. And by noon the next day, Jesus will be crucified.
So, as Jesus is sitting down to dinner with his disciples, Jesus is going through the most difficult time of his life. And what does Jesus do during the most difficult time in his life? Jesus doesn’t retreat into a corner. Jesus doesn’t ask to be left alone. Jesus doesn’t lash out at his disciples because of what’s about to happen to him.
Instead, Jesus--Jesus who is God made human--wraps a towel around his waist and Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. The greatest among them became a servant to them. And Jesus does it to show his disciples what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Because if Jesus would take on the job of the lowest slave to serve others during the most difficult time in his life then we should be willing to put ourselves last and others first too no matter what we’re going through.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working our way through some of the events that take place during Holy Week for a reason. These events take place during one of the most difficult times in the history of our faith. So they can show us how we can live out our faith even in difficult times today.
And in this story, Jesus shows us. Jesus shows us how he lived out his faith and followed God even though his crucifixion was only hours away. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus served his disciples because that’s what it means to follow Jesus.
You know, earlier in this sermon, I told you that we call the day when the Last Supper happened Maundy Thursday. And I told you that I’d explain why we call it Maundy Thursday a little later in the sermon. Well, here’s the explanation. We call the Thursday of Holy Week Maundy Thursday because the word “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word for “command.”
And after Jesus finished washing his disciples’ feet, he gave them a new command. In John 13:34, Jesus tells his disciples:
13:34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
So how do we continue to follow God even in life’s most difficult time? Jesus showed us. Jesus showed us when he wrapped that towel around his waist and grabbed that pitcher of water. Jesus showed us when he knelt down and washed the dirty, nasty, stinky feet of his disciples. Jesus showed us how we can follow God even when we’re facing difficult times by serving his disciples when he was facing his most difficult time.
So, if we want to follow God in life’s most difficult times, what do we do? We do what Jesus did. We serve others. We help others. We love others. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. And that’s how we show the world that we’re his disciples.