Tell the Story (part 1 of 3) - Expecting the Unexpected
As with most couples, my wife, Marcia, and I brush our teeth differently from each other. I have developed a meticulous technique over many years for ensuring a thorough clean of each and every nook and cranny of my teeth; Marcia brushes exactly like they do on television commercials.
Besides the thorough clean, the other benefit of my teeth-brushing technique is that I can brush my teeth without really thinking about, thereby freeing me to think of other, more important things, like, "What is on my agenda tomorrow?", or, "How can I work a story about brushing my teeth into a sermon?"
There is a down-side to my system. While I am free to think about other things, I sometimes finish brushing my teeth and am not completely sure that I actually brushed them thoroughly because I wasn't really thinking about the process. Thus, I end up brushing my teeth all over again because I am way too obsessed with brushing my teeth!
Why is this important? Because it reveals something of the nature of our brains. Our brains naturally seek patterns, habit, ritual. If we can recognise a pattern, then we can anticipate what comes next and don't really have to think about it. If we can develop a habit --in other words, learn to perform a task with repetitive ease-- then, again, we don't really have to think about it. The same is true of ritual: we are able to fulfil our spiritual "duty" without really having to think about it.
The beauty of this predisposition in our brains is that we are then free to think about other, more interesting things. Who here has not found themselves thinking about their shopping lists or some other such thing in the middle of prayer or while listening to a sermon?
Now I don't want to belittle our mental ability to seek patterns, habits, and rituals because it is precisely this ability which makes humankind significantly superior to all other races on our planet. (2) But I do want to encourage you to recognise and overcome this disposition in your brain in regards to matters of faith and Spirit, so that you can experience all that God intends for you.
Mark 14:12-16, 22-24
12On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, "Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" 13So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' 15He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there." 16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
22While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." 23Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (3)In this passage, Jesus and his disciples prepare for and celebrate the appointed, annual Passover meal. This meal was to be Jesus' last and, as such, intended by him to be particularly intimate and significant for he and his disciples. It has been noted that "it was a common practice that more than one company partook of the [Passover] supper in the same apartment; but Christ will have his chamber for himself and his disciples alone]. (4)
I don't believe that it would be unreasonable for us to imagine the relationship between Jesus and his disciples to be as friends, as much as teacher to students. They had lived, studied, and worked closely together for three years, journeyed many miles and witnessed incredible moments. Indeed, we can imagine the disciples' surprise at the miraculous way in which the location for the Passover meal was chosen. The disciples asked after the preparations for the meal, only to discover that, somehow, Jesus had bent time and space to have those preparations taken care of already.
Jesus' instructions were quite specific: where it was more common for a woman to carry a household's water, the disciples found a man carrying water; even though it is the day of the meal, when reservations to a popular restaurant would normally be hard to come by, the disciples found that a private room was available to them, and that the owner of the restaurant himself would be their host. We might be inclined to believe that Jesus made these arrangements beforehand, but I believe that the specificity of the details reveals the miraculous in this scenario.
an unexpected story
The typical Passover meal followed a very specific and detailed ritual, and included a story, a retelling of the exodus from Egypt. (5) Thus, we can almost imagine that, as the meal begins, the disciples would easily fall into the appropriate mood and role, dutifully rehearsed from their childhood.
Jesus' commentary, recorded in Mark 14:22-24, would thus have come quite unexpectedly. This was not part of the script! Jesus talks not of what God had done, that which was to be remembered in this perennial ritual, but he talks instead of what God was doing among them now, in establishing a new covenant centred on Jesus.
Now, imagine for a moment that you are on a date with one of those annoying people who likes to talk during movies. You know the kind --don't you Marcia! For some reason, your date has taken you to a movie that she or he has seen many times already. This is their favourite movie. They have seen it so many times that they can recite most of the lines and describe most of the action before it happens. Now, imagine that this movie is not that which your date expected. Instead this is the director's cut, and your date did not know this beforehand. So, your date is describing to you, annoyingly, a scene which is about to happen ... only, this time, the scene is a little different. How would your date respond? "Hold on", she or he would say, "that's not right! Those aren't the right lines!"
Your date would notice the difference and would be, quite reasonably, shocked. In our reading the account of Jesus' last meal with his disciples, we need to recognise the shock at this unexpected alteration of the script. I'm sure that they didn't stand up in outrage and walk out of the room in disgust, throwing down their popcorn. But, whereas the meal starts as a comforting ritual with which they were all quite boringly, perhaps, familiar, the meal ends with Jesus identifying his betrayer and then reinterpreting the whole meaning of this meal so as to centre it on him. "A new thing is happening among you, even now", he says to them. "Watch and be amazed."
re-entering the story
I have spoken before of the operation of anamnesis in regards to our faith --that is that we can dynamically enter into the stories which we recall when we read the Bible. (6) I don't mean that, magically, these stories and events occur again, but I'm trying to explain that the Spirit of God powerfully imparts the impact, and confirms the truth of, these stories to the heart that is open, hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
These stories of Jesus and his disciples are our stories; we are invited into these stories, not just to recall them, because we are each journeying with Jesus, even as the saints have gone before us, even as it was started on the roads of Judea by the disciples. We continue their journey. Thus, particularly, each time we share the sacrament of Communion, we not just replay the scene, but also re-enter that story, almost as if we were there. The story may become real for us, by faith.
During that first Communion meal, the disciples did not expect, and probably did not immediately understand, Jesus' reorienting of the Passover story. As we read the account, the story has happened and has finished. We know the ending; the disciples did not. We might, therefore, laugh at their mishap and deride their memory. But let us not be unfair.
We know the outcome of that meal and, perhaps, appreciate more fully the implications of the new covenant marked with Jesus' blood and broken body. On the other hand, however, we are therefore prone to approach Communion and Holy Week with boredom and possibly even apathy.
The disciples enjoyed an intimate and eternally significant meal with their friend and mentor. This was Jesus' last meal and his last week on earth. They may have stumbled with the depth of realisation with which they were confronted, yet they faithfully recorded their mishap. What incredibly genuine humility is displayed in the record of the gospel writers. Imagine, each time they participated in the sacrament of Communion, or commenced the Holy Week festival, what pain they must have re-experienced?
We approach Holy Week without having that direct experience, but we are invited to enter the story so that we might encounter the Living God, just as they did. It is possible, my friends. Let us prayerfully consider how we might approach this Holy Week with fresh eyes, with their eyes.
This Holy Week, in the familiar ritual, let us expect and pray for the unexpected, so that we might prepare the way of the Lord in our day.
1. This sermon was inspired by and adapted from Victoria Atkinson White, "Telling The Story Without Expectation", The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2007, edited by the Reverend David Neil Mosser and Ronda Wellman (Nashville, TN, USA: Abingdon Press, 2006), pg. 82.
2. Although not the only ability or quality.
3. All biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville, TN, USA: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).
4. Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA, USA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002), 1:226.
5. "After candlelight search for the forbidden leaven, and other careful preparations (cf. Mk. 14:12-16 and parallels), the Paschal supper proper was taken reclining. It included the symbolic elements of roasted lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, some minor condiments and four cups of wine at specified points. The stipulated ritual hand-washings were carefully observed. The table (more probably the floor) was cleared before the second cup of wine, the story of the Egyptian Passover and Exodus recounted in a dialogue between father and son (or some suitable substitutes). The dishes of food were then brought back, part of the Hallel was sung, the second cup of wine followed. Then came the breaking of bread. In the Last Supper, it was probably at this point that Judas received the sop, and departed into the night to betray his Master (Jn. 13:30). On that fateful night, it may be assumed that the institution of the Lord's Supper or Eucharist was associated with the third cup of wine. The singing of the Hallel was completed with the fourth cup-doubtless the hymn of Mt. 26:30." --D. R. W. Wood, New Bible Dictionary (InterVarsity Press, 1996, c1982, c1962), 872.
6. "Anamnesis means 'remembrance' or 'recollection'. In [the book of Hebrews] the sin offerings cannot remove sins but remind us of them (cf. Num. 5:15). In 1 Cor. 11:24 Christians are to enact the Lord's Supper in a recollection of Jesus which has the form of active re-presentation as the action of Jesus and the disciples is repeated." --Gerhard Kittel et al., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985), 56.