Sunday, January 01, 2017

Sunday Scripture - Mark 14:12-25

14:12-16 – In these opening verses of Mark’s narrative of the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples ask him where he would like them to go and make preparations for the observance of the Passover. Remarkably, Jesus offers a very specific prediction of a house where the place for the Passover is already awaiting them. Jesus doesn’t often use such precise predictions in his relationship with his disciples, and the rarity of such an occurrence ought to lead us to reflect on the nature of our desire for the Lord’s guidance in our lives. Many of us regularly seek God’s guidance with regard to a specific question: What sort of job should I seek? Who should I marry? How should I deal with this difficult relationship? Why won’t God show me what to do in the middle of this problem? To such questions, the Lord often responds as he did to the disciples when they asked what to do about the hungry crowds around them: “You yourselves give them something to eat.” You take care of it—I’ve given you wisdom, patience, discernment, and willpower. Take what you have, make your decision, and I’ll be there with you to bless it, to multiply its effects beyond what you could have conceived. But every so often, there arises a situation that centers not on us and on our problems, but on the Lord himself and on his mission in the world. Often, when we come to God asking for guidance in problems framed by the limited horizons of our own selves, God responds not with lighted pathways up ahead, but with promises to walk beside us in the dark. However, when we come to him seeking guidance for problems related to his great mission in the world, problems framed by the infinite horizons of his own glory, he may well have something very specific he wants us to do. It’s very clear in Scripture: when God has something specific he wants you to do, he will make it unmistakably clear. Such also is the situation in this passage: the Passover at which Christ institutes the Last Supper is one of the most meaningful points in the rising drama of his salvific passion, and so the plan he has in place for it is already worked out, and ready simply for the disciples to obey the guidance of their Master. We, too, like the disciples, need to sense the direction of God’s movement in the world, ask how we can be a part of it, and then obey.
14:17-21 – Here is Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal by Judas; spoken forth in his most intimate moment with his disciples. One might wonder here why it’s necessary for him to say this; presumably Judas would still do what he had planned to do, and the disciples would have found out about it then. Perhaps it speaks to the authentic humanity of our Lord, that he, who knew what was coming, was so broken of heart by the imminent betrayal that he had to speak it forth in that moment of deep communion with his friends. It is a deep strength of the human nature that in our moments of deepest pain, our hearts drive us to articulate our laments in the presence of our dearest companions. Where other Gospel writers use the saying about “dipping bread into the bowl” as an apparent device to single out Judas as the answer to the disciples’ questions, here Mark apparently takes it as a statement of tragic irony: that the one who will betray him was one so close to him in friendship as to share in the bonds of commensality, the generous intimacy of eating together. Perhaps Jesus notes that tragic irony because he feels the pain of it acutely. But that’s not the only thing going on here. No doubt Jesus’ act of speaking out about his coming betrayal also did something else: it cemented for his disciples the importance of courageously confronting those elements, even within our communions, that threaten the life of the church. It was a lesson well-received: the disciples regularly include warnings in their later writings to be on guard for false teachers, for wolves in sheep’s clothing, for chaff among the wheat, for heretics who endanger the true faith of the church. Jesus here models the sort of courageous confrontation that will ensure a strong defense of his church throughout the apostolic generation, and beyond. Such a culture of alertness would also spur faithful Christians to keep a close watch on their own consciences, and to make certain that they are not found to be falling away, particularly with such strong warnings as v.21b ringing in their ears.
14:22-25 – Mark’s account of the Lord’s Supper is among the simplest versions we have available to us (the others being Matthew’s, Luke’s, and Paul’s), but despite its simplicity, it’s clear that this is a tremendously important moment in the story of the Gospel. All of the essential elements are here: the body and the blood, and the the fourfold pattern acted upon each of them: of taking, giving thanks, breaking (in the case of the bread), and giving it out. Henry Nouwen famously observed that this fourfold action upon the elements of the Eucharist are very much the same as the fourfold actions of God upon our lives: We, too, are taken—chosen by God, called from our old lives toward a new purpose. We, too, are blessed by God in Christ Jesus—filled up to overflowing with his blessings. We, too, are broken—we who have this treasure in “jars of clay” to show that the power of God’s blessing is not from us, but from him, and who manifest the life of Christ most fully when we suffer with our broken world. And we, too, are given out, sent as the representatives of Christ, bearing the mission of his Gospel to every corner of the world. And while these parallels between the elements of Communion and our experience are instructive and inspiring, they’re not the most important point. The most important point, of course, is the way in which they model Christ (and so it reflects on our experience because we, too, are called to follow the model of Christ). Jesus gives his own body to be broken for us, as a perfect sacrifice for sin, a Passover lamb signifying salvation from the death that had come as a result of our sins. He pours out his own blood for us on the cross, instituting a new covenant that will never pass away. And though we often treat Communion as a memorial, looking back at the sacrifice of Christ, Mark brings out a future-oriented perspective instead: Christ prophesies about the day when he will drink with us in the full coming of the Kingdom of God. Communion is about Jesus’ sacrifice, yes, but it’s also a joyful anticipation of the covenant-feast that we will share with him one day, at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.