My wife and I were at dinner. It was New Year’s Eve, and we had taken the opportunity to go to a small restaurant noted for its premier chef and its excellent cuisine. We don’t do that often; but, after all, this was New Year’s Eve.
The menu was limited for the evening: for a fixed price, four courses, including dessert. The food was all we had been promised, and we were enjoying every bite. But one of the best moments of the evening wasn’t our food. It wasn’t even our moment. Suddenly, between the fish course and the entrée, just over my wife’s shoulder I noticed a young couple. I noticed them because, without any fanfare, the young man slid out of his seat and onto one knee, and produced in his hands a beautiful engagement ring.
I looked at my wife and said, “Why, I’ll be: he just proposed!” “Really?” she said. “That’s exciting!”
The couple at the next table heard me, and the woman asked, “Did she say yes?” I look for just a moment, and said, “From how they’re behaving now, I think so!” My wife looked back at me and said, “Well, that was worth the price of admission!”
Do we think about how many relationships start or change with a meal? Of course, the restaurant proposal is a classic; but there are so many other examples. In the same vein as the proposal, think about the first time a child brings a date to dinner with the family. Or, think about the new business relationships that get negotiated over lunch. Indeed, one of, if not the most profound and powerful of human relationships, begins with the first meal, when the newborn child takes to a mother’s breast.
The same is true, really, in our story as God’s people – both for good and ill. Think what started when a man and a woman shared an apple – a new relationship with one another, and a new relationship with God, all in one disastrous moment!
But, then again, think of the times when God’s actions to restore us also began with a meal. Our Jewish siblings will shortly celebrate Passover, and that began with a meal. Oh, it might have happened in the context of plagues, and it may reach its climax at the Red Sea, but it began with a meal. The celebration is set in the framework of a meal now because it began with a meal then: a meal prepared and eaten in haste because God’s plan was rapidly coming together. Right up to that point, they were still slaves in Egypt. From that meal on, they were the people God had gathered and would lead to freedom.
The same is true of our Christian faith. Oh, over the next few days we will experience the depths of Good Friday that we might be prepared for Easter; but the events of those three days began with a meal. Paul and John focus on different events of that meal, but we know in faith that they were one meal; and that after that meal Jesus had established a whole new relationship with his followers.
It was a meal, John tells us, that began in service. Before the food was served, there was Jesus, his good clothes laid aside, down on his knees to wash the feet of the disciples. It was a humble task, even, some might think, a humiliating task. It was a task so demeaning that Peter couldn’t imagine accepting it from Jesus. And Jesus insisted, and would not allow dinner until the he had washed the feet of everyone in the room, including those he knew would betray him.
It was a meal, Paul tells us, that was redefined in sacrifice. “This is my body,” Jesus said. “This is my blood, establishing among you a new Covenant. When you do this, you are once again connected in me.”
It was, above all, a meal that redefined who they were, those followers of Jesus. “What you have seen and heard in this meal,” Jesus said, “is my example to you. This is how you serve one another. This is how you connect with one another.” And the new Christian community took that to heart. It brought them together and held them together, so that they might go forth together. So Paul wrote, “Whenever you do this, until Christ comes again, you are recalling and proclaiming how he has died for you.”
And so we are gathered here today, that we might remember again, that we might proclaim again. Over the next few days, we will hear horror and joy again; but it begins here. It begins with this meal that we share. And if we remember what begins here, we can remember it, in all its agony and its ecstasy, every time. Every Sunday in church, or at every bedside in this hospital, we can recall again and proclaim again what the Lord has done for us, and how in doing it he has made us a new people in a new and restored relationship with him.
We are beginning the Great Three Days of the Christian story. We will go with Jesus to the Garden, to see how he accepted God’s will. We will go with Jesus to trial, and see the betrayal of even those who loved him. We will go with Jesus to the cross, in all its terror, and wait in hope and fear for life beyond death. We will go through this, as those first disciples did before us. And for us now, as it was did for them, it begins here. It begins with this meal.