The longest trips I remember taking on a regular basis as a child were the trips from our home to Pontotoc where my great-grandmother and -father lived, as well as my grandmother’s parents, all of her seven siblings, and many of their families. I was curious in preparing this sermon and so I looked it up. Turns out it’s only 80 miles, a drive, given the route, which would have only taken about half again as much time as a Church service lasts. But as we all know, when you are young, time doesn’t pass at the same speed as it does for adults.
Easter and Thanksgiving were the two times every year when we made that trip. For me, Thanksgiving meant the parade on television, the floats and the balloons, and Santa at the end; and Easter meant hunting eggs with my cousins whose names I never remembered and who changed so much in appearance from visit to visit as we grew, that I would be hard pressed to keep up with them anyway. Besides the blessing of springtime weather and colored eggs and chocolate, I didn’t have much of a sense of what Easter was about, much less any of the days which came before it in holy week.
But there were commonalities with our Thanksgiving and Easter visits that helped me to understand both of them, those being a table full of good food and the tiny figure of great-grandmother Matthis busy in the kitchen, but taking the time to come out to hug everyone as they arrived and hug the children twice. Mommaw Matthis was the last of our line in which you could see the Choctaw blood. She was small and dark-skinned. She was always trying to feed me, and the talk from her eight children every year as she got older was that she shouldn’t cook so much, that we didn’t need a ham and a turkey, cornbread and biscuits. But she said anything else just wouldn’t be right, and that she would do it for as long as she was able.
It was at her table that I got the sense that home could be more than one place and was more tied to the people involved than the place itself. Home was the place I was most of the time, but it was also here, and I knew that this lady brought home with her, in the way she lived and how she showed love to those around her. At her table I learned about things like belonging, though of course I would not be able to put words to the feeling. This feeling that you got at her table, that was like no other place, had to do with continuity and care and safety in days of enjoying food, then getting drowsy and nodding off to the hum of conversation, family catching up and telling stories with Mommaw Matthis’ voice interjecting and laughing and setting order to things. Her home was full of crosses and pictures of angels. I don’t know if she ever said the name Jesus to me, but she didn’t really have to.
It makes sense to me that it was at a dinner table that Jesus chose to give his last commandment, and to leave his disciples one final example. And not just at any table, but the table of the Passover meal, the meal that God through Moses had set up as a reminder of his goodness to their ancestors in freeing them from Egypt. The meal when the families ate lamb to remember sacrifice and unleavened bread, the bread of haste to remember to be ready to get up and go to follow God into freedom. A meal of sacred remembrance, which took place in the context of the household and the family. Where the father would ask the children, why is this night different from all others, and they were taught to tell again and again the story of God’s grace and to give thanks.
At this Passover meal with his disciples, the meal which they had eaten with fathers and mothers and siblings since the day they were born, in this setting evocative of family and home and God, Jesus performed a simple act of humble service by tying a towel around himself and washing their feet and gives a strange kind of commandment. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, he says, if you have completely proper doctrine and teaching—oh, wait, I’m sorry that’s not what he said, but that’s a trap many have fallen into. He actually said, by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you are accurate and thorough in pointing out the sins of others—wait, I’m sorry, he didn’t say that either. It does appear that we mostly ignore the central message of the very last thing Jesus chose to say to his disciples in a moment of peace and closeness right before he is betrayed and crucified, the last time that he would be able to tell them anything on this side of the grave in which he describes the quality of discipleship so central to what it means to be his follower that their very recognition as disciples rests upon it. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. By giving this command after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus seems to link the two as if to say, don’t just love inwardly and invisibly, but love one another truly, through giving, through service, through togetherness, not at a distance. Love with your actions, as he does by washing and as he will do on Mount Calvary. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.
Jesus calls it a new commandment, and it is in the context of his teaching, but it is also something we all begin life knowing a little bit about. Through mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and family, imperfectly to be sure because we all have our failings, but beneath that incompleteness is something complete, because God has written on our hearts that we are made to love, because we are made in God’s image.
It is a fitting commandment to be made around the table. The place in our homes where we gather to learn about belonging and love. The place in our sanctuary where week after week Jesus continues to invite us and to welcome us and has the sense of humor to allow someone like me to speak the words of his welcome, and of his love that he has for you. The table, God’s table, is at the center of our spaces and our lives.
Jesus went from his table to his cross. It was the completion, the fulfillment, and the crowning moment of his service for us. As he had knelt and humbled himself to wash feet, so he, the author of life, humbles himself by accepting death. And everyone thinks that it is the end, this kingdom of God that Jesus came preaching, where the poor and the lowly are lifted up, where there are no barriers between people that make any difference anymore, and where love, justice, and grace are the law of the land. It may have been a very pleasant thought, but it is over.
And that is where our gospel for this Easter Sunday picks up the story. From the table, to the cross, to the tomb. He has been raised; he is not here. Go tell his disciples and Peter, the angels tell the women at the empty tomb. Peter is not counted among the disciples, because the last time we saw him in the story, he had denied Jesus, removing himself from the roster of disciples. But the angel makes special mention of him so that he should not despair of his failing as a disciple, but rather should rejoice with them on resurrection morning that indeed Jesus is raised from the dead, and become again a disciple of the now risen Christ.
We are not told if the message ever reaches the disciples or Peter their fallen leader, because these words, they went out from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid, are the last words of the gospel of Mark. Scribes years later couldn’t stand it anymore so they added a verse which shows up in some bibles in parentheses, saying that Jesus then sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation, a much more satisfying end. But not satisfying enough for another scribe who added what became, in some bibles, 9-20 often found in a double parentheses and which unfortunately for some includes things about handling serpents and drinking poison yet not dying as being the signs which accompany Jesus’ disciples, a teaching which makes sticking with John and just loving one another sound like an even better option.
The unsatisfying end is the right end. Because the story isn’t over. Jesus has risen from the dead and that is the best news ever, because it means that the kingdom of God didn’t end with the cross, it was just beginning. And the fact that you are sitting here so long after the events of today’s lesson is proof that it was just the beginning. That the sacred and imperishable message was indeed so sacred and imperishable that it has crossed thousands of miles and thousands of years to come to you so that you still may do as others have done and not allow these lines to be the end of the gospel, but to say with the story of your own life, Jesus is risen.
In the project of continuing the gospel, we are not alone. After he was raised, we hear elsewhere in the gospels that he appeared to two of his disciples, as they were on the way somewhere else. At first they didn’t recognize him, but then they sat down at table together, and he said the blessing, and the bible tells us that then the eyes of the disciples were opened because, as he was doing so, they recognized him as he broke the bread. And as Jesus showed up at their table, so Jesus keeps showing up to us, in times and places both expected and unexpected. In great-grandmothers and dinner tables, in the comfort of others, in our homes, even in Church, Jesus keeps showing up to remind us that LOVE IS WHAT MATTERS. CHRIST IS RISEN, HE IS RISEN INDEED! HALLELUIA!