The Lord’s Table: Our Road Map Back to Him

By Alan Dowd Published on April 3, 2023

For most of us, the dinner table is a place to catch up and download, to reconnect with those who know us best and love us anyway, to share a laugh, to share ideas and to share a meal. It’s a place of safety and shelter. But it wasn’t for Jesus — at least it wasn’t the last time He sat at the dinner table. Far from being a time of laughter and reconnection — far from being a place of shelter and safety — the Last Supper was marked by brokenness and betrayal. Jesus knew it would be that way, but that didn’t stop Him from inviting His disciples — and us — to His table.

Symbols

Even before Jesus took the bread and the cup to unveil a new covenant, the table was full of symbolism: The Passover bread was there. Unleavened and made out of the simplest of ingredients, it signified “a life of poverty and difficulty,” as one commentary explains. Four cups of wine were placed around the table — “a symbol of joy and happiness,” another commentary adds.

A bowl of saltwater would serve as a reminder of the tears and toil caused by Pharaoh. Bitter herbs reminded those around the table of the pain their ancestors endured as slaves in Egypt. Roasted lamb — a burnt offering — reminded them of the sacrifice they were called to make to atone for sin.

At one point, a door would be open — a symbol of welcome for the yet-to-come Messiah. At another, a young person sitting around the table would ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Jesus would answer that question by re-purposing this ancient ritual and using these symbols as a kind of road map to help His disciples remember Him — the Lamb of God who would take away their sins and wipe away every tear, the Messiah who would lead them out of the captivity of sin and offer them new life.

He tore the bread — “My body given and broken for you.” And then He shared the wine — “My blood of the new covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

None of them knew or understood that these words were more prophetic than symbolic. His body would literally be broken and his blood literally poured out for the sins of the men sitting around that table — and for all mankind.

Betrayal

We shouldn’t forget the people He invited to that table, the people with whom He shared the Last Supper. They were anything but proper dinner companions.

Judas, the betrayer, was there — close enough physically to dip his hand in the cup Jesus shared, close enough relationally to kiss Jesus.

Judas had a different definition than God of what Messiah should be. Jesus knew this. As He once observed, no doubt cryptically to the disciples, “One of you is the devil!”

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Piecing together the Gospel stories, the picture that emerges of Judas is that of a selfish, duplicitous, image-focused man. Judas wanted to leverage the Messiah. Judas wanted a Messiah who could enhance his standing and status. Judas wanted a Messiah who could garner him attention and power, which surely came when he performed miracles in the name of Jesus. And Judas wanted a Messiah that could line his pockets. Indeed, John explains — as if to help us understand the betrayal — that Judas was more interested in money than the Messiah: “As keeper of the money bag,” John reports, “he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

John also reports that Judas was more interested in looking good than doing good: After Mary anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, Judas objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” In other words, Judas was far worse than a common thief. He not only stole; he maintained the pretense of piety in order to make himself look better than everybody else.

Perhaps Judas was always this way, always just a bad human being. Or perhaps it happened in stages. Or perhaps the Palm Sunday scene of Jesus riding into Jerusalem not as a conquering king in the tradition of David but as a peacemaker in the tradition of the Suffering Servant was too much. Regardless of exactly when and how Judas started down his dark path, we know that at some point “the devil…prompted Judas…to betray Jesus” — and ultimately, chillingly, that “Satan entered into him.” Judas betrayed his Messiah and master, his king and Christ, to others who shared his desire for a leader that would fuse together political power and religious authority — and he cashed in for his efforts. “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?” he asked the chief priests.

Judas did good things in Christ’s name and for Christ’s kingdom. He looked and acted like a follower of Christ. But in Judas’s life, we learn that even apostles can be frauds. This friend and follower of Jesus is a sobering reminder that even if we sit at the Lord’s table, even if we do great things in His name, even if we know Him, even if our reputation is bound up with Him — if our hearts are hard — we are not His.

Yet Jesus invited Judas to the Last Supper.

Pride

Peter, the proud and impulsive disciple, was also there.

That phrase “Satan entered into” Judas is interesting when placed against the broader context of Peter’s life, for Jesus once said to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.” The scathing admonishment came in response to Peter telling Jesus that He would “never” be handed over to the authorities to suffer and be killed. Like Judas, Peter wanted a certain kind of Messiah — and heaven’s plan didn’t conform with Peter’s.

Peter, too, would betray Jesus, albeit in a different manner than Judas. But it was a betrayal nonetheless — and perhaps more painful to Jesus because of who Peter was.

It pays to recall that just hours after the new covenant was revealed at the Last Supper, Peter denied he ever knew the One he called “Messiah.” Even though he was the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as “the Christ” — a truth revealed to Peter by the Father — Peter denied His name. Even though he saw Jesus walk on water and calm the storm, Peter walked away from the Lord of creation. Even though he was there when Jesus fed the 5,000, Peter turned his back on Jehovah Jireh. Even though he stood at Jesus’s side when He raised Jairus’s daughter and Martha’s brother, Peter disavowed the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

And it pays to recall that at the very same table where Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter proudly refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet. “No,” said Peter, talking and acting before thinking, “you shall never wash my feet.” He didn’t understand that the greatest must serve the least, that the path to holiness would be lowliness.

Yet Jesus invited Peter to the Last Supper.

Grace and Mercy

Thomas, who arrogantly doubted anything and everything he couldn’t see for himself, was at the table.

James and John were there, too. They took arrogance to a stratospheric — or perhaps diabolic — level. Once, when Samaritans refused to let Jesus stay in their village, James and John asked Him, “Do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” In response, Jesus rebuked not the Samaritans, but James and John. Jesus didn’t force them to accept Him. He didn’t give them a choice to convert or die. He simply “went to another village.” In doing so, Jesus modeled for us religious liberty and religious tolerance.

Their arrogance had no limits. About a week before the Last Supper, James and John were maneuvering to get the best seats in heaven. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory,” they demanded of Jesus. Again, Jesus rebuked them.

Matthew, who worked against his own people and flouted his own faith by collaborating with the hated Romans, was at the table. Like all tax-collectors, Matthew was despised by his people not just for a pagan lifestyle — his home was full of “sinners” — but for serving as an arm of Roman oppression. Yet Jesus ate with him, both at the Last Supper and upon their first encounter.

All of these men ran away when the soldiers came to arrest their friend, their teacher, their Messiah. They publicly disowned Him. Yet Jesus invited all of them — Judas the betrayer, Peter the proud, Thomas the doubter, James and John the arrogant, Matthew the worldly one who turned his back on the faith, and the other six sinful men — to the Last Supper. In fact, He “eagerly desired” to share His table with them.

Jesus offered all of them both halves of His forgiveness: grace (receiving a gift we don’t deserve and can’t earn) and mercy (not receiving a punishment we do deserve and have earned). That’s what this table is all about: the grace and mercy Jesus offers us. He offered these twin gifts to Judas and Peter. Both betrayed Him the night of the Last Supper. Both put themselves ahead of Jesus. Yet one of them ended up hanging from a makeshift noose — the victim of an unimaginable guilt and a lifetime of pretend piety — and one of them became a lion and leader of the Church. The difference: Peter reflected, repented and ran back to Jesus. Judas never turned to Jesus, never put Jesus or himself where they belonged, never allowed himself to learn that only Jesus can save us from our past, from our sins, from ourselves, from what the enemy wants to do to us, through us, with us.

Our Sin, His Sacrifice

Even while we are still sinners, Jesus invites us — all of us — to His table. Even while we are still sinners, He invites us to communion — to reconnection and reunion with the Father. Even while we are still sinners, He asks us to remember what He did to cancel our debt. Even while we are still sinners, He offers us a way — the only way — back to the Father.

He offers us what He offered Judas and Peter, James and John, Thomas and Matthew: forgiveness for our sins, our selfishness, our greed, our desire for status dressed up as piety, our pride, our arrogance, our doubt, our worldliness, our lusts and lies, our gluttony and gossip, our anger and antagonism, our betrayals.

Don’t misconstrue this or mislabel this as “cheap grace.” His offer — His precious gift of forgiveness — comes with words too many of us forget: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” He knew that would be impossible without Him. So He promised to help all those who start this new life: “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart…my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And He offered His table, His broken body, His shed bled as a road map back to Him — a daily, weekly or monthly reminder that He’s done the hard part, made the sacrifice and paid the price.

 

Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.

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