da Vinci’s Last Supper: a communion meditation

Do you ever feel inadequate or unworthy when the worship service comes around to communion time?  Have you ever shifted uncomfortably in your seat when that somber moment arrives to help us remember Christ’s sacrifice for our sins?  Why would you do this for me, Jesus?  What’s so special about me, God?

Perhaps you learned you should abstain from taking communion if you’re struggling with your Christian walk.  Maybe your week didn’t go so well, or you’re grappling with on-going work, family, health or financial issues; and you find yourself grumbling to God.  Sometimes our busy schedules make it impossible to keep up with daily Bible reading and prayer, and we feel out of touch with God.  And surely, you’ve heard of other Christian congregations who only receive communion once a month to prevent it from becoming routine, thereby diminishing its importance and impact.  Has communion become routine for you?

Consider what Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper might remind us about this seminal event, which we celebrate and remember at communion time.  Although not authoritative since it was painted in the late 15th century, it is the famous artist’s representation of the last supper as recounted in the Gospel of John and depicts the moment when Jesus announced that one of the twelve would betray him.

Interestingly, the Gospel of John largely skips over the portion of the last supper that we celebrate today as communion, focusing instead on several long, well-known passages and prayers that form the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  But, the context in which Christ spoke those words must never be forgotten—the first-ever celebration of communion where God’s covenant with mankind changed in a very fundamental way.  With that in mind, it is instructive to consider what we might learn from the people involved and the environment in which this blessed event took place.

Looking first at Jesus in the center of the picture:

  • he looks calm & composed despite his full knowledge of what was about to happen
  • despite the Apostles’ imperfections, he called them to follow him, he washed their feet (even Judas!) and prayed for them

Do you ever doubt Jesus’ ability to understand your life or empathize with your circumstances?

The twelve Apostles look like us:

  • Thomas has doubts
  • Judas is discouraged, hides a secret (that was just let out of the bag!)
  • Peter wears his heart on his sleeve & speaks before thinking
  • James & John (sons of Zebedee) are ambitious (or momma’s boys)
  • Matthew (former tax collector) probably wonders what he got himself into
  • The Apostles are arranged in groups of three, suggesting perhaps there may have been cliques among them—the fishermen, the tent makers, the farmers, etc.
  • In modern parlance, one or more of the Apostles may have grabbed their phone and sent a hasty “#WHAT?” or “#GodIsNotDead” in response to Jesus’ prediction.
  • They rush to ask, “Surely not me?” instead of seeking to understand the underlying meaning behind Jesus’ words

Do any of those traits sound like you?

The environment da Vinci depicts in the painting is also telling:

  • Upstairs room wasn’t fancy—poorly lit & little decoration
  • Attendees weren’t wearing their Sunday best
  • Food wasn’t noteworthy (other than the symbolism of the bread & wine), no feast
  • Table wasn’t ornate—not much more than a slab of plywood sitting on sawhorses

Does that environment reflect your house and tastes?

Again, the painting is not a portrait of the actual event when it took place, but the conclusions we can draw from it are likely very accurate: Jesus is in charge; his close associates weren’t handsome, well-dressed model citizens and the environment in which the celebration of communion was instituted isn’t notable in any exquisite interior design sense.

As imperfect as each one of us may be, the reality is that God sees those of us who put our faith in Jesus as perfect:

  • “Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God”(John 1:12-13).
  • Ephesians 1:13-14 tells us the Holy Spirit was given to us as a deposit that guarantees our inheritance. As heirs of God, we have an inheritance that no one can take from us.
  • Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit (Psalm 32:1-2).
  • For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Hebrews 10:14).
  • Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
  • Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But, we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Therefore, there’s no need to wallow in our perceived inadequacy or question our self-worth during communion time.  Thanks to Jesus’ work, God sees each believer as a fully forgiven heir to his kingdom, and we look forward to the literal #BestDayEver when he comes again to take us with him to the place he prepared for each of us in heaven.  That’s the lesson all believers should take from this special time of communion.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Sometimes I feel a strong need to get away. While this urge can be triggered by the crush of deadlines or weight of responsibilities, it is seldom the product of bitterness, anger, grief or guilt. In fact, most of the time it is simply brought on by an overwhelming compulsion to just go. Where I am headed, how far I travel and what I am to do when I get there never seem to matter as much as the journey itself. And so I properly excuse myself, get in the car and start driving, seeking to fulfill some nebulous longing to go somewhere.

In searching for a secular explanation, I’ve run across the German noun “sehnsucht,” which roughly translates as an ardent craving or deep yearning. “It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far-off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far-off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call ‘home’.” (Wikipedia contributors. “Sehnsucht.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 May. 2014. Web. 30 May. 2014.)

Turning to Scripture, I wonder if Jesus coined the original expression of this concept in His prayer for His Disciples: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” (John 17:14-16, NIV) It is clear that our Savior identifies both Himself and all believers as strangers in this world. Jesus also characterizes the world’s attitude toward those who believe God’s word as hatred, ostensibly because God’s wisdom is foolishness to non-believers (1 Corinthians 1:18 & 2:14). Rebuffed by the world, it then follows that believers are inexorably drawn toward something else entirely, their true home in the heavenly realm where Jesus is preparing rooms specifically for them (John 14). It is not a place believers can see, but somehow they know it’s there, waiting for them. Could this be a holy form of sehnsucht?

Although His means of transportation was limited, could it be that Jesus pioneered the concept of getting away during His time with us? “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Luke 5:16, NIV) “Jesus went out to a mountainside and spent the night praying to God.” (Luke 6:12, NIV) “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35, NIV) In addition to providing a means to dialog with God, maybe prayer is a less mobile means of temporarily stepping away from this broken and fallen world.

I think it is fair to ask if a course correction may be effected before it’s too late. Should it be considered it a warning sign if friends, relatives and coworkers who call themselves believers appear to be getting too comfortable with this world or don’t share this sense that they may be strangers? Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah all refer to a “faithful remnant.” Joshua and Caleb remained faithful to God’s instruction to invade the Holy Land (Numbers 13 & 14). Zadok remained faithful to King David (2 Samuel, 1 Kings), and Zadokites are held-up as an example of faithfulness and rewarded (Ezekiel 42:13, 43:19, 48:11). God’s Word promises those who are faithful to the end will be rewarded (Matthew 24:13, Hebrews 3:14-19, 2 Timothy), but it’s tough being faithful with my reading, studying, praying, worshiping and obeying all the time especially while nonbelievers seem to flourish. Maybe my attitude toward these building blocks of faith act as a barometer for whether I’m heading in the right direction or not.

I have heard it suggested that God has been largely silent since Biblical times. Could it be that the difficult to articulate concept of “sehnsucht” is the subtle tug of our Father’s voice which all true believers feel in their hearts, coaxing them through this temporary period of mere existence on planet Earth toward a heavenly eternity? I think I’ll take a drive and think it over.