The way John tells the story – you know John, the one who wrote the Gospel – anyway, the way he talks about the life of Jesus, it was a life in five meals, five extraordinary meals, each memorable and significant in different ways.
The first? That was the wedding breakfast. It was the usual banquet following the nuptials, much enjoyed but barely remembered, a good feast for country folk. It was the wine – the wine they found from somewhere when what they had ran out. Now that was a cup so fine, it lifted you from sleep-inducing drunkenness to the alert and awed awareness of light and life and finely honed love. It was wine from heaven, the best I ever tasted. I heard later that Jesus himself had been responsible. It was the first time I discovered that where Jesus was, anything could happen. It wasn’t the last.
The second was the meal on the mountain, the unexpected and unplanned picnic, not by us anyway. We went away to pray and found ourselves in the middle of nowhere serving bread and fish to a great crowd of people at a pop-up restaurant with no kitchen, no facilities, no nothing but five barley loaves and two fish. But everyone ate and everyone was fed, and there was more at the end than present at the start. It was ordinary every-day food, but it didn’t run out. It was like God was there and God made sure that everyone had enough. Give us today our daily bread. There was enough bread that day.
The third meal was a celebration. Lazarus lived, which was pretty remarkable for a man dead and buried. So his sisters made a meal to celebrate life after death. I can’t tell you what was on the menu. I can’t even remember the wine. We were glad to share the party, but neither food nor wine changed the world that day. Rather that meal made the place, the setting for what the woman went and did. It was the younger sister, Mary, who anointed Jesus’ feet with precious perfume and wiped them dry with her hair. It was shocking! It was extraordinary! It was an act of love, a sacrifice of thanksgiving. We could only watch while she showed such love and tenderness, thanking him, the Master, for her brother’s life.
The fourth meal took place only days later, that same week in fact. We ate together and Jesus taught us. He had a lot to say that night. And this time it was Jesus, following the example of the woman at Bethany, who knelt down at our feet – he knelt at our feet – and washed them. Our Master! We felt embarrassed at first and resisted it, but it was part of his instruction to us. He told us this was what love meant, loving service, being a servant to others.
The next day, it was all over. They hung him on a cross and killed him. He was dead. We didn’t even stay around. It was all too much and we went into hiding. There would be no more meals, no more extraordinary meals with bread and fish that never came to an end, wine so sublime it made you think of heaven, or with thanks that poured out in love and adoration and feet washed as a sign of love.
Except of course, it didn’t end. He died. He was buried. But he rose, leaving death behind.
And I know you can count. I said there were five significant meals and I have told you about four. There was one last meal. A barbecue on the beach, of fish roasted on the fire and bread to go with it. No wine, not at that time of the morning after a hard night of failed fishing. And we with our hearts in our mouths. Our dead master walking, talking, cooking fish. It’s not as if he hadn’t prepared us: bread, fish, raising of the dead man Lazarus, all that explanation the night before his death. And he took all our weaknesses, our running away, our betrayal, our denials. He didn’t hold them against us. There were no recriminations. But he transformed them and forgave us and we were stronger because of it, ready to start again.
Five meals. There were other meals, of course there were. We ate every day, or nearly every day. But these were the meals that shaped us when we were with him. These were the meals that slowly revealed to us who he was. These were the meals that set the pattern for our communion, the meals we share together now. These were the meals that taught us about love, about forgiveness, about God’s unstoppable generosity, about life, real Life that death cannot end, that gave us a glimpse of heaven.
Five meals. I remember them every day. I remember them when I take bread and wine and give thanks to God, and share the food with my community. It’s what we do. And we know that he is with us. Always.