A few nights ago, I watched the documentary Roadrunner about the celebrity chef, author, and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain. I was a big fan of his travel shows “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” because they explored two of my favorite things: travel and food. In the documentary, there are a few scenes in which Bourdain expresses his disillusionment with what he thought was gospel—that gathering around a table for a meal was the great societal leveler. In 2006, he and his film crew traveled to Beirut when violence flared up between Israel and Hezbollah; they were left to lounge in safety by a hotel pool while the conflict raged. He said, “I had begun to believe the dinner table was the great leveler. Now I’m not so sure.”
Then to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, they asked a woman to cook a meal for him outside amid the rubble. After eating, Bourdain tried to give the abundant leftovers to bystanders who had gathered to watch the filming. But desperation took over. Those gathered began to fight for the food; the younger and more vulnerable were injured. Bourdain was devastated. The ravages of war and the consequences of natural disasters inevitably lead to starvation and desperation. Bourdain saw with his own eyes how the poor don’t escape to the Four Seasons, and how beautiful food doesn’t magically appear when bombs burst and the earth shakes.
Friends, tonight we bear witness to Jesus modeling a servant’s life by his washing feet and giving the commandment to love as he has loved. We also hear Paul tells the Corinthians, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). You see, Jesus knew that our reliving this story through his offering would explain the meaning of his death in a way that nothing else could. He knew that our gathering around the table (that table—pointing), his table, would be a gift ad infinitum. Because there is room for all—not just in beautiful cathedrals but anywhere in the world where God’s children are hungry and come to be fed by living bread.
This taking, blessing, breaking, eating and drinking become the point at which heaven and earth meet. Jesus, always the shock jock, tells those gathered around him in the 6th Chapter of John that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6: 53). The intimacy Jesus is trying to impart is the same as when he tells Peter that “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (13:8). This is the divine life bending down and touching our human one; the thin partition between this world and the next becoming transparent.
When we break the bread and drink the wine, we find ourselves joining the disciples in the Upper Room. We are united with Jesus himself as he prays in the garden and stands before Caiaphas and Pilate. We become one with him as he hangs on the cross and walks out of the tomb. These events from long ago are fused with the meal we will soon share.
My hope for this sermon is to help us reconcile Bourdain’s disillusionment, as well as our own. It is especially hard now because we know there are Ukrainians dead and traumatized by Russian genocide and, refugees, like them, huddling in tent-camps around the world. They suffer; they’re victims, they’re scared; they’re hungry. This is exactly why Jesus proclaims the world can be saved and fed by his body and blood. To live in this world is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and he will not abandon us in life nor in death.
Considering the meaning of the cup might help. Listen to Matthew’s institution of the Lord’s Supper; we know it well because it’s part of our own Eucharistic prayer, ”…he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:27).
Jesus is using sacrificial imagery. He is giving up his life violently and he wants that to be remembered. He is allowing his blood to be shed and he wants us to respond. We are invited to remember that this cup is “not just a thoughtful gesture or a passing promise but a divine and eternal vow, unbreakable by human failure.”[i] The covenant God made with Moses and the Hebrews was sealed by the offering of blood from animal sacrifices. “The new covenant is sealed by the blood of God’s own Son: a covenant that promises that the worst of our sin and shame can never corrupt.”[ii]
After the stripping of the alter, we will keep watch in the garden on the Mount of Olives with Jesus, Peter, James and John. This is where Jesus prays the anguishing words, “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39). Again, the cup. The cup, which on the night Jesus was betrayed symbolizes the pain, degradation, and death that will be his lot. He prays that the cup might pass undrunk. But it is his fate to drain it to its dregs.
I find it disconcerting that the cup symbolizes wrath and judgement in scripture. Does God wish wrath upon his own son? Ezekiel prophesies, “You shall be filled with drunkenness and sorrow. A cup of horror and desolation is the cup of your sister Samaria (23:33). From Psalm 11: On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. And from Revelation, “They will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger.”
But the New Testament brings a new Covenant—and a new kind of cup with it. Rather than being a mere request not to die, Jesus’ agony stems from the fear that he is about to feel the full weight and fury of God’s anger toward our estrangement. What is especially poignant is that, because he is sinless, Jesus does not deserve to drink the cup of God’s wrath. Yet he chooses to surrender to God’s will. “Put your sword back into its sheath,” he tells Peter.
“Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (18:11). By drinking of the Godforsaken cup his Father places before him, Christ transforms the cup of wrath into the cup of life. A vessel, like himself, overflowing with love.
Jesus’ prayer reflects not a fatalistic resignation to the will of God, but an abiding trust in God, even in the midst of deafening silence and abandonment in the garden. You see, the cup is our gift; Jesus accepts this cup of desolation so that we can drink from the cup of salvation—the cup of life, not of death. This is our gift of eternal life. For we know from the 23rd Psalm that our cup overflows. And from Psalmist “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord (116),” because “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot (16:5).
As you leave in silence, I ask you to contemplate this question: Would you be able to stay awake in the garden with Jesus? His friends were protected from its terrors by profound sleep. Witnesses spoke of a “bloody sweat” that fell on the ground where Jesus knelt and was consumed by fear that he, the only begotten Son, who loved the Father as no one had ever loved before, could be forsaken, rejected, even cursed by what Martin Buber called “the eclipse of God.”
I also ask you to consider what is in your own cup these days? Is it filled to brim with hospitality and welcome as you gather around your own tables or those tables where you might not feel at home? Do you share from your cup freely with those who desperately need its sustenance, trusting that Christ will always refill it? Does it runneth over with love for your neighbor, especially for those you struggle to love?
As you drink from the cup of salvation tonight, and on Holy Saturday and Easter, know that the cup of salvation is filled with God’s unconditional love for you. Jesus’ death was the cost of the love that fills your cup and mine forever more. Drink it to the dregs and be saved. Amen.
[i] Chakoian, Christine, 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, p. 272