Updated: Aug 8
The words of this Scripture – the words of the Last Supper -- are familiar to us. The story of the Last Supper is told in three of the Gospels, and the Apostle Paul recounts the communion words in his letters. We say and hear these words at least once a month, on First Sundays when we gather for communion – “This is my body... this is my life...” – month after month, year after year. Part of the power of sacred words, said again and again – is that the words can, over time, seep into our bones and become a part of us. These Last Supper words – I bet a number of you could pretty much say them along with me.
Something I’ve noticed with familiar words, spoken and heard over and over – is that sometimes a word of phrase stands out as if it was new. And I go, hmm, I’ve never thought of that. As a kid, I was fixated on the words said when the cup is offered, “Take, drink ye all of it.” I heard that – as a kid – as “drink all of it “– all being the juice in the cup – drink, every last drop. It was well into my adulthood when I heard the words yet again on a Sunday, and thought, “OH! It’s drink YE ALL of it. Drink this – all of YOU!!!” That cup is for all of us – everyone. Drink ye all – of this cup – or as I rephrase it to be clear: Drink. All of you.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been particularly drawn to the very first words – “On the night before he died...” – the words that come before the familiar words about bread and cup – the words that set the scene, that speak the context. “On the night before he died, Jesus gathered his friends at a table...,” and this is what he did... on the night before he died. With that context in mind, the rest of the words have become, for me, all the more tender, all the more urgent, all the more deeply, deeply loving. On the night before he died, Jesus gathered his friends at a table, knowing what the next day would hold, fully present, that night, in his experience of his human mortality – and this [the table] is what he shared with them...
There’s this book you may have heard of or read: Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a physician who has written several books, and this one was on the bestseller lists for a couple of years. If I can summarize it in broad strokes – Atul Gawande writes – out of his experience as a physician – about how our perspective shifts – or how it can shift – when we come to understand ourselves as finite beings, as limited beings – when we come to understand ourselves as mortal. He writes about how that subtle shift – that inevitable understanding – can begin to focus our attention on what really matters.
Gawande writes about this out of his experience with patients and families as they think about and consider medical treatments. But maybe we have experienced something like this in the regular course of life: As we grow in age and in wisdom, some of the things that seemed to matter so very much, just don’t seem as important anymore – and somethings that we may not have tended as carefully, start to move to the center of our daily living.
They’ve done studies on this: As we grow in age, we tend to move our focus more and more from doing to the more comprehensive work of being – from the hectic rat-race of life, to sitting quietly; doing, slowly and meaningfully; and savoring. We tend to be less obsessed with achievement, and more mindful of and interested in things that bring meaning. Less worried about the future – more fully here in the present. Less attention on having, and getting, and winning – more attention on everyday pleasures, on relationships, and on connection.
Psychologist Laura Carstenson is one of the leading researchers on this, and her studies show that actually as we grow in age and make this shift – we tend to be more content – in a broader range of circumstance. As we age, we tend to experience more positive emotions – we tend to be less susceptible to anxiety and anger. We do experience hardship to be sure – but in the good and in the bad – we tend to find living life – from day to day – to be more emotionally satisfying.
AND, this shift, this growing awareness isn’t limited just to the experience of aging. Atul Gawande also writes about folks who have had near-death experiences, and of folks who are living with life-threatening diagnoses – and about how this same shift seems to happen. As we live life and come to understand ourselves as mortal – life becomes more precious – and we begin to think differently about what really matters.
Atul Gawande has moved this to the center of his work with his patients – and particularly with those who have life-threatening illnesses, and who are trying to wade through and decide among what medical treatments to undergo – Do they enter into chemotherapy? Or an experimental treatment? Atul Gawande explains that-- in those moments – he used to think that the main question was, “Do we fight or do we give up?” – but he has now realized that, really, the more important question is, “What are we fighting for?” What are we living for?
And so in those conversations – he has added an important question. Gawande asks the things he’s always asked: He asks what his patients understand about their diagnosis; what their fears are; what their goals are – and then he adds this: “What does a good day look like for you?” He helps his patients structure their days on what really matters the most to them. “What does a good day look like for you?”
And the answers are as different and specific as the person answering. One man said, It’s a good day if I can eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV. Gawande’s own father – also a physician – as he was working through an array of his own treatment decisions said very clearly: “What matters the most to me is being able to be at the family table, and to enjoy a meal, and conversation with my family.” And so they structured his treatments – and his day – so that he could do just that for as long as he could. Gawande treated a piano teacher who said that what gave meaning to her days was teaching piano to children. And so he helped her make decisions that let her continue to do that – to teach piano as long as she could – and to have a recital of her students – to have a recital of children whom she had taught who were now grown and making music all over the world.
Gawande has found that this question – “What does a good day look like for you?”– has helped people, again and again, name and claim what really matters – and – in hard circumstances and with hard choices – to live lives of deep meaning every day they have.
So here’s the question that rises up in me. If this is such a life-changing, life-giving, life-affirming question – “What does a good day look like for you?” – why don’t we start asking it now? Right now, for you, for me, What does a good day look like for you? Why don’t we ask that question now – and then start living our days like that... now. Living not driven by the latest distraction, or by the latest email, or by an endless to-do list. Not driven by anger, or anxiety, or fear. But instead living for – and structuring our days around – what really matters. What does a good day look like? Why not live that day today, and tomorrow, and the next day?
So what does this have to do with the Last Supper?
Well, this story takes place on the night before Jesus dies. More than at any other point in the gospels, Jesus’ mortality is before him. The Word has become flesh, and dwelt among us. Jesus has come to live life with us – the fullness of it – all the joy, all the sorrow, all the anger, all the love – and live it he has. He has gathered a community, formed friendships, begun a movement. Jesus has worked day in and day out to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to let the captive and the oppressed go free. He has healed the sick, and comforted those who mourn. He has challenged political and religious authorities – he has called power to account.
And here he is – on the night before he knows that the political and religious authorities will come for him – here he is – on the night before he dies. And in this Upper Room – in these moments, Jesus embodies an answer to this question we’ve been thinking about: “What does a good day look like for you?” Standing in the awareness of his own finitude, Jesus gives us a glimpse at what he thinks a good day looks like. We get to see what Jesus chooses:
· Jesus chooses to gather his friends at a table. Jesus could be anywhere with anyone. He could be out among the crowds teaching and preaching with every last breath. Or, he could just tuck tail and go home. He’s done what he could; now, he could just go and hide out – wait for the authorities to come. But no, he gathers his friends – these disciples – he chooses to lean into relationship and connection and love.
· Jesus chooses to gather them for a meal. He has been eating with sinners and tax collectors for his whole ministry – showing the world – in every embodied way – that everyone is welcome to the table, and Jesus doesn’t stop on this night. Jesus gathers them for a meal, and not just any meal – he gathers them for the Passover meal – so that they can remember and celebrate together God’s liberating love – God’s love that saves us from everything that would do us harm.
· And then the meal starts, and we realize what a motley crew this is. As the evening unfolds, we have at the table one who will betray Jesus, one who will deny Jesus, and a bunch – who just at the most poignant moment – will start to argue about who among them is greatest. And in the midst of all this, Jesus chooses to sit in the broad expanse of forgiveness. He chooses to sit with these friends –friends he knows will wrong him – and he chooses to spend this Last Supper with them awash in forgiveness and mercy and love.
· And when they begin to argue about which of them is greatest – Jesus continues to teach. He has taught them many things – but here on this last night with them – Jesus chooses to teach them again about power. He says again what he has said and lived – that power-over others is never the way. Life is not about being the greatest – or about having power over anyone else. It is about love and having power-with and power-for. Life is about taking our place among the least, and standing together for love, and healing, and peace.
· And then, in the quiet of that moment, as their contending and striving comes to a hush, Jesus chooses... to serve. The one who has just broken bread saying, “This is my body.” The one who has just poured out the cup saying, “This is my life poured out for you.” The one who has lived with them, and healed them, and taught them, and fed them, and loved them. This Jesus says to them, “You know what the world looks like – how those in power spend their days. I am among you as one who serves.” In his last day, Jesus chooses to love them still, loving them and serving them with acts of tender mercy.
At this Last Supper, on the night before he dies, Jesus chooses to love them into living – to love them into living lives of deep connection and purpose – Jesus chooses to love them into living in hope and healing and love. Jesus gives them and us a glimpse... of Resurrection – a glimpse of life lived out in the New Creation about to be birthed in Resurrection.
Annie Dillard says, “How we live our days is how we live our life.” Kate Bowler puts it like this: “The structure of a good day is simply this: Our biggest loves find their way in. God. Friends. Meaning. Family.”
God has created us to choose to live days like this – and God, in Jesus Christ, has shown up and shown us what good days look like. From the very beginning, God has created us in love -- to live lives of love. God has created us to have freedom and agency in the world – to live and to choose our life – to create and nurture family, and friendship, and community – to work for the well-being of the most vulnerable in our midst – to live and to experience lives of tender mercy. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us – the Word became flesh and dwells in us – full of grace and truth – loving and blessing the world.
This summer we are encountering these Scriptures and thinking about how we live our imperfect lives well – our fragile, mortal, vibrant lives. The invitation this week is simply the invitation of this question. The invitation is to stand in this experience of communion – God in the midst of us – nourishing, blessing, forgiving, connecting, serving – asking, “What does a good day look like for me, for those I love, for the whole world?” And in living that question – may we find our way to life.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Picador Books, 2014). Krista Tippett’s interview with Gawande on the On Being podcast is also an excellent summary of the book. See https://onbeing.org/programs/atul-gawande-what-matters-in-the-end/  See Becoming Mortal, pp.95-97.  See id.  See id. pp. 92-100.  See the On Being podcast for Gawande’s description of his shift.  See Being Mortal, pp. 177-190, 245-250.  For general background on this text see R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).  Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, A Good Enough Life: 40ish Devotions for a Life of Imperfection (New York: Convergent Press, 2022), p. 29.
Photo credit: Joseph Wozniak, used with permission via Unsplash