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Eating With the Enemy

It was a big game day in the city, when thousands had gathered for their favorite sporting event at the amphitheater. Children were laughing, parents hoisting them upon their shoulders. The young were flirting with one another under the arched brick terraces. The smell of food and drink filled the air, but soon, the sight and smell of blood would appear.

Justin was at the arena that day, his emotions wavering between courage and fear. The agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane continually came to his mind. He also thought back on the life that led him to this place. He had tried so many religious philosophies in a quest to fill the void in his heart. He became enthralled with Platonism, a philosophy that allowed his mind to “soar with wings” to the height of immateriality — and ultimately to God. But his life was truly transformed when he encountered the Jewish prophets, chiefly Moses, who foretold of a Jewish Savior, a Passover Lamb, a Son of God who would deliver, not only firstborn children, but the entire cosmos out of Egypt, out of exile, out of death into life. Justin recalled how a “flame was kindled in his soul” upon learning this.

So now, Justin stood in front of a Roman prefect, Junius Rusticus, who charged him, ironically, with atheism and idolatry. It wasn’t that Justin didn’t believe in God — that is not why they called him an atheist. It was that he no longer believed in more than one god; the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon. You see, Justin had met a man who would become a dear friend, a man named Polycarp.

Polycarp had himself been led to faith by John — the Gospel writer, and one of the disciples who walked with Jesus. As a young Christian, Polycarp had been encouraged by a giant of the faith, Ignatius of Antioch, who passed through his hometown, and encouraged him to never deny his faith in Christ. Ignatius told him this as he was on his way to Rome, where he would be killed in the same coliseum, martyred mercilessly by the empire. And so Polycarp, who sat at the feet of the apostle John, and was mentored by Ignatius, would himself mentor a new generation of Christian leaders, including Irenaeus of Lyon (a Smyrnean who would go to France with the gospel), and Justin, also from Smyrna.

Justin’s faith that led him to the arena was anchored in his vision of the servant’s self-giving love of God in Christ through the Eucharist. In fact, one of Justin’s best-known contributions was to clarify what his mentors and those apostles and first disciples came to believe about the Eucharist, otherwise known as Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper — that they received nothing less than Christ himself.

This vision drove Justin to the arena to give his body for his Lord, who likewise said, “This is my body given for you.” In giving his life, this Messiah started a movement of martyrdom that would fuel a church whose main purpose would be to give the body of Christ to the world.

This changed the course of human history. Nobody has captured this as well as the British priest and monk of Nashdom Abbey, Dom Gregory Dix. In his book, The Shape of the Liturgy, he writes a lengthy and wonderful reflection on Christ’s command to “Do this in remembrance of me,” detailing the living legacy and linkage of Eucharistic fellowship through the ages:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

What a beautiful image this is of people receiving the body of Christ, so that they can be the body of Christ.

Jesus died as a servant — showing us true power, true leadership, true authority, a true kingdom. This king discipled John, who discipled Polycarp, who discipled Justin Martyr, and down through the ages discipleship spread all the way to my family, and then me, and perhaps you?

Our deaths will likely be much less dramatic than Justin’s. But when we gather, we participate in the same meal of cosmic fellowship they received from our Lord. A meal of the past, a meal of the present, and a meal at the end of time, which we celebrate proleptically, caught up in the very banquet of heaven.

For when we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we remember Christ, and all who are caught up in his body. This is a meal with those who have gone before.With your grandmother, your departed child, your college roommate, your old dear friend, your lonely neighbor.

And yes, even with those you don’t like so well.

This last point, to me, is always the rub. I love having meals with friends. We all love table fellowship with those who are of our tribe. But there is a deeper way, a holier way, a redemptive way, a Christological way; a way to a table that is set, which cuts against our parochialism. Consider again the meal of Jesus. Consider those whom Jesus gathered at his table: a tax collector, a zealot, enemies!

Consider Judas. Isn’t it difficult to understand how Jesus could sit at a table with one he knew would betray him? Imagine looking into the eyes of the one who has most treacherously betrayed you — and then imagine saying, “I come not to be served, but to serve. I come to give my life, even for you.”

The meal of Jesus is confounding.

Until I realize that I am not simply Thomas, whose doubts run right alongside his faith.

I am not simply Peter, who denies Jesus time and again (although I do).

I am not simply like those disciples who fled and lacked courage when their friend was in trouble.

I am Judas. I am the one who betrays Jesus, daily even. And you are too.

When I realize this, I feel not condemnation but relief, a flame kindles in my soul, and I feel a release from shame, for God’s love is stronger than my shortcomings. Indeed, God’s power is stronger than our past.

At the Cathedral of Durham each Maundy Thursday, the dean and several members of the chapter commemorate this truth, as each person takes a sip from the Judas Cup. This tradition dates to the 14th century, but the story has now been shared around the world through social media.

The dean drinks wine from the cup, and then turns to each chapter member, saying, “One of you will betray me.” Each chapter member replies with “Surely not I,” mirroring scenes from the Last Supper.

Theologian Douglas Davies’s research claims the chalice used in the 14th century featured the face of Judas at the bottom of the bowl, so when monks drank from it, they could see their faces reflected onto that of the traitor, for they too were Judas.

The church has always proclaimed, as Jesus did, that we not only need to be redeemed from our sins, but we need to be redeemed from our self-righteousness. When we realize that we are Judas, we realize the imperative of sharing mercy, for we too live, breathe, and thrive only because of God’s mercy. When we understand this, we see there is room at the table even for the one who would betray me. Why? Only the radicality of this kind of love can change the world to its core, for it is the love that birthed the world in the first place.

It is the love of which George Herbert wrote in his poem, Love (III), depicts profiles a dialogue between the love of Christ and our reticence to receive him in a meal. It reflects the tension we feel in receiving what we may become, by grace. It is the meal to which even the traitor is invited to taste and see that the Lord is good.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

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