We are accustomed to giving much attention to the Last Supper, the meal Jesus had with his disciples the night in which he was betrayed and on which we base the Eucharist. The Gospel of John, however, in its account of the Last Supper does not include the Eucharistic words of institution, Jesus’ admonition to take the bread and wine as his body and blood. John cites Jesus saying these words much earlier in his ministry with the very strong claim that those who do not eat his body and drink his blood have no share in eternal life (John 6). In John’s version of the Last Supper the ritual activity is footwashing.
In contrast to the other gospels, John’s ends with a long and intricate epilogue in which the resurrected Jesus appears to a select and mostly named group of disciples in Galilee and cooks them breakfast. Some scholars believe that the last chapter of John is a late addition, mainly because it differs so much from the other gospel accounts. If it is a late addition, which I doubt, it still expresses the most important distinctive themes of John’s Gospel and is a kind of balancing text to the famous prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
One of John’s distinctive approaches throughout his gospel is the use of symbolic allegory. So, for instance, Jesus feeds the disciples breakfast and then tells Simon Peter, their leader, to feed his sheep, meaning all the others whom Jesus loves. Jesus’ breakfast is an allegorical act defining the work of the Church. We take the sheep to refer to us, although I don’t know how you like being thought of as sheep.
Another of John’s distinctive approaches is seemingly the opposite of high allegory, namely an attention to details. For instance, in the breakfast scene he names the disciples: Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two others, one of whom is likely the Beloved Disciple whose testimony is the basis for the Gospel of John. John puts in the detail about Peter getting so excited and confused when he realizes that Jesus is on the shore that he puts on his clothes and then jumps overboard to swim back to Jesus. I love the detail that they caught 153 fish. Which one of the disciples do you supposed counted them?
Perhaps the most important detail is that Jesus is personally concerned about the disciples. The first thing Jesus says to them is, “Lads, you have no fish, have you?” When they report that he is right, he tells them where to cast the net and they haul in 153. Struggling to shore with the laden boat, they find that Jesus has already brought bread, laid a charcoal fire, caught some fish himself, and is cooking the fish for them. He asks them to come eat the breakfast. Yet apparently they hang back. John says “none of them dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’” Somehow they knew it was Jesus, yet it must not have looked like him. This problem of recognition is like the first resurrection appearance that John records, when Mary Magdalene first thinks Jesus is the gardener. In the two other resurrection appearances in John’s gospel (there are four in all) Jesus looks like himself with the wounds of his crucifixion. However we are to understand the resurrection appearances, as I said two weeks ago, following the theologian Robert Jensen, the real body of the resurrected Jesus is wherever the person of Jesus is present to us. The person of Jesus was calling them to breakfast, and when they did not come, “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” He served them to allay their fear and wonder. He cared for them with a touching intimacy, tender with their confusions.
Remember that at the Last Supper he had washed the disciples’ feet, another intimate touch, and then had talked with them after dinner about love. That discussion is the founding statement of the Christian community as a community of love. Now after they finish breakfast, Jesus talks with them about love again, but in an even more intimate way. He asks Peter whether he loves him. At the Last Supper Peter had sworn his undying love and loyalty, saying that he would lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus had answered with irony, nay, with resignation and pity, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” That is exactly what happened. Luke records that at the moment the cock crowed, Jesus who was being interrogated a short distance away turned and looked at Peter, and Peter wept bitterly.
Now imagine you were Peter. Jesus had treated you as leader of the disciples and you had thought your love for him was so great that you would follow him to death. You had been brave enough to defend Jesus with a sword when he was arrested but when the venue changed to the courthouse you had denied that you even knew him. You were not under immediate threat, you were not being tortured, no one of importance was questioning you. But you denied three times all association with the one you had professed to love to death. And he had seen it. How would you feel when Jesus was killed before you could beg forgiveness? How would you feel in front of the other disciples who had heard Jesus’ prediction of denial and had seen you do it?—the disciple whom Jesus loved was with Peter when he denied Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I would be numb with grief. I would hate myself and doubt my capacity to love at all, or do anything worthwhile. When I’m numb with grief, I go grade papers, the basic grunt business of a college professor. Peter went home to Galilee and said, “I am going fishing.” Certain other disciples went along, also distraught and with nothing better to do. They spent a desolate black night on the boat, catching nothing. They were useless. Then in the morning Jesus came to them and told them how to haul in a bounty catch. And he fixed them breakfast. He would not accept Peter’s denial nor the others’ unhelpfulness and abandonment. He came back to them with food for life. And he repaired Peter’s torn soul.
Do you love me, Jesus asked? Yes, Lord, you know I love you, murmured Peter. Then take care of my people, said Jesus. So much for the first denial.
Do you love me, Jesus asked again. Yes, Lord, you know I love you, wept Peter. Then take care of my people, said Jesus. So much for the second denial.
Do you love me, Jesus asked for a third time. “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you,” affirmed Peter, catching on to Jesus’ gift of letting him reverse his denials three times. Now you will take care of my people, ordered Jesus, with the bands of love rewoven.
Although we rarely have dramatic circumstances like Peter’s, how easy it is for us to deny Jesus. Most of us have opportunities to speak up for Jesus and his Way, and we keep quiet, or play down our own participation in that Way. Far more frequent and insidious, however, are the denials of his Way in our behavior. In our moments of religious wakefulness we know about those denials and resent them. Like Peter and his friends, we might be a little ambivalent about meeting the risen Christ.
Yet the point of the Last Breakfast is that Jesus seeks out us deniers, feeds us for the journey, repairs our broken souls, and gives us the commission to take care of those whom Jesus loved, namely, everybody. The Last Breakfast is a culminating symbol of Jesus’ Easter resurrection.
Contrast the Last Breakfast with the endings of the other gospels. Mark’s Gospel records no resurrection appearances at all. Luke’s Gospel ends in Jerusalem with a final lect
ure to the disciples about the scriptures and a commission to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all nations. Jesus then leads them out to Bethany whence he ascends into heaven. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the disciples on a mountain in Galilee prostrating themselves before Jesus who tells them to make disciples of all nations and to teach them to obey. Instead of ascending to heaven he says that he will be with them until the end of the age. The reference to “all nations” in Matthew and Luke is a change from Jesus’ previous limitation of his mission to only the children of Israel. There is, I sense, something a bit official and almost bureaucratic about these leave-takings in Matthew and Luke, obviously intended by the evangelists to lay out a mission for the Church. The Last Breakfast, by contrast, is intimate in tone, with Jesus again serving his friends, enabling them to work again after their grief and confusion, repairing his particular friendship with Peter (and by analogy with us), and commissioning the disciples to carry on his Way. All three endings represent something authentic in the Christian tradition. Luke’s emphasizes the preaching of repentance and forgiveness. Matthew’s turns on the manufacturing model of making disciples. Both represent Jesus as something like a CEO addressing his employees. But John’s commission is to feed the people with the bread of life. “Feed my sheep” is what a lover would say who has just fed breakfast to his friends.
The lesson to draw from this is that when we deny Jesus in our personal lives with laziness and narcissism, Jesus comes to us with spiritual nourishment and lets us tell him that we love him despite our denial. Then he gives us the job of taking breakfast to those others whose personal lives are in grief and confusion. When we deny Jesus in our social lives with cruelty and exclusion, Jesus comes to us with nourishing kindness and lets us tell him we love him despite our denial. Then he gives us the job of taking breakfast to others who are grief-stricken at their own cruelty or the victims of exclusion. When we deny Jesus by complicity in unjust social and economic structures, Jesus comes to us with food for restraint and social change, and lets us tell him we love him despite our denial. Then he gives us the job of taking breakfast to others whose lives are threatened by injustice. When we deny Jesus with a politics that makes optional war on those who do not accept our economic, religious, and political values, arrogantly assuming that our military might is stronger than people’s will for self-determination, cynically supposing that we can attack a people of God without them responding with a religious devotion to martyrdom, Jesus comes to us with a breakfast of humility, and lets us tell him we love him despite what we’ve done to those people he’s asked us to feed. Then he gives us the job of sacrificing our economy to the generation of our children’s children to pay for peace and reconstruction.
Our future at this moment seems as confusing and unexpected as the future must have seemed to Jesus’ small band of disciples gathered for the Last Breakfast. But they knew that nothing they could do by way of denial or flight could stop Jesus from offering them a breakfast of new life and a chance to restore their love. We know that too, for it has been the job of disciples through the ages to feed those whom Jesus loves down to our own time. The Church at its best is the Last Breakfast of Christ. It is the meal at the beginning of the day. Now our job is to feed those who are in grief or confusion, who suffer cruelty or exclusion, are victims of injustice and war, including those who hate us and deny our good intentions. In our humility, may we be worthy of the Christ who appears among us feeding his flock. Amen.