Sermon: Drinking Wine in God’s Kingdom
Texts: Proverbs 4:14-18; Luke 22:14-30
Date: March 24, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
One of the useful tidbits from listening to theologian John D. Caputo and biblical scholar Bernard Brandon Scott’s lectures on Thursday’s webcast from the Westar Institute Spring meeting was Caputo’s definition of a classic. A classic in literature, he said, can be identified by its having “an excess of meaning.” Every time you go back to a true classic you can get something else out of it. Caputo and Scott spent some time talking about Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God as fitting the definition of a classic—every time you go back to them you might find some other meaning you hadn’t taken in before.
After studying and pondering Luke’s story of the Last Supper this week, I’m declaring it has a definite “excess of meaning.” There are so many layers, threads and leads in it that they can’t possibly all be pursued in one sermon. I chose the text because we’re on the topic of “wine” in our “Poured Out” series and there are two cups of wine poured out in this story, plus several mentions of drinking in the Kingdom of God. So I’m going to focus on the cups and put other elements in this excessively meaningful text on the back burner for another day.
Those of us who have hung around the Christian enterprise for a while are familiar with the story of the Lord’s Supper or the Last Supper, right? I could call on anyone in the pews and you would be able to give at least an outline of what was done and what was said, because we rehearse some of the details over and over at our Communion services. We have ritualized the remembrance of this story, in a sort of blended version of all the New Testament sources, which are all different. The differences in the versions remind us that none of these recollections are historically accurate to the last detail; they are renderings of an important occasion by various writers who each had a distinctive theological point of view, and who were drawing on different story sources.
Luke is the only one who repeatedly draws attention to the meal being shared as the Passover meal, which may explain why Luke alone mentions not one, but two cups of wine being poured out. How many times have I read this text and skipped over that detail of two cups as my brain did me the “favor” of harmonizing all the stories of the Last Supper into one? I followed my curiosity into an investigation of the wine poured out at a Passover feast. My commentaries say that the earliest prescriptions regarding the Passover meal as it is celebrated by faithful Jews (like Jesus) call for four cups of wine. The meal opens with a blessing spoken by the head of the household, a blessing of the feast day and the first cup of wine. One dish is eaten and the second cup is prepared and put in its place but not yet drunk. The story of the Passover is recalled: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” followed by the story. Psalms are read or sung and the second cup is drunk. The main meal is consumed after the head of household says grace over the unleavened bread. The third cup—the cup of blessing— entails another saying of grace. The fourth cup is blessed and praised after the final psalms have been read or sung. In contemporary Seder meals, there is a fifth cup of wine poured out for Elijah that is not drunk—it’s in anticipation of the messianic age, an age of redemption for all humanity. It’s not drunk because humanity as a whole has not yet been redeemed.
Why four cups during the Passover feast? My brief investigation revealed a multitude of explanations of meaning—an excess of meaning. There seems to be some agreement that the four cups are rooted in four promises of deliverance or redemption in Exodus 6:6-7 that use different verbs: (1) “I will take you out of Egypt”, (2) “I will deliver you from Egyptian slavery”, (3) “I will redeem you with a demonstration of my power”, and (4) “I will acquire you as a nation.” Over the years further interpretations have been added to the four cups by various rabbis and communities, following the beautiful practice of Jewish folk re-interpreting classic stories for new purposes.
If Jesus was indeed celebrating the Passover feast with his disciples, I wonder which of the four cups Jesus was lifting up, and how he might have been re-interpreting the liberation narrative in his own story? It’s clear that it didn’t take long before the Christian community remembering Jesus re-interpreted the Passover story with Jesus as the lamb who was slain, the paschal lamb. We don’t know if Jesus saw himself that way. I wonder if he was thinking about God’s promise, “I will redeem you with a demonstration of my power”, when he lifted up one of those cups. When he speaks of his blood being poured out, he may have been anticipating a martyr’s death on the near horizon; that must have been on his mind. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out that “the language of body and blood points to a violent death. When a person dies non-violently we speak of a separation of body and soul. But when a person dies violently we speak of a separation of body and blood. That is the first and basic point of Jesus’s separated bread/body and wine/blood words. He does not simply take bread and wine together and say, ‘This is my body and blood.’”
Jesus knew that the religious and political powers that were seeking to kill him had, in the words we heard in Proverbs, “drunk the wine of violence.” The Roman Empire used violence to keep the conquered populace in line; crucifixions of those who were perceived to be threats to the Peace of Rome were horrifyingly common. During the Passover festival, as many as 100,000 pilgrims would descend on Jerusalem, which kept the Romans on edge; they were eager to stamp out any spark of revolution before it could flare up. Jesus was perceived as a potential threat by the political and religious powers, who were not a bit reluctant to wipe out the threat with violence.
Jesus wouldn’t have had to have any special prophetic powers to understand that he was likely to become one of many victims of an empire already drunk on violence. But even while acknowledging that his blood was to be spilled, he points to the new covenant, the new community, the new thing God is doing in and through him. I sense he is hoping that the Kingdom of God community won’t get forgotten, won’t get washed away in a wave of bloody violence as his life gets poured out. He speaks of the Kingdom at least twice at the supper table, looking forward to its fulfillment when he will again eat and drink with his friends. When he passes the first cup around, he mentions the Kingdom of God coming in such a hopeful way, as if it is sure to come—although it may not fully arrive before he is called to die.
Jesus often demonstrated Kingdom of God values at tables during his ministry. At Jesus’s table, people of divergent backgrounds and classes came together as one community, celebrating life and sharing freely with one another. They were tables of love, joy and justice where social hierarchies collapsed. Surely Jesus hoped that his last meal with the disciples would be a Kingdom of God table, a meal where the new community would be apparent in all its loving, equitable glory. But the way Luke tells the story, that’s not the way it played out. The one who would betray him, Judas, was at the table, overtaken by a spirit of evil. We didn’t read this far in Luke’s account, but the one who would deny him, Peter, was at the table; Jesus will predict his denial before they leave the upper room. The community Jesus was trying to build was already fractured.
And then there’s the argument over who was the greatest. It’s so absurd that the disciples would be clueless enough to have that conversation at this table. Perhaps it started as they were speculating about who would betray Jesus—who’s the absolute worst disciple here? And then the conversation (fueled by four goblets of wine?) drifts from the worst to who was the best, who will be remembered as the greatest. Seriously, guys? You want to talk about that now, after Jesus has spoken so earnestly about the prospect of his death?
They may have had a share of the wine Jesus passed around earlier, drunk from a common cup. But it was not quite the cup of the new covenant, not yet. It was not the wine of the new covenant; we can tell by the apparent fractures in the community of disciples. They were still drinking the ordinary wine, or perhaps the “wine of violence.” They hadn’t been fully transformed yet by the wine of the Kingdom of God. Listen to this poem of Sufi poet Hafiz (who often uses drunkenness as a metaphor for being enamored of God). This poem hints at the trouble with the Last Supper table: “The sun once glimpsed God’s true nature/ and has never been the same./ Thus that radiant sphere/ constantly pours its energy/ upon this earth/ as does He [God] from behind/ the veil. / With a wonderful God like that/ why isn’t everyone a screaming drunk?/ Hafiz’s guess is this:/ Any thought that you are better or less/ than another man/ Quickly/ breaks the wine/ glass.”
Good “guess,” Hafiz. “Any thought that you are better or less/ than another man/ Quickly/ breaks the wine/ glass.” As Luke tells the story, in these moments, even this close to the end of Jesus’s earthly journey, the disciples can’t hold the wine of the Kingdom; they aren’t quite vessels of the wine of the new covenant, because they haven’t learned to see each other as equally important, equally beloved.
The Westar Institute scholars the other day who were discussing the Kingdom of God in Jesus’s teachings said that the unique thing about the Kingdom of God as Jesus portrayed it was that it was “a Kingdom without a King.” Where most Kingdoms have a King, Jesus has One like a Father–an approachable, loving, intimate metaphor for God. Actually, there’s not much God-talk at all in the Kingdom of God sayings and parables; they are more portrayals of what the new community looks like when they are living as if God were reigning or “holding sway.” Jesus reveals this again in the way he addresses the foolish disciples who get into dispute about greatness at the Passover table. He says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…but not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus is revealing, again, a Kingdom without a king.
How hard this lesson is to swallow! It is especially hard to swallow in the midst of an empire that has drunk the wine of violence, a society that stacks people from the greatest to the least and compels the ones on the bottom of the heap to be servile to the ones on the top through physical violence or the violence of poverty. The first disciples had drunk what Jesus offered at the table as the wine of the new covenant, but it hadn’t fully altered their consciousness.
I suppose we could say that they haven’t “drunk the Kool-aid.” Are you familiar with that phrase? It has its genesis in a terrible incident of people drinking cyanide-laced Kool-aid because a persuasive cult leader instructed them to do so; some 900 people died in Jonestown by this means. Language evolves constantly, and now “drinking the Kool-aid” has come to mean something more positive, implying great enthusiasm. If you’ve “drunk the Kool-aid” of an organization, say, you have imbibed the values of that organization and become not just an admirer but a booster. You are so fully on board with the values of the group that it affects the way you perceive the world. And it doesn’t wear off easily like a glass of Merlot buzz.
I believe that Jesus had hopes that the disciples would “drink the Kool-aid” of the Kingdom without a king, drink the wine of the Kingdom that was poured out for them at every Welcome Table. It’s sad that they hadn’t quite arrived at the Last Supper, the last Passover. However, it’s not a hopeless story. Even within Luke’s narrative Jesus looks forward to eating and drinking with the disciples again in the Kingdom of God. Those verses may have been put on Jesus’s lips by a later scribe—it seems likely—but I believe that the hope of which they speak is genuine and holy. Right in the middle of this account of a fractured, not-yet-arrived-at-enlightenment community of disciples, these hopeful, forgiving, gentle words are inserted: “…I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom…” [Luke 22:29b-30a] Whether or not they are Jesus’s words they embody Jesus’s hope for a Kingdom that would continue to become real where genuine love was present, even after Jesus’s body was broken and blood poured out.
Is Christ’s hope yet alive? The message about being among the people as those who serve, those who reject hierarchies of value among humanity, is still hard to swallow. It was difficult to comprehend and live out in Jesus’ day, and it is still difficult in ours, because we too live in an empire that has drunk the wine of violence, a society that stacks people from the greatest to the least and compels the ones on the bottom of the heap to be servile to the ones on the top through physical violence or the violence of poverty. Since we as a nation are drunk on the wine of violence, it takes conscious effort to learn how our consciousness has been altered by violence and emboldened hierarchies. That’s why we need to do things like the white supremacy study in which we are currently engaged—so we can set aside that empire’s consciousness and turn toward the new covenant, asking Jesus to help us imbibe the new covenant and have the mind of Christ. The promise of dwelling with Christ and eating and drinking at Christ’s table is still open if we will pursue it.
The Kingdom without a king is still being conferred on disciples today, beloved. Whenever and wherever we drink of the new covenant–that covenant that is written on the heart–and allow it to alter our consciousness and change our behavior, God’s realm is still unfolding. Jesus is present with us as we eat and drink at Christ’s table, whether it’s here in our sanctuary or in our many dining rooms—tables where the welcome is wide, forgiveness is frequent, equality is real. Just as faithful Jews in Jesus’s day raised a glass to the promise of deliverance, we still imbibe the promise of redemption and liberation God offers through the ages. Let us take the cup that Jesus offers, the cup of blessing, drinking it to the last drop, and letting it change us into the liberated and liberating People of God.