Thursday, 13 April 2017
The Upper Room
A man with a jar of water.
That's who we're looking for. That's who Jesus told us would meet us. Thing is, you just don't see that. A bloke, I mean, with a water jar. It's always the women.
I sometimes don't get him.
I glance over at John, who shrugs at me, drawing his hand over his sweat-soaked brow. 'Can you see anyone?'
He shakes his head.
We drag ourselves onwards, the heat of the day pounding us, wrapping itself around our aching limbs. It's been a long walk into the city, and its heaving. Crowds everywhere, people yelling and hawking and getting into your face. It's Passover, and everyone's getting ready. There's a hum in the air, a kind of buzz, like an expectation hanging over us. A small bolt of excitement pulses through my belly, but I don't know why.
Something's going to happen.
'There.' John nudges me, points at someone far ahead of us, a stooped figure with a water urn on his left shoulder. A man.
My stomach flips and my feet speed up to catch him. To follow him. That's what Jesus said, wasn't it? Follow him. To a house. Then go in and talk to the owner. Yep. Go into some random house and tell the owner we're using his room. Of course. I can't help grinning at the thought of it, at how typical this is. Just the other day he had us go and nick this colt. So very random. So very fascinating.
At the house, we pause at the door, looking at one another. John regards me with a raised eyebrow, and I nod. We're going to do this. We're going to do what he said. I swallow, and call out through the open courtyard: 'Hello?'
I'm expecting a servant, someone who will tell us to be on our way, but a heavyset chap with a thick black beard walks towards us, and there's a glint in his eye and a smile curving his generous mouth. 'Welcome,' he says, as if he expected us, as if we are supposed to be here. 'Come in.'
I swallow again, and force out the words he told us to say. 'Um... the Teacher... the Teacher asks...'
He smiles wider. 'Do spit it out.'
'The Teacher asked me to ask you where your guest room is? I mean, where the Teacher can eat the Passover meal, um... with us? I mean, with his disciples?' I stumble over my words, and he laughs out loud at me.
This is it. This is where he throws us out. We can't just go up to a stranger and demand the use of his room.
But he doesn't. He says nothing, just beckons to us as he turns on his heel and walks towards an arched entrance in the far side of the courtyard. Up some rough-hewn stone steps to an upper room. Inside, he nods to us, his smile unrelenting, and sweeps his arm around the space. A sumptuous room, furnished with a large table and dozens of reclining cushions. This is it. Just like he said.
Why am I surprised? Surely I know better, by now?
The owner, who remains silent, summons one of his servants to show us where to find things, and we prepare the meal. The Passover lamb, the bitter herbs, the unleavened bread, the wine. Tonight we will celebrate the liberation of the children of Israel. The freedom God gave us. The knot in my stomach tightens for some inexplicable reason. What? What is really happening here?
Later, when the rest turn up, the candles are lit and the table filled, and we wait for Jesus to sit. For a moment, he stands, regarding us all, his dark eyes soft in the flickering light. There's a sadness etched on his face tonight, something not quite right. I wring my hands behind my back and ignore the sense of foreboding in the room. There's nothing to be afraid of. Nothing. I mean, yes, he has been saying some odd things lately, but everything is fine. Surely.
We recline at the table, relaxing into the cushions. There's a quietness to the room, a weighty sort of silence settled upon us. We all look to Jesus, sat at the centre of us, so very still, the peace upon him tangible. I want some of that peace.
He gets to his feet, and I start to stand with him. He gestures at me to sit, and I sink back into the cushion, watching him as he removes his cloak and wraps a towel around his waist. Without saying a word, he pours some water into a basin, and the sound of the water rushes through my veins. I inhale sharply as he takes the basin to James and crouches at his feet, then takes his foot and begins to wash it, gently scooping water from the basin and stroking it over James' foot. James sits mesmerised, staring at Jesus, a light in his eyes.
Jesus does the same with Matthew, then Nathanael, and I can see him coming closer and closer to me. I bring my hands together, squeezing them as he kneels before me. 'No,' I say, my voice a rasp. 'You shouldn't be doing this. Are you really going to wash my feet?'
'You don't realise what I'm doing now, but later, you'll get it,' he says, and tears prick the backs of my eyes.
'No,' I say again, but my voice is broken. 'You'll never wash my feet.' He can't do this. I can't let him. It's not right. I should be serving him.
Jesus smiles at me, his eyes full of sparkle.
I take a deep breath. 'Then my hands too. And my head.' I want more. I want all he can give. All this life he has for me.
Later, he tells us we should all wash one another's feet. We should serve one another. Love one another. We glance around helplessly, knowing we can't do this without his strength.
'I've been waiting for this,' he says, when he is finished and sat with us again, his voice a soft breath in the hush of the space. 'Having this meal with you, before I have to suffer.'
Suffer? What does he mean?
We wait in the stillness.
'I tell you this,' he says. 'I won't eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.'
What does that even mean?
None of us say anything. It's like there's an unspoken rule, a pact between us, to listen. To be still. The opulent room with its colourful tapestries and floor coverings presses in on me, the herb-scented air almost sucked from the space, and yet there's something at the edges. Not a feeling of oppression, but a spark of something else. Something like light. Like hope. I raise my aching head and look at him. His eyes are on me, something unfathomable lying in the depths, and I tear my gaze away, confused.
His voice breaks into the silence, and his words are shocking. 'One of you here now will betray me. That's the truth.'
An audible gasp runs between us as we catch one another's eyes. My heart thumps. He can't mean me? I would never do that. Never.
All of them deny it. Say surely he couldn't mean them. Confusion weaves its way around us, snaking through us. 'It is one of the twelve,' he says, and we shake our heads, so vehemently, so assuredly. He must be wrong. But then Judas says to him, 'Surely not I, Lord?' and Jesus turns to him, gazes long into his eyes until he flinches.
'Yes, you,' he says, and it's barely a whisper. Judas leans back, crossing his arms and setting his face like a stone.
We are sombre as he does something strange with the bread and the cup of wine. Something I've never seen before. The bread is his body, he says, and shares it among us, and as I take my piece something surges through me like a fire taking hold. The cup is his blood, he says, of the covenant. The promise. We share it among ourselves and a strange awareness catches hold of us, a feeling running between us we cannot explain, and I know I will never leave him. Never let him down. I know something intimate has passed between us. Something otherworldly, that I am unable to put words to. It's changed me.
But then he says the words which fall too hard on me, like rocks on my head. 'I have to go away, and you'll all leave me.'
I won't. I won't. I say it. 'I will not.'
He looks into my eyes; deeper than before, and I shrink back. His words are soft but devastating. 'Peter. Before the cock crows twice, you will disown me three times.'
Horror floods me. Never. I gather up my outrage. 'No. Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you. Never.'
Later, I look back at that upper room, the night that changed me. I look back and remember Jesus' eyes, even as he told me what he knew would happen, eyes full of love. Nothing but love. There was never anger in those eyes as he told me what I would do. Only grace.
And I did do it. I did let him down. But there was never a question, never a doubt that he loved me anyway, that I need bear no burden of guilt.
That night, we celebrated the liberation of the children of Israel, and something more. We ate a meal which anticipated an even greater liberation; a freedom for everyone, in every time and every place, a freedom which ran through the meal then through the hideous events of the next day, then burst into joyous life in what happened on the Sunday, streaming through history with resurrection power. And each time we do it, each time we eat that meal we are remembering. Remembering that God's plan was always for freedom. Always for grace. Always for love.
Always for you.