Awkward family dinners (Thursday)

April 6, 2023

If you ever come to my parent’s house for dinner, you’ll probably be surprised that you’re dining with a pastor. In my defense, there are also two worship leaders and a current church elder at the dinner. It’s not that we’re irreverent or “bad in any way, it’s just that sarcasm happens to be a Steffen trait that has been passed down through the generations like that hutch that no one wants but also won’t get rid of. We know exactly how to say, what we say, in a way, that makes most people uncomfortable, but lets us know just how much we love each other. 

Both my brother and I had similar experiences when our now wives came to meet the family over dinner. When the dinner was over, and we had retreated to our cars to go somewhere else with them, each one asked something akin to “why does your family hate each other?” We assured them that not only did we not hate each other, but we most likely loved one another more than many other families they knew. What appeared to be disfunction, was actually an execution of deep seated care and familiarity for and with one another. Not only did they eventually believe us, but by adopting our last name, they became welcome participants in the family dinner shenanigans. 

The “last supper” as it is most commonly referred to, is perhaps the most famous awkward dinner of all time. What it lacked it cuisine, it made up for in “family” drama. Jesus and His disciples gathered together for what He knew would be their final time, and the fun got started real quickly. John, Jesus’ closest friend and confidant records the entire exchange in His Gospel, and it spans the course of nearly five chapters. 

First, Jesus got up from His seat, grabbed a towel and basin of water, and began to wash the disciples feet. Peter, never one to be at a loss for words, immediately objected. 

John 13:6–9 (ESV)

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

Once the foot washing had finished, another fight broke out. This time twelve men who had known each other for nearly three years decided to fight, like a family, about which one of them was the greatest. 

Luke 22:24–27 (ESV)

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Next, Jesus decides it’s time to eat, and so he takes out the bread and the wine, like He had so many times before. I am sure in this moment, His friends began to feel as though finally something normal was occurring in this week that had been so full of surprises; and just like that, Jesus drops another bomb. 

Matthew 26:21–25 (ESV)

And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.”

Talk about an awkward moment. Judas immediately got up and left, leaving much more than just the empty chair at the table, and you don’t have to wonder too hard what the rest of them were thinking. Confusion and anger filled the room, as family members felt the weight of the coming betrayal. It probably would have been the highlight of most dinners, maybe even this one, were it not for what came next. 

Matthew 26:26–29 (ESV)

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

His body and His blood? We won’t eat together again until we’re in Heaven? He’s going to die? Suddenly what had been an awkward and angry meal took a turn towards despair. What was happening? How was it going to play out? Couldn’t He keep it from coming true? I have to imagine in this moment, the chaos that filled the room had nearly overtaken it, when a familiar voice echoed across the table, trying to stabilize them. Peter, never one to shrink away from a quiet moment, pipes up quickly. 

John 13:36–38 (ESV)

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.

The awkwardness has reached an all time high. No one speaks. The disciples look at Him, and then one another. There is no right thing to say, no words that will make it better. Jesus takes a deep breath and pushes His chair back from the table. The time has come. From this moment on, everything will change. Praying in the garden. The kiss of betrayal. Trial by night – and flogging by day. Tomorrow will be the worst day of His life, and the memory of this dinner, as painful as it has been for them, will seem like sweet relief.

The last supper isn’t just important because it was the last. It matters more because of what it really was. One last moment of calm, where Jesus revealed to His closest friends what their last three years have truly been about. Maybe they still didn’t get it. Maybe they were angry and afraid. But some day, many moons from now, they will look back and remember all He did and said, and be thankful for this one, last, awkward family dinner. 

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