Few holidays in ancient Judaism evoked more joy and celebration than Passover. In a typical month, the population of Jerusalem in Jesus' day hovered around 80,000. During the time of Passover, the pilgrim travelers could swell the numbers in Jerusalem to a quarter of a million.
Passover can conceptually be described in terms of Israel's Fourth of July. It commemorated God's deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. The celebration around the table lasted several hours. The tone set by the Passover ritual was one of great happiness.
So it is not too difficult to imagine the sudden change of mood around the table that evening when Jesus said to those gathered with him, "One of you will betray me." Here in the midst of the good celebration came the bad news that one who was about to hand Jesus over to the authorities, dared to dine in hospitality with the Lord. What is taking place all of a sudden at this table is much worse than the relative who manages to ruin the Easter celebration with his obnoxious, loud mouth. There is an individual at that Last Supper sharing bread and wine and fellowship with Jesus, who will shortly hand him over to those who will kill him.
Jesus has clearly taken the bad out of the good around the table, and he is not finished. Jesus will also inform Peter that, while he is not the one to betray Jesus, he will deny him despite his protests to the contrary. Peter has proclaimed his devotion to Jesus; a devotion that he claims is to the death. But Jesus steps on such good words with the bad news that Peter is all talk and no action. There is no doubt that Jesus has taken a good time and turned it into a bad evening.
Yet, while on the surface one can find the bad in the good in this story, more profoundly there is great good in the midst of the bad. We celebrate Maundy Thursday because of the turn that meal took some two thousand years ago. Had that Passover celebration happened in the way it always happened year after year, with no pronouncement of betrayal, no warning of denial, had all gone according to the prescribed ritual, Christians would not gather in worship this evening. Jesus took, what was to be a typical Passover meal and, through his death, turned it into something to be repeated and remembered through the ages. Jesus took the bad news uttered around that table and turned it into something so good, that Christians can do nothing other than re-enact that meal. Even with the impending bad news that Peter will deny his Lord, Jesus has informed him that he has prayed for Peter. It is good news for us to know that the same Jesus who interceded for Peter, intercedes for us right now at the right hand of the Father.
"And he took bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, 'This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise he lifted the cup after supper saying, 'This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.'" We come to the table, not because we deserve it, not because we have earned it; we come because it is freely given. We come not deserving, but accepting. We come to this banquet only by the grace of our host. We are invited by Jesus Christ to come and eat and drink, not because we are so great, but because of the great love of God who has prepared all things for us.
And that is the good news in the midst of the bad.