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University Christian Church

3900 Cleveland Avenue, Hillcrest

A sort of cutout bas-relief depiction of Leonardo's Last Supper stood on an easel outside the Friendship Hall at University Christian Church. Inside, at the front of the hall, a long table stood empty, glowing under the incandescents, waiting for the scene to be re-created. While the piano tinkled its way through a meditative riff, three women, barefoot and clad in earth-toned tunics, began to set the table. The "supper" aspect of the Last Supper was driven home as the women, gesturing in wordless conversation, spread and carefully smoothed a red satin runner patterned with gold. Slowly, deliberately, they set earthenware cups, bottles of wine, plates of grapes and cheese and unleavened bread. Before the center seat, they placed a large, round loaf and set a cup taller than the rest. Then they stepped back to regard their handiwork and left -- except for one: Mary Magdalene. As the band kicked in -- fronted by flute and strumming acoustic guitar -- she sang the ballad "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar . Her voice was frank and unaffected, delivering an un-churchy line like "He's a man/ He's just a man/ And I've had so many men before/ In very many ways" without an ounce of self-consciousness.

"Yet, if He said He loved me/ I'd be lost. I'd be frightened/ I couldn't cope, just couldn't cope...I wouldn't want to know/ He scares me so/ I want him so/ I love him so..."

A narrator's voice came over the speakers and told us about Jesus. How He "saw His country-people of Palestine suffer under the oppressive rule of the sons of King Herod and the Romans," saw "the hypocrisies of the Pharisees," saw the "mean-spirited attitudes of the rich and privileged." We heard about Jesus' "message of love, mercy, and forgiveness," and how He was loved and revered by "the poor and forgotten" -- to the point where they thought He might be the Messiah. Then the scene was set for that final Passover meal.

The disciples entered, then Jesus, who greeted each in turn. All took their seats. The narrator spoke the action while other voices took the parts of Jesus and the disciples -- the actors themselves remained silent. The familiar scenes were played out (albeit in a modern idiom), but to interesting effect -- it took Jesus a long time to wash and dry 24 feet. The disciples, after marveling for a while, went back to their eating.

After Jesus prophesied His betrayal, Judas leaned in and asked, "It isn't me, is it, Rabbi?" Immediately, the stage went black, only to reappear a moment later, brightly lit. There before us was Leonardo's Last Supper , living but motionless, just as University Christian Church has portrayed it for the past 50 years. Perhaps 20 seconds of stillness, and then the story resumed: the betrayal, the new commandment ("Love one another in the same way I loved you"), the bread and the wine ("Take, eat; this is my body"). Congregants filed forward to receive Communion from the same loaf, and a few stopped to have their feet washed by the disciples.

"Father," concluded Jesus, "the time has come. Reveal the glory of your Son, so that He can give the glory back to You.... I brought glory to You here on earth by doing everything You told me to, and now, Father, reveal my glory as I stand in your presence...and the world will believe You sent Me."

But the talk of glory didn't last. Jesus sent his disciples away to the garden, and the band kicked in again, this time with a harder, more electric sound. Jesus stepped forward and sang "Gethsemane," again from Jesus Christ Superstar — a song meant to capture the agony in the garden. His face strained with frustration bordering on rage as He cried out, "I'd have to know, I'd have to know my Lord...If I die, what will be my reward? Can You show Me now that I would not be killed in vain?" And He practically screamed his submission: "Alright, I'll die! Just watch Me die! God, thy will is hard/ But You hold every card...Take Me, now! Before I change my mind."

Sleeping disciples littered the walkway outside the hall. To the left, in a garden and under a topiary arch, Jesus knelt against a rock: motionless, lit from below, his face half in shadow, his eyes gazing up toward heaven.

What happens when we die?

"What I start with is this," said Pastor Tim Tiffany. "I trust that there is a God, and that God is a God of life. When I preach at funerals and memorial services, I tell people that God gets the last word, and that there is a cycle of life, with constant death and resurrection. I say that death is like a birth canal, with new adventures beyond."

  • Denomination: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Founded locally: 1906
  • Senior pastor: Tim Tiffany
  • Congregation size: 400
  • Staff size: three pastors
  • Sunday school enrollment: 100, including all levels and weekday meetings
  • Annual budget: around $500,000, including donations for special projects
  • Weekly giving: around $9000
  • Singles program: no
  • Dress: semiformal, some casual
  • Diversity: mostly Caucasian
  • Sunday worship: New Traditions, 9 a.m.; Traditional, 11 a.m.
  • Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes
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