April 17, 2005

Reminder to Remember
1 Corinthians 11:17-32

My house is full of reminders. My grandfather’s footstool reminds me of the many hours he and I spent together in his bedroom after he moved in with us in 1967. Pop Pop was my first real spiritual mentor. My Aunt Dot’s little, metal stove that she played with as a child back around 1910 or so. Aunt Dot was such an honest encourager, a breath of fresh air. Pictures of my mom and dad and other family members, including great grandparents, line the hallway from our kitchen to the back bedrooms. When I walk past them, I can hardly help but think of the legacy that has been passed on to me. An auto mechanic. Casket maker. Chicken farmer. History teacher. Nurse. Hairdresser. A few preachers. Some of the pictures reflect caring and gracious people. Others preserve images of grumpy and more irritable types. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that an uncle of mine—he died well before my time—was quite difficult to like, and his pictures says as much. He looks as though he stepped right out of the Chicago Mafia during Al Capone’s reign! Memories. When I hold my grandfather’s footstool, gaze up at my aunt’s toy stove in our kitchen, or stare at the many family pictures in our hallway, I feel moved. Moved to give thanks. Moved to live differently. Moved to love my own children—and others—and to pass on the heritage that I enjoy.

Do you recall the story of an event that took place in the house of Simon the Leper? Mark shares it with us in the 14th chapter of his Gospel. Jesus was in Bethany, a favorite rest-stop of his when he traveled to Jerusalem. As he sat at a table in Simon’s house, a certain woman came in, carrying an alabaster jar full of expensive oil. Suddenly, she broke the jar and poured the oil over our Lord’s head. Everyone in the crowd grew restless, chiding her for her poor stewardship! “What a waste of money,” they said. “She has done a beautiful thing,” Jesus responded. “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,” he continued, “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (v. 9).

Here in 1 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul reflects on a story that has been passed on to him. He recounts Jesus’ own deep-felt desire to be remembered himself. Jesus was alone with his disciples, sitting in the so-called “upper Room” in Jerusalem. He took a loaf of bread, broke it, and gave it to them to eat. He likewise took a cup, filled with wine, and invited them to drink. “Do this,” he told them, “in remembrance of me.” “My death is just around the corner,” Jesus in fact was saying, “but that death is not without meaning or purpose.”

It is clear, first of all, that this memorial?what we call “communion”?refers specifically to the death of Jesus. Just hear our Lord’s words for a moment: “My body,” “my blood,” “broken,” and “new covenant.” Jesus speaks here about his death.

This is, of course, somewhat unusual. Most people want to be remembered for what they accomplished while they lived. He hit 755 homeruns during his career. She wrote seven books. He established an extraordinarily successful business. They raised four fine children. She was a wonderful teacher—made the material come alive! Few, however, are remembered for their deaths.

The same is true even in the New Testament. Think for a moment about Peter, Paul or any of the disciples, for that matter. We read so much about what they did, both good and bad. Peter, after his noteworthy acts of denial, preached that first great “Christian” sermon on Pentecost. Paul traveled endless miles and took the Gospel throughout the world. But when did they die? Where did they die? And under what circumstances? There is, as you perhaps know, no shortage of traditions that have arisen over the years concerning the final fates of the disciples. But you won’t find accounts of their deaths in the Bible.

Jesus is different. While participating in communion no doubt also raises memories of our Lord’s life—his teachings, his promises, his miracles, and his modeling—we are here invited as at no other time to reflect upon his death.

But why? Is the establishment of this memorial—this symbol—Jesus’ way of venting his anger and frustration at the culprits who treated him so pitifully? I recall conversations I’ve had with Jewish friends in Jerusalem concerning the multiplication of holocaust memorials throughout the world. While many of them certainly agree that it is important to remember the holocaust and the events that led to it, they also fear the establishment of a rather morbid collective memory that merely institutionalizes evil. That is what Jesus had in mind here, right? This symbol reflects his desire that his followers never forget just how dastardly these 1st-century Jews and Romans behaved toward him.

No, he quickly informs us. You should remember my death because I died “for you.” “This is my body, broken for you.” Peter, with God’s help, overcame his inhibitions and impetuous tendencies and served eventually as a pillar in the church. But he did not die for us. Paul never missed an opportunity to share the Gospel, and he argued persuasively against requiring people like you and me to follow all of the Jewish rituals. But he did not die for us. Neither did John or any of the other disciples. Their deaths, though often admirable, were not on our behalf. Jesus’ was—“My death is for you.”

I watched a few minutes of Larry King on CNN this past Thursday night. Larry’s guests included a Protestant Christian, a Roman Catholic Christian, a Jewish Rabbi, and an Islamic Scholar. The question for the evening was simply, “What do you believe about life after death?” The Jewish Rabbi shared the typical Jewish belief that all those who life a righteous life, regardless of their faith tradition, will one day go to “heaven.” “We have Torah—the Law—he said. Those who follow it, those who are righteous, will live forever.” The Islamic Scholar followed and expressed very similar views. “We have the Koran, and those who live by its teachings—the righteous—will go to heaven, and those who don’t will, and he paused here a bit, go to hell.” I couldn’t help but think as they spoke—I wanted to cry, actually—that this is precisely the difference between our faith as Christians and that of other religions. I cannot live such a righteous life on my own. My sins are too deep, my faults too severe. My righteousness is but filthy rags in God’s sight. I cannot earn his favor. I am undeserving of his love. I should die. “This is my body and my blood,” Jesus reminds us. “It is broken and shed for you.”

But wait. We must be careful not to conclude that this memorial—this sacrament—merely serves to remind us that one day, two thousand years ago, Jesus died for us on some God-forsaken hill in Palestine at the hands of Roman executioners. This symbol involves more than mere mental recall. Communion brings sustenance—nourishment!—to our souls. “Take and eat. Drink. This is my body. This is my blood.” Christians have for centuries debated the meaning of these phrases. Some, in my estimation, read them too literally, claiming that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ when we partake. Others, perhaps including some of us this morning, take our Lord’s words far too casually, finding here little more than a “trinket” on par with other customs and rituals.

The truth, I believe, lies somewhere in between. Is Christ more present with us in communion than on other occasions? Did he not promise to be with us at all times? Indeed he did. But imagine it this way. Are you more likely to be overwhelmed by Christ’s presence while running recklessly through Walmart or when standing silently at the edge of the Grand Canyon? Am I more likely to be overwhelmed by my wife’s love when she is standing by the washing machine with her sweat suit on, or when I step into the house and encounter her eloquently prepared, candle-lit dinner? Space matters. Symbols matter. And in this symbol—this sacrament—that we call communion, all of God’s mercy, grace and sacrificial love come flowing to us as in no other practice that we participate in. This memorial “reminds” us that Jesus died, that he died for us, and that his death continues to bring life and hope to our very souls.

I have many reminders at home—Pop Pop’s footstool, Aunt Dot’s toy stove, and countless others. No family reminders that I have, however, affect me more than my own baby book. It’s full of names and firsts—first card, first present, first burp. The book is fun to look at. But the first few pages get to me. There is a picture of me just after I was born, and it’s a scary picture that I never liked looking at when I was young. I was a relatively large baby, and my mother experienced considerable difficulty giving birth. I was born with a fractured skull, paralyzed on my left side, and both my mom and I were very much at risk through the entire ordeal—it wasn’t clear that we would survive. Well, as you can imagine, I look terrible on this first picture, like I went through a meat grinder or something.

It’s a terrible picture. But it stirs my soul every time I see it. It reminds me, not simply that I was born on December 19, 1955, but that I am now living on borrowed time. It reminds me of the prayers that many people offered to God on behalf of mom and me. It reminds me that God’s hand is upon me. It reminds me to live life to the fullest. In looking at that picture, I feel empowered, in a sense, to move on in life with gratitude and courage. The Lord’s Supper is a similar though far greater reminder. A memorial. A monument. It stirs our thinking and quickens our souls. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.”