Wednesday, May 10, 2017

More Than A Memory

More than a Memory
1 Corinthians 11:23-26[1]
It seems that a lot of what we call religion involves remembering. We rehearse events that took place long ago. In fact, all of the major religions of the world look to the distant past. They recall founding events that took place centuries ago. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I think when our faith is built entirely on the memory of times past, I think it can lead many to think of religion as something that is at best old-fashioned and at worst irrelevant. It certainly doesn’t hold any meaning or value for their lives right here and right now. They may have the attitude of “that’s nice, but what have you done for me lately?”
The fact of the matter is that our worship this evening is precisely about something that took place long ago. One of the founding events of our faith is the “Last Supper” Jesus shared with his disciples just before dying on the cross. And it’s true that Jesus commanded us to repeat that meal “in remembrance of me.” The purpose of the meal was to turn the bread and the wine into a very tangible way for us to remember his death on the cross for us all. And so it is appropriate that we recall that original meal this evening in our worship.
In our lesson from the Apostle Paul, we see how important it is to observe the Lord’s Supper “in remembrance” of what Jesus did. Paul recounts the words of Jesus at the Last Supper as something that had “received from the Lord” and was therefore “handing on” to others. St. Paul can use this language when he’s referring to some kind of direct revelation. But I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about here. In this context, Paul is saying that he “received” this from the Lord because it was Jesus who spoke these words in the first place. As we think about our sharing of the Lord’s Supper, we’re talking about an event that actually happened.
But what we do tonight is about more than just a memory of what happened at the original Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples. Paul points to this elsewhere in the letter to the Corinthians when he asks them “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). I think that’s why he calls it the “Lord’s Supper,” not the “Last Supper” (1 Cor. 11:21).  For him, there was more going on than simply remembering when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Christ was with them in a special way. And so we believe that every time we share the Lord’s Supper, Christ is present with us as well.
Unfortunately, Christ’s presence with us in the Lord’s Supper been a point of disagreement and division in the church. One of the most significant differences between the Christian churches around the world who are sharing this supper tonight has to do with how they understand the faith that Christ is present with us. Some insist that the bread and the wine are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ. From that point of view, Christ is literally present in the bread and the cup. On the other side of the spectrum, some believe that the bread and the cup are “mere” symbols that represent Jesus’ death on the cross. Otherwise, they are just bread and juice. As with many theological disputes, it can seem like they’re straining a gnat and swallowing a camel, as Jesus once said.
Importance of the Lord’s Supper is that Christ is truly present with us. We may not be able to explain how that happens to everyone’s satisfaction. There is a sense in which it is a mystery. In the original understanding of the sacraments, there was a significant sense in which they were viewed as mysteries. If you think about it, it’s reasonable to hold onto this idea whenever we talk about the sacraments. After all, we believe they are visible means by which we experience God’s grace in our lives. Why would we think that we could ever fully understand or explain how that happens?
This mystery of God working in our lives right here and right now is an important part of the way the Lord’s Supper serves as more than a memory for us. As Christ is truly present with us in this celebration, God is working to continually renew and sustain us in our faith and service. For that reason, the Lord’s Supper is all about what God has “done for us lately.” Because God in Christ is present with us, right here and right now, our sharing of this meal is more than a memory.
Remembering is an important aspect of our faith. We remember events that took place long ago because we believe that God was acting in history to redeem the human family. We all have our own memories of faith experiences that we cherish as well—Christmas eve services, Thanksgiving meals, Baptisms, Confirmations. Those memories are a big part of what it means for us to continue to believe. But our faith has to be more than a memory if it’s going to make a difference in our lives today. We need a sense that God is working in our lives right here and right now—whether we understand it or not, whether we are even fully aware of it or not! That’s why we celebrate the sacrament of “Communion.” By sharing the Lord’s Supper we are sharing an experience of “communion” or fellowship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, who is truly present with us. Of course Christ is present with us always. But in our observance of the Lord’s Supper, he is present with us in a special way: to renew and sustain our faith here and now. While our sharing of the Lord’s Supper is certainly not less than a memory, because we look back on an actual meal that took place long ago, because Christ is with us here and now, it is also more than a memory.

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/13/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

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