Grace Presbyterian Church
April 18, 2019, Maundy Thursday C
I’m curious how many of you remember the Lord’s Supper in church, maybe as far back as your childhood, looking very different.
Admittedly I grew up in another denomination, but I have these very distinct memories of the Lord’s Supper, whenever it was observed, looking for all the world like a funeral service. Table (and all the elements on it) covered in a shroud, the church’s deacons (no elders in that denomination) dressed in black and looking exactly like pallbearers at a funeral…the only reason I didn’t immediately think of it this way was because, at that young an age, I hadn’t been to enough funerals to know. When I finally did see a couple of funerals, and then saw the Lord’s Supper in church on a Sunday looking pretty much the same, I honestly think I was scarred just a little bit. It might have been worse if we’d had the Supper more than four times a year.
Since then I have studied enough history to know that such presentation of the Lord’s Supper was not only common, it even came with official backing in at least one of the antecedent Presbyterian denominations to the PC(USA); its Book of Orderdescribed and prescribed exactly that kind of setup for the table, even to the point of how the shroud was to be folded when removed, and how it was to be replaced over the elements when the Supper was done. This was as far back, if I remember correctly, as 1796. There is a long history of treating the Lord’s Supper primarily as a memorial. By no means do I mean to offend those who came before us in the faith, but at this point in my life and ministry I can no longer believe that’s precisely what Jesus was going for here, as recounted by Paul in what we now know as the Words of Institution.
As Paul describes the scene (in what is our earliest written account of it), Jesus performs the acts we know – breaking the bread, filling the cup – and marks each one with the appropriate theological significance – “my body that is for you,” “the new covenant in my blood.” But then what does he say? “Do this in remembrance of my sacrifice”? “Do this in remembrance of my death”? “Do this in remembrance of what’s going to happen tomorrow?”
No. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
“Do this in remembrance of me.” Remember me. Remember the one who journeyed with you all around Galilee and Judea. Remember the one who taught you, who sent you out to preach and teach and heal. Remember me, the one with whom you shared so many meals at so many tables. The one who lived with you all these years.
Later in this same letter Paul will take issue with some in the Corinthian church who somehow doubt that Christ was ever raised from the dead. It is one of the most impassioned parts of this epistle, and in the end Paul finally goes so far as to declare that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17), and even further, “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:19). But then the good news: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (15:20).
Even back in our words of institution, Jesus instructs his disciples that in the sharing of this bread and cup, we do “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26). If all we have to show here is Jesus’s funeral, if what happened in this meal and then in the garden and finally on Golgotha is all there is to the story, then we really are kinda hopeless, aren’t we?
Do this in remembrance of me. Remember me.
The animated film Coco understands what power memory has. The young boy at the center of the story, who accidentally journeys into the Land of the Dead of Mexican folklore, is in the end rushing back from that land to be at the side of his grandmother; as she is slowly fading, her body aged and infirm and her memories slipping away, the boy sings to hear a song that her own father had sung to her as a young child, before leaving the family to try to provide for them as a musician – a journey on which he ends up being murdered, unbeknownst to his family. It is a song that had been made famous by the man who murdered her father and stole the song, presenting it as his own and becoming famous. But in these final moments, as the boy sings her father’s song haltingly to his Mama Coco, the first sparks of life come to her face. Her fingers begin to move, almost imperceptibly; her eyes open, ever so slowly; in the end, her own halting voice joins with the boy’s to finish the song, as she smiles for possibly the first time in years:
Remember me, though I have to travel far
Remember me, each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
In this supper, in this bread and this cup passed among us, broken however imperfectly and maybe spilled a little bit, we remember Jesus, the whole life, the whole word, and in that remembering we are brought to new life, given a song to sing, a smile amid the tears of the everyday; we live in this testimony of the Christ who is coming again, and in whose life is our life.
Do this and remember.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #527, Eat This Bread; #227, Jesus, Remember Me