Sermon from Maundy Thursday 2011
"Into My Remembrance"
7 Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. 8 And He sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat.”
9 So they said to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare?”
10 And He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters. 11 Then you shall say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”’ 12 Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready.”
13 So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover 14 When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve[a] apostles with Him. 15 Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
17 Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I say to you,[b] I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
19 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
20 Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you. Luke 22: 7-20 (NKJV)
To what end do we celebrate the Lord's Supper? I suppose it seems an obvious question. We do it so often, every Sunday some of us, that many of us take it for granted that everyone knows why we come to the table, what end we have in mind.
But I have found this to be a much more mysterious question. Taking communion to people in a wide variety of circumstances, especially in hospital rooms, nursing homes, to shut-ins, I have opportunity to hear some interesting questions, questions which make me think the purpose for which we come to the Table is wider, more varied, and not as well understood as typical Lutherans might acknowledge.
See, we like to be sure of what we're doing, we Lutherans. Doubt, uncertainty, ambiguity, or multi-valence (especially multi-valence, multiple meanings or purposes!) are things often uncomfortable for us. Luther was famous for his "what does this mean" question all through the catechism. It was a question he pursued all through the Scripture and he found no rest until he found one answer to that question. "I'm not really sure..." or "It could mean this or it could mean that..." are not conclusions you get from Luther very often. No, Luther was searching for the answer and found the answer in Christ Jesus. We are his heirs in this respect I think.
But sometimes perhaps we push this single answer, black or white approach too far? Reading St. Augustine recently, (someone Luther also admired very much), I was struck by a little section near the end of his Confessions that I had somehow neglected in previous readings. Augustine is going through the first chapters of Genesis and trying to figure out what it all means. He comes up with a number of different readings of the creation account, that are not the same; though each could be squared with Scripture, they didn't really agree, though each had their proponents among orthodox Christian thinkers. And when he wonders which reading is right, which is the one true reading, he concludes they all are.
He figures that while Moses probably had one or the other reading in mind when he wrote the book, the Holy Spirit is talented and could have multiple truths to teach through this apparently simple account. So Augustine concluded that there may well be more than one true reading of a given bible text—not because we put multiple meanings there, but because the Holy Spirit put them there for us to find. Part of the joy in reading Scripture, Augustine found, was that you can always discover something new in the old familiar words. God is clever like that, and His gifts inexhaustible...
But back to our question of the purpose of the Lord's Supper: why do we come? What do we seek? What is promised to those who eat and drink the Lord's body and blood? Can we get a simple answer to this simple question? Do we not all understand it already?
Jesus makes it quite plain in His institution of the Supper. He takes bread from the Passover table, blesses it, and divides it to the disciples saying "This is my body..." So we confess that's what it is—bread, which blessed by Christ's powerful word, becomes His very body. How can that be? Don't know, actually, because Jesus didn't explain. But when he told deaf people to hear, blind people to see, lame people to walk, dead people to rise, storms to stop it already, loaves and fish to multiply, they all did as they were told. So if he says this piece of bread is his body, well, I'm happy to believe that bread really is just what Jesus says! (and same with the cup which he pronounces is his blood). "How this can be, we leave to Thee..." as we sing in that old Lutheran communion hymn.
But why would we eat Jesus' body and drink his blood, in this real but supernatural fashion? To what end? In Matthew, he mentions forgiveness of sins, and that's certainly something we all need. But you notice here in Luke he doesn't mention the forgiveness thing. In Luke, he names the Holy Supper's end goal as: do this into the remembrance of me...
So there you have it: we do this into the remembrance of Jesus. There's your simple, black and white one purpose answer and that is always the right answer. But what does this mean? Into the remembrance of Jesus?
And here's where things start to get a little complex, a little multivalent perhaps. First off, we really need to translate the Greek words literally. The preposition that is commonly translated in, as in: do this in remembrance of me, is actually, literally into. It's eiV in the Greek not en and eiV usually means "into" in the sense of entering a space (physical or mental). Does that make a difference? Ah, it could actually...
The oldest and most common answer given by the early church fathers as to what this phrase means is that it is a command to follow Jesus' institution of this supper exactly, doing just as he did, saying and receiving just what he gives faithfully, so as to share in his presence and promises. So, do this into my remembrance means keep in your mind just what Jesus said and did in the Upper Room, and follow his institution. This is the traditional Lutheran reading.
The Reformed of the 16th century didn't like that so much. They said the phrase is a command of Jesus' to use the enactment of the Supper as a way of remembering Jesus, a way of recalling what is the essential point and purpose of Christianity. Like a re-enactment of a great battle makes the point and purpose present to us in a way that nothing else could, so the Lord's Supper is a re-enactment to help us keep Jesus in our minds. A popular 2nd option...
Finally, a few quirky scholars, picky on Greek prepositions, like my old teacher Norman Nagel, take a third way: they point out that if you take the phrase very literally it sounds more like a promise that those who eat and drink Jesus' body and blood will come into his memory, in such a way that he'll never forget us, but will confess us as his friends, indeed as members of his own body, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. So do this into my remembrance is not so much our remembering his institution or him, but about Jesus remembering us, forever and always as his own...
Unless you spent time with Normal Nagel or his friends, you've probably never heard the quirky third way of reading the phrase. But it's sort of catchy, isn't it? Fits well with those parables Jesus told of the last day being like a wedding feast, where some people were late, knocked on the door and asked to be let in but the Master says: "Go away, I don't know you!" and they complained "Sure you remember us, you ate lunch with us and taught us!" but the Master says "Truly, I tell you, I never knew you. Depart from me, workers of iniquity..."
If the entrance to the Great Feast depends solely on whether or not Jesus remembers you (the dying request of the good thief, remember!) then a promise of Jesus that he remembers all who eat his body and drink his blood is really, really cool. Eternally and divinely so!
So which is the right way to read this phrase? Is Jesus saying: do this remembering me, do this to remember me, or do this so that I'll remember you? Okay, Lutherans: this is your moment to shine. Drum roll, please; and the answer is (altogether now)... Yes! There's your one, threefold answer! (One/three works well answering another question doesn't it?)
Yes, of course, all three readings make one great answer. But it is the promise that particularly draws me in. And I hope it draws you, as it yields Peace surpassing understanding, that guards your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.
-Permission granted by Pr. Kevin Martin.