In Remembrance of Me

Luke 22:7-23

You know how it is to get flustered in front of a large group of people. And that’s what happened to the young man who was saying the prayers for the Lord’s Supper that Sunday morning. He gave a wonderful little devotional thought about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, but then he made the mistake of picking up the tray of cups and beginning his prayer for the fruit of the vine. And of course, one older brother gruffly whispered, “You’re doing it backwards, boy.” He could have just said, “We’re following Luke’s Gospel this morning.”

You’ll notice that we don’t often go to Luke’s Gospel for our description of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Matthew and Mark harmoniously relate how Jesus began by blessing and breaking the bread, followed by blessing and passing the cup. Luke adds that pesky first cup before the bread and then follows the bread with another cup.

I think we get so wrapped up in stale matzo cracker and little plastic communion cups that we forget that the Lord’s Supper that we do in remembrance of Jesus was instituted in the middle of a Passover Meal with four cups and three loaves along with the roasted lamb, the bitter herbs, the charoset and an egg. It wasn’t the sterile little ritual we observe, but a parenthesis in the larger ritual the Jews observed. That’s why they were in Jerusalem - it was the weeklong feast of Unleavened Bread. They were there to commemorate the freeing of their ancestors from Egyptian slavery so many centuries earlier, as Moses stood before Pharaoh as God’s spokesman and said, “Let my people go!” Nine plagues and the imminent death of every Egyptian firstborn later, they ate their meal of unleavened bread and Passover lamb with their sandals on and their robes tucked in their belts and then fled to the wilderness. They had been remembering it ever since.

So what we do every Lord’s Day in the communion is a tiny slice out of the much larger context of a Passover Feast. If Luke adds the extra cup, it’s not because there is a contradiction in the order of events, but because of his understanding of the larger meal that provides the backdrop for what is happening. (And it’s ironic, because he is the only Gentile among the four Gospel writers.)

Luke begins the story hours earlier on that Thursday morning. Preparations must be made for this Passover Meal, and Jesus sends Peter and John to find the location and make arrangements for the meal. It is an interesting story, similar to the one in Luke 19 where he sent two disciples ahead to find a donkey for him to ride into Jerusalem. In both of these stories Jesus describes exactly what they will find, who they will meet, what they should say, and the disciples find it just as he says. In this case, they are to follow a man with a water jug to a house, and speak to the owner of the house, who will have an upper room furnished and ready for their Passover meal. Notice that it is Peter and John who stay to prepare the meal.

When the hour arrives, Jesus and the rest of the disciples make their way to this upper room where the meal awaits them. Jesus begins the meal with a personal reflection – a longing and a sadness surrounding this time: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” Did they understand what he was saying? Did they realize this would be their last evening together? It wasn’t the first time he had spoken this way, so the undercurrent was already there. But almost certainly, their understanding was incomplete. It was only as they looked back and put the pieces together that it began to make sense.

It’s hard to imagine what the evening looked like. None of the Gospel writers give us the whole picture. There was, of course, the Passover Meal with all of its ceremony and symbolism. There were feet washed and whispered secrets (“what you are about to do, do quickly”). There were arguments over who was greatest (“let us sit at your right and left hand”) and bold assertions of loyalty (“I will never disown you”). That loyalty was challenged (“before the rooster crows…”) and a betrayal revealed (“the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table”). And in the midst of it all, a new ceremony was introduced.

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (22:17-20)

It became the focal point for Christian worship. This supper, which flowed out of an evening that would turn their lives upside down, would be the one thing that would put their lives back together. “Do this in remembrance of me.” It centers our lives, and reminds us of what is most important. It takes us back to events that, when those words were first spoken, the disciples were still unaware. The suffering and death of which Jesus spoke were unsettling and upsetting, but in a matter of hours their meaning would be revealed all too clearly.

In this supper, the very essence of the gospel would be captured. A few years later, the apostle Paul would write this to the church: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15:3-4) Even more to the point, as Paul wrote specifically about this supper, he said, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26)

“In remembrance of me.” It is a phrase that is carved on the front of communion tables and dutiful repeated in communion prayers. But what is it that Jesus was enjoining us to do? There is certainly an historic dimension to it, as we go back in our minds to the life of Jesus, and remember the words and actions of this one who was the “author and pioneer of our salvation.” We are to stand at the foot of the cross and never forget the sacrifice that was made and the price that was paid that day.

But there is more to remembrance than the function of memory. It is more than accessing information and firing up brain synapses. It also involves the experiential. It is a reconnection of our life with his life. A recommitment of focus and priority.

There are two very contrasting stories that illustrate the power of remembrance and the tragedy of lacking it.

Leonard Allen, in his book Discovering Our Roots, relates the story of Jimmy, a fifty-year old man who suffers from the results of long-term alcoholism. One profound effect is sustained memory loss. Every experience in life lasts only a few seconds. “Imagine, he meets someone and talks excitedly with her, yet in just a few seconds that person becomes a total stranger once again. Every morning, he wakes up, looks in the mirror, and is surprised to see a graying, fifty-year-old man looking back at him. Every day he gets lost in the halls of the sanitarium where he lives. He cannot play most games or follow the plot of a novel or a television show. Every few seconds Jimmy’s world begins all over again…. He has lost his past, and that loss has emptied his present of meaning and clouded his future…. Without memory we lose our identity.”

Contrast that with the story of Maximillian Kolbe, a man who, though not a Jew, helped a great many Jews escape the Nazis during WWII. He was arrested and imprisoned at Auschwitz in February 1941. At Auschwitz there was a camp rule, that anytime there was an escape from that camp, ten people would randomly be selected from the cell block where that escape occurred to die by exposure and starvation as an object lesson to the other prisoners not to attempt, aid or conceal an escape. In late July of 1941 there was an escape from the section of the camp where Kolbe was kept. And so the prisoners from that section were called out into a cinder covered courtyard and ten names were called at random from a roster to be marched off to be stripped of their clothes and left to die without food or water. The name Francis Gajowniczek was called, and when he heard his name he screamed, “Have mercy, I have a wife and children!” At that point, Maximillian Kolbe, whose name had not been called raised his hand, stepped out of line and said, “Commandant, I will take his place, I have no family.” And for some reason, the exchange was allowed, and Gajowniczek stepped back into line and Kolbe marched off with nine others to his death. Two weeks later, on August 14, Kolbe died. Gajowniczek survived Auschwitz, and lived the rest of his life in Warsaw, Poland, where he died in 1995 at the age of 95. But his life was never the same. He lived his life with a purpose, as he explained it “to tell the story of the man who died in my place.” He never forgot what had been done for him.

As we take the Lord’s Supper “in remembrance” of Jesus, we are participating in his life, his death, his resurrection. We are saying “yes” all over again to the commitment we made to follow him to the cross. Each Lord’s Day is a renewal of our “covenant” in his blood that was poured out for us.

When Paul wrote those words of warning to the Corinthian church, “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord…. anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Cor. 11:27, 29), he was expressing just how important what we do in communion is.

To reduce it to a routine or ritual is to rob it of its power. If we thoughtlessly participate in the symbols, without engaging in their meaning, we not only miss the point, but trivialize the events they commemorate. The Lord’s Supper is serious business. It isn’t juice and cracker time for the kids, but a serious time of reflection for the believer to “remember” the Lord who died for me.

Memory is a powerful thing. A song on the radio can recreate a vivid memory of a time when we were a teenager. A fragrance can take us back to a moment in our childhood. And the Lord’s Supper can recapture that night when Jesus broke the bread and passed the cup and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

But not only does the Lord’s Supper look back in remembrance, it also looks forward in anticipation. Jesus said he would not eat this meal again “until the kingdom of God comes.” Paul adds that in taking this bread and cup you are proclaiming his death until he comes again. That forward looking of the supper is a reminder that the here and now is not all there is. As we take the supper, our thoughts reach forward to that day when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness – when we are gathered together in that new heaven and new earth with our resurrected bodies and share a banquet meal at the wedding feast of the perfect Lamb of God.