Tuesday, 15 November 2011
Sermon on 1 Corinthians 10: 14-17, 11: 17-33; Deuteronomy 16: 1-8; Luke 22: 7-13; St Matthew's 14th November 2011.
Today is Remembrance Sunday and so, although it says on the service sheet that our theme today is ‘Being Fed’, the theme of my sermon is going to be ‘Remembering’. However I hope you will come to see that remembering and being fed are related. In the best of remembering we are fed spiritually and –on the other hand - meals and feasts are a good way of remembering things. I will suggest that remembering – when it’s done properly - is something we need to do a lot more of.
So what do we mean by remembering – and why might there be good and bad remembering. Well for one thing good remembering is not nostalgia for the past. I heard a man on the television news this week talking about a project to restore a Victorian pumping station in Hove. You might have heard it too. The man said something like. ‘It’s better to think about the past than the present or the future these days isn’t it?’ Now I would humbly suggest that he is completely wrong about this: that it’s not good to dwell in the past.
That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t remember the past, in fact, I will go on to say in this sermon, that it’s the past that partly defines who we are today. But we are only partly defined by our pasts. Jesus comes – in part to transform our pasts – and so liberate us from them with his new covenant. Jesus says that when we drink of the cup at the Communion we should remember that it’s a new covenant we are drinking – a new way of seeing things that was not known before.
There is I think a terrible and dangerous temptation that we are all subject to – but particularly those of us who are getting old - to dwell in the past, to wallow in the past and so to get stuck in it, to glorify the past as if it is more important than the present or the future. This is what I mean by a bad sort of remembering.
Remembrance Day – if nothing else should remind us that the past was not a universally great and glorious thing. Remembering past wars and the people who died fighting in them reminds us that the past involved sacrifice through suffering and even death – of people we loved. But we should also remember that suffering and death were not the end, that they do not have the last word, as the suffering and death of Jesus should remind us. After suffering and death comes resurrection, with sacrifice comes freedom.
The good sort of remembering is where we remind ourselves of who we are now, not principally what we were then. This might sound as if I am suggesting that in remembering we focus on ourselves rather than others. Far from it, we find our identity in our relationship with others – other people and with God – so remembering who we are involves remembering relationships. At the last supper Jesus commands his disciple to remember him. ‘This is my body, do this in remembrance of me’ he says, not, ‘Do this remembrance of this occasion’ or even, ‘Do this in remembrance of the events of my life’. So when Jesus says ’remember me’ he does not just, or mainly, mean remember me as a historical figure but remember me as a living person now – one whom you can have a relationship with now, in this present time.
Good remembering is primarily about bringing to mind relationships rather than just recalling events that have happened.
The communion meal is where, we Christians, remember our relationship with Jesus and through that act of remembrance who we are, but before I go on to talk more about that and why it involves a meal and food, I want to say more about the way the past defines us here and now and why history is important.
I chose the gospel reading to remind us that the last supper was – according to Luke - a Passover meal, and I chose the reading from Deuteronomy to remind us of what the people of Israel were commanded by God to remember at this meal.
Just as Jesus commands his disciples to celebrate a meal as a way of remembering him, in Deuteronomy (and indeed in the book of Exodus) we learn that God commanded the Israelites to celebrate a meal as a way of remembering the Exodus. To remember how he – God – rescued the Israelites from their dire predicament – captivity in Egypt – by freeing them from that slavery and bringing them to a land flowing with milk and honey – the promised land.
Now the Exodus is – I think it can be argued –is one of three major historic events in which the Israelites found their identity: the other two being the reign of King David and the exile to Babylon. God for the Jewish people – as he is for us Christians – is Lord of History –as we will sing in a hymn later in today’s service. Not that God always seemed to act in history - in a way which was unambiguously good for the people of Israel. In their exile to Babylon the Jews felt that they had been deserted by God. And remember too, the Holocaust – that further defining, if non-Biblical historical event for the Jewish people.
But the Exodus – which the people of Israel – were commanded by God to remember at the Passover meal – was one of God’s great acts of rescue. For Christians – of course – the fourth big historical event in the Bible which defines us as a community – is the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This is the supreme act of God as rescuer. In Jesus’ commanding of us to remember him though a meal – indeed a Passover meal - we also remember his supreme act of rescue.
Our God is then – a god who comes to the rescue of his people. If we could go back in time and actually see the Exodus at it happened we might be shocked how few people were involved and how scruffy they looked. Exodus Chapter 12 verse 37 suggests that about 600,000 men, besides women and children took part – say a total of 2 million people - but this – in the light of archaeological evidence seems completely unbelievable.
It was more like a few hundred ill-clothed and starving slaves who escaped from Egyptian labour camps. But nevertheless this escape captured the imagination of, and became the remembered experience that defined their identity as the emergent Israelite nation and gave the Israelites the idea of a God that rescues. This event – and God’s role in it – became the basis of their ethical framework, was sung about generations later in the Psalms and became a promise in times of tribulation. Even though when they had all been carted off to Babylon the Israelites could look back on the Exodus to reassure themselves that despite appearances the contrary God had not in fact deserted them.
Historical events are what we make of them not how significant they seem at the time
This saving event of the Exodus became central to the religious worship of the Israelites, particularly in the celebration of the Passover meal. And just as the Passover meal was and is a meal in which the Jews remember or rather call to mind who they are and in particular how they stand in relation to God, so too at the Communion meal we Christians are to remember Jesus, and in doing so to remember who we are.
And so to my favourite subject food and meals. By now many of you regulars at St Matthew’s will not be surprised to find that it’s me preaching on these important verses in our series on 1 Corinthians. For visitors – in my paid job – I do research at the University on food.
I’ll just say at this point that, as I am sure I have said before, I personally think food is one of the most important things in life but we often forget this. We frequently food for granted and partake of meals without any real thought as to what we are eating. We even forget that the Eucharist is a meal with real food – as if the meal aspect and the food – the bread and the wine are somehow accidental to the proceedings.
But of course it is not accidental that food is involved in remembrance. What we eat is basic to life and what we particularly choose to eat (or not eat) is central to our cultural identity. If we think about other cultures – say Jewish culture or Chinese culture - what first springs to mind is what they eat.
Producing food in a way that doesn’t damage the earth and its other inhabitants and sharing food in a way that is fair and just is also basic to the proper functioning of society. We forget this at our peril.
Paul writes the section of his letter to the Corinthians that we heard earlier because it seems that when the Corinthian church came together to celebrate the Communion the rich Christians were not sharing the food that they have brought with them with the poor Christians. Think of a St Matthew’s bring and share lunch where the really nice food – oh I don’t know Jackie Wilderspin’s bread – is reserved for PCC members. Paul says in I Corinthians 11:18: ‘I hear that there are divisions among you…In eating each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk ‘
One of the reasons why the Corinthians are behaving in this inappropriate way at their communion meals is that they have forgotten the meaning of this shared meal. Paul admonishes them with the words ‘For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgement upon himself’. Instead of ‘discerning the body’he might have said ‘remembering the body’.
Now either way these words are capable of many interpretations and it seems likely that Paul has many things in mind. But one thing for sure that he is doing here is inviting the Corinthians to remember his words earlier in I Corinthians which we also heard today. ‘The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.’
In other words if we fail to remember that when we share in a communion meal we are one body then that’s all wrong. We heard from Steve last week what it means for the Church to be one body – so I won’t go into all that again. Except to remind you that that being one body is about unity in diversity.
This discerning of the body means that it is worth, I think, remembering that when the person giving out the bread at communion says ‘The body of Christ’ - or as we generally say here ‘The body of Christ keep you in eternal life’ and hands it to the person to accept, he or she is saying two things ‘This in my hand the body of Christ’ but also ‘This the person in front of me is the body of Christ’.
So to sum up in our Remembrance Day services we remember the past – and in particular the deaths of people in the terrible wars of the past 100 years. If this act of remembrance is to have any meaning it is to remind us of who we are now: still capable of waging war and having war waged upon us. In their Passover meal the Israelites remembered their escape from Captivity- not through waging war on the Egyptians though there was violence involved but as the act of their Saviour God. In the Communion meal we too remember the action of a Saviour God in the person of Jesus Christ our great rescuer and through that act of remembrance we remember who we are and should be – the body of Christ.