“Do This In Remembrance”
The Sacrament of Holy Communion: Part 1
1 Corinthians 11:17-26
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
November 3, 2019
We were all lined up and ready to run. Teachers flanked the distant corners of the Quail Creek Elementary School playground. We stood on our line, stakes and hammers in hand, poised. When the starters gun went off, we all started running as fast as we could to get to the best spots on the playground. Once there would we would, with the assistance of a teacher, mark out our claim. This was a springtime rite of passage when I was a child in Oklahoma; the re-enactment of the land run. The land run was, after all, how our ancestors had ended up in the no man’s land of the southern plains. In 1889 they had lined up with their horses and covered wagons and some on their feet, and they had run into a vast open space and staked their claims. And so, each spring, in the Quail Creek Elementary School playground in suburban Oklahoma, we did the same thing.
I suppose the ideas beyond this were basic enough. The teachers probably figured it would be more memorable for us to re-enact this than to simply sit and listen to someone talk about it. They also believed that, as Oklahomans, this was something we ought to know. I mean, all of America was basically colonized by white people via land run, but I suppose it just wasn’t as official as ours. In Oklahoma, we are steeped in land run lore. Our flagship university’s mascot, the sooner, is a reference to the people who cheated on the land run. So, if we were going to be Oklahomans then understanding that our state was settled by one giant exercise in organized chaos and greed and hope is a relatively important detail.
Corporate memory is a funny thing. Any group of any significance is shaped by its corporate memories of important events. How those events are retold and how they are made real in the minds of the people are the key details. For example, when we read the Old Testament, we see that the Exodus from Egypt was the most important element of collective memory. Over and over again, the people speak of God’s decision to free them from slavery. This memory was especially important when things were going poorly for them. When darkness loomed and hope seemed lost, they would say to themselves, remember what God did for our ancestors! That memory carried them through many hard days, and they wouldn’t be who they are without it.
For us, as Christians, our memories have been codified with a special word. Sacrament. The easiest way to define a sacrament is as an outside sign of an inward truth. Sacraments are supposed to shape us. They are supposed to instill within us a very specific identity. We Presbyterians only have 2 sacraments, communion and baptism. If you pick up our Book of Order, basically our rule book, you will find huge chunks of it dedicated to these two sacraments. Who can perform them? How should they go? What is necessary? What can you NOT do? These questions are all addressed as relates to the sacraments. There are pages and pages of rules around this table. And while this may seem like overkill, these rules are vital, because if you are going to basically try to capture your identity through two sacred ceremonies, then you had better be careful with how you manage them.
The Corinthians were not careful. One thing I find remarkable is how old communion is. Paul was writing only a couple of decades after Christ’s death and already communion was important. Early Christian worship was not like ours. As best as we can tell it took place in the context of a larger meal. This seems to have been the problem. Without getting too far into the details, the essential issue was that the wealthy Corinthians were pigging out at this meal while the poorer ones were standing outside of the main dining room, basically in a courtyard, with a crust of bread and some bad wine. This would not do, so Paul corrected them.
What sort of people could they become if some had a fundamentally different experience of communion than other? The answer, a divided one. So, Paul told them to make sure everything was fair and even, and he taught them what we now call the Words of Institution. For me, the most powerful words in that story we tell every time we eat are, “do this in remembrance of me.” At the Last Supper, Jesus said this and then Paul, in 1 Corinthians, reiterates it. Our shared memory of this event should shape us. Now I want to say that wars have been fought, literally, over what Communion means. I am not going to deal with that today. You can thank me later for not delving into the differences between transubstantiation, consubstantiation and the real presence. At its foundational level, communion is an act of memory. Do this in remembrance of Jesus. It is a very specific memory, and one we would do well to heed.
This is where one must be careful. As we stood on that line, poised to grab our best parcels of land, key details we are missing. First, there were no Sooners in our land run, as our ancestors had experienced. The best claims were all there, waiting to be grabbed. Further, there were no huddled clusters of Native Americans, emaciated and trying to subsist on tiny little plots over by the swings or the big toy. They were nowhere to be found. When our ceremonies which help shape our collective memories are not whole, then who we are as a people becomes skewed. The same is true in faith.
So, what, exactly are we supposed to remember as we gather at this table? If I can make it is as simple as possible it is this, Holy Communion marks the sacrifice of Christ. The whole sacrament is built around the idea of sacrifice. The bread which represents the broken bones, the cup which represents the spilled blood, the reminder that Jesus did this on the night he was betrayed, the idea that every time we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death; these are all ideas rooted in sacrifice. Thus, it is evident that we, as a people, are to be shaped by this sacrifice, and should we lose sight of it, we then would lose sight of who we are.
One thing I have learned is that today, in many, many churches, communion has become something of a sideshow. In many congregation’s communion happens over at the side of worship, with no words spoken, no story told. The elements are simply made available for those who want them. I feel as though it may not be too big a leap to imagine that the sorry state of Christianity in America is, in many ways, related to our loss of the sacrificial identity the story of this table should instill in us.
The God we worship could have shown us his love in any number of ways. The list of possibilities is literally endless. And of all those, God chose this one, that he would send his son into this world, and that he would be betrayed, and on the night of that betrayal he would sit around the dinner table with his friends, and he would give them these words which would resonate through time for those who could hear them of a God whose love is embodied in sacrifice.
Every time you come to this table; you proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again. Every time you are shaped by his sacrifice. Every time you do this as a people. Over and over again in your life you will come to this table, and the degree to which we live as God’s people in this world correlates directly to our ability to embody these words. Do this, in remembrance of Jesus. Amen.