Redeemer, Cairo—John 14:23-29
When you stop and think about it, it’s a little strange that we’re here this morning doing what we’re doing. I mean, it’s seems pretty normal and routine to us, because we do it all the time, we do it routinely. But for someone who doesn’t know us, who isn’t familiar with who we are—who we are as Christians who worship in the Anglican tradition in connection to the Episcopal Church—what we’re doing, and the place we’re doing it in, are more than a little bit strange—maybe even weird. We are gathered here to read and think about some documents that are around 2,000 years old. And in just a few minutes, we’re going to take some bread and some wine and set them apart on a special table. Then we’re going to bless them through our prayers, break the bread, and give it to those who approach this table in faith. We are doing nothing less than obeying a command of Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our Lord—a command that we find in one of those 2,000 year-old documents. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And, indeed, Christians have been “doing this”—doing exactly this—for 2000 years.
There was a rather important church historian of the last century—a fellow named Gregory Dix—who wrote quite powerfully about this thing that we’re doing. “Was ever another command so obeyed?” Dix asks. And then he answers his own question, at great length: “For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of human greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for an old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village [witch doctor] much tempted to return to [idolatry] because the yams had failed; because the Turk[s were] at the gate of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for the son of a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and a prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheater; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of [blades] in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an old bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp [in Siberia]; gorgeously, for the canonization of [a saint]—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And the best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the [people of God] have done this.” And now, here we are, once again, in this venerable place, to continue the tradition, to take, bless, break, and give; to “do this” in remembrance of Christ.
But we can easily get in trouble with that word “remembrance.” Most of the time, when we use some form of the word “remember,” what we mean is the act of calling something or someone to mind, of conjuring up a mental image a place or a person or an event. But when we hear Jesus say, “Do this in remembrance of me,” we are led astray by our own language; we are led astray because the New Testament Greek word that comes out in this case as “remember” in English means something much stronger than what we usually think of in connection with “remember.”
Let me illustrate. When my daughters were children, they played with Barbie dolls. Barbie dolls, you may know, can be easily taken apart, disassembled. So, sometimes I would walk into their room and it looked like a horrific crime scene! Barbie’s head would be one place, her torso in another, and each of her arms and legs in still other places. A police report would say that Barbie had been dismembered. Dismembered—her members taken apart and strewn about. And so, under such circumstances, how was Barbie to be remembered? Well, it certainly would have been possible to call up a nice mental image of Barbie all in one piece and properly dressed. But a much more satisfying way of “remembering” Barbie would be to go and find her members—her head and torso and limbs—and snap them back together, to undo the work of dismembering by putting Barbie’s members back together. And that’s what Jesus means when he says “Do this in remembrance of me.” He doesn’t just mean that we should think nice thoughts about him. He means that we should reassemble him, we should gather the members of his Body, scattered around as they are, and put them back together, to recreate a recognizable whole.
But how, we might plausibly ask, how do we go about doing this? How do we find the “members” of the “dismembered” Body of Christ? Jesus answers this question for us as he speaks with his disciples as they are gathered in the Upper Room on the night before his death:
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. … And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.
So Jesus is saying, in effect, “I’ve got your back,” or, more specifically, “My Father and I, we’ve got your back.” That’s reassuring. We’re not in this alone. Whatever God calls us to, he always provides the resources to accomplish.
But it gets better. Jesus continues:
These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
So, the Holy Spirit will “bring to [our] remembrance” all that Jesus has taught us. And the root word behind “bring to your remembrance” is that same one that’s behind “Do this in remembrance.” We have Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit, who will connect the dots for us, who will re-member the scattered limbs and cells of the Body of Christ, so that, precisely in the Eucharist, precisely at the Lord’s Table, we are brought together and made whole. The mess that the Holy Spirit finds is rather more daunting than the mess that I found in my daughters’ bedroom, but the Spirit is up to the task, and as we celebrate this Eucharist in this place at this time, we are creating yet another opportunity for the Spirit to exercise that ministry of re-membering us, of bringing to our remembrance all that Jesus has taught us.
The ministry of the Holy Spirit is what enables us in our liturgical work of remembrance. Our job is to be faithful in doing what Jesus commanded—indeed, as the Church has been faithful in doing for the last twenty centuries—faithful in coming together every Lord’s Day to read and hear God’s holy word, and then to take bread and wine, to bless them, break the bread, and give them to the members of the Body whom the Holy Spirit calls together in this place, and others like it, to be re-membered.
It is our work here in Cairo and the surrounding areas to re-member the Body of Christ. We do that when we come together at this altar for the Eucharist and we do that out in the world between Sundays as we listen to the Holy Spirit as he teaches us all things and brings to our remembrance all that Jesus has said to us.
Alleluia and Amen.