Remembering and Re-enacting
What is the significance of re-enacting a special action?
Morning Service led by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from 1 Corinthians 11, verses 17-26
Remembering and Re-enacting
Those of us brought up in traditional Christian Churches will have known the Holy Communion Service (breaking bread and sharing wine) as something quite formal, very carefully prepared and celebrated. In this church on Communion Sundays you enter the church and see the table set out with beautifully laundered linen (thank-you to those who do it), with highly polished silver (thank-you again to those on the polishing rota), with plates of bread and cups of wine all ready; then, at the appropriate moment in the service, eight Elders move quietly forward to the table, ready to serve and the whole experience has what I would call a “gentle reverence” about it. It has to be said that careful preparation and a well-established routine can enhance a holy celebration.
By contrast, the Communion Celebrations in the church at Corinth sound like a total shambles. It was not just about sharing bread and wine in the name of Jesus but about eating all kinds of food, drinking rather too much wine and not even sharing it fairly.
John Proctor (formerly Professor of New Testament Studies at Westminster College) explained why things ended up being done this way:
First, the “Breaking of Bread” in the name of Jesus was, in the early days of the church, celebrated in people’s houses because there were no church buildings.
Second, it was done as part of a meal (as we do on Maundy Thursday). In the Jewish traditions from which most of the first Christians came, breaking bread as a symbolic action of family and religious unity, generally took place during a family meal.
Third: the layout of wealthy people’s houses explained why some were eating too much and some too little. If 20 or 30 Christians wanted to meet together for a meal which would include the Breaking of Bread, then they would need a large house in which to do this. And large houses of that period would generally have an outer court and a much smaller inner reception room. If the owner of the house was giving a party, his special friends would sit with him round a small table in the inner room, whilst his more casual acquaintances, his tenants, his employees would gather in the outer court. And the servants would know that they were to serve the more luxurious food to those in the inner room and the less lavish to those in the courtyard. And if there was not quite enough food to go around then it would be those in the outer courtyard who went short.
Maybe to us, this sounds barbaric but Flora Thompson writing of English social life toward the end of the nineteenth century-not so very long ago- told of her years living in a Blacksmith’s house where, at meal times, the Mistress of the house would sit at the head of the table, Flora and the blacksmith foreman would sit a little lower down and the three apprentices would sit right at the far end. These apprentices had plenty of food to eat but there were some dishes on the table that were never offered to them. And the maidservant did not even sit at the table. She had a small table on her own in the corner of the room. Yet, Flora Thompson said, there was no sense of resentment. This was what they expected. It was the way things were.
So you can picture the people at Corinth looking utterly bewildered as Paul berates them for what they are doing, asking each other, “what is his problem? This is the way we always do things.” And you can picture Paul taking a deep breath, counting to a hundred and saying, “OK. Let’s go through this all again.” And he repeats the Story of the Sacrament.
In ancient times, it was an important social custom to re-enact significant events from your country’s history. A decisive victory in battle; a great hero triumphing over evil forces; a natural disaster averted; or even a great tragedy- would be acted out regularly at festival times. Remember, there would have been very few written records and so this was a way of passing important stories on from one generation to the next. For the Jewish people, their greatest festival was Passover, celebrating the release of their ancestors from slavery. They would re-enact the final meal eaten by the slaves before their escape: unleavened bread because they had no time to allow ordinary bread to rise; cooked lamb because the slaves had sprinkled the blood of a lamb on their doorposts, believing this would save them from the terror coming upon their Egyptian slave masters; bitter herbs for the bitterness of their enslavement. Every year the Jewish people would repeat the story and re-enact the meal.
And stories such as this were repeated and re-enacted, not only to hold onto a precious memory from the past but to allow this memory to shape both the present and the future.
The Jewish people had been told never to forget that at one time they had been slaves and that it was God who had rescued them. This was not intended to be a heavy obligation like someone who never stops reminding you of the good turn they did you thirty years ago. It was to give them a reason to celebrate the “now” and to trust in the future. Their life and identity and freedom were God’s gifts to them- so enjoy them!
The people were also asked that, as they remembered their own years of slavery, so they showed kindness to others who were refugees, destitute, less fortunate. As God has been kind to you, be kind to them. God had shown that he was a God of justice. He did not like to see one group of helpless people being ground down by another lot of powerful people. Therefore, the Passover festival should be an affirmation of the justice of God and this justice should be lived out within the family, within the local community, within the nation. Over and over again the Jewish prophets told their people that simply “going through the motions” of a purely commemorative festival was not enough. God wanted to see the working out of his deliverance in the way his people lived their lives, treated their families, constructed their society and shaped their politics.
Back in the sory of Jesus, he took bread and wine and said, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this to remember me.” And this “re-enactment” was not simply to be the commemoration of a past event but about what was going on right now in the lives of Christian men and women and what might happen in the future.
Jesus gave thanks, acknowledging that all life comes from God and is to be offered back to God in gratitude. The broken bread and poured out wine symbolised his body and blood: his living as a human being in the world; his loving even the most unlovable; his sacrificial life and death- for the reconciliation of the human race to God. The sharing of the bread and wine was his desire to bring us all into communion with God and this communion with God would be something that would shape the lives of his followers through the present and way into the future.
You see, memories can be both a blessing and a curse.
When we remember something, for a few moments we go right back into that event. We are re-living it. We realise the impact this event will have had on the people we have become and will become.
Some memories make us smile joyfully: the day we met a partner, gave birth to a baby, started the job of our dreams, found a friend just when we most needed one. We re-live that memory and think “wow, what would my life have been if this had never happened? Thank-you, God.”
Other memories make us shudder: pain inflicted on us, living in terror, suffering tragic loss, appalling mistakes we made and pain we caused.
We re-live those memories and think “no. how can I live with this life and with myself when such memories haunt me?”
Corporate memories can be equally powerful. Racial groups can walk with heads held high, proud of their national heritage or they can march with clenched fists, angry at what was done to their ancestors or they can shrink back in shame at the injustice their people inflicted upon others. And a lot of confusion results as we struggle to know how to handle our memories.
Perhaps one of the most awesome aspects of the Holy Communion is that it sets out to heal and to transform memory. Jesus shared bread and wine with his followers knowing full well that in 48 hours’ time he would be dead and that the manner of his death would haunt the memories of those who loved him to the end of their lives. Those horrendous memories could easily push them into violent revenge, into total alienation from each other, into lives spent hiding right away in dark places, into self-harm and into self-destruction. He needed to leave them a re-enactment that would keep on offering hope, fellowship, meaning and a reason to live in faith.
“Do this to remember me, not my cruel death at the hands of others but my willing self-sacrifice made in love;
Do this to remember me, not that I shall be taken from you but that I shall always be joined to you;
Do this to remember me, not that evil and injustice took hold of me but that the power to defeat evil and injustice is given to me and will be given to you.
Do this to remember me so that the pain of the past becomes hope for the future.
Do this to remember me, not that I died but that I shall live and that because I live, you too shall live.
Do this to remember me, not as a helpless victim but as Lord of life and conqueror of death.
Do this to remember me and go out to live as God’s people in the world.
In the sharing of Holy Communion we are invited to enter into the very darkest places of life where we may encounter Christ Jesus and, by sharing with him, we are led back out into light and hope. The memories that haunt us may be redeemed and transformed into healing for the present and hope for the future.
So why were the people in Corinth getting it so wrong? They were only “doing what they had always done” in their social context. There have been innumerable ways of celebrating Communion down through the centuries. What was wrong with this one?
I would say that it was wrong because it contained no hope.
Brought up as they had been in a rigidly segregated society: poor in that room, rich in this one; Jews in that house, Gentiles in that one; Romans in the places of power, everyone else doing what they were told; it was hard for these people to imagine anything different.
And so the Breaking of Bread was simply tacked on to an existing social custom. It was an empty little ritual, a memory enshrined in the past that would have no bearing on the present or on the future.
Cannot you see that you are humiliating the people who have little or no food,” says Paul, “and by doing this you are despising the church of God?”
When Jesus gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper, he sat at table with the one whom he knew would betray him to death, with the one whom he knew would publicly deny knowing him and with the rest whom he knew would run away and abandon him when he was arrested. The Breaking of Bread was a demonstration of the most powerful forgiveness imaginable. Apart from the one who himself rejected forgiveness, those disciples would be forgiven, renewed and transformed to be God’s people of transformation in the world. And as people proclaiming forgiveness, they must speak out against prejudice, discrimination and segregation. For what are all of these things but a denial that there can be forgiveness and reconciliation in the future where there is now and has always been division?
You break bread in the name of Jesus to proclaim his death, said Paul, his death that reconciled the human race to God and, through God, to each other. How can you be proclaiming this saving, redeeming death when you are divided amongst yourselves?
As I said to the children, remembering the World Cup victory of 1966 inspires young footballers today to train ever harder; remembering the lives laid down in two World Wars inspires men and women today to work ever more faithfully for peace and justice. Remembering Christ’s broken bread and outpoured wine inspires Christians to walk more closely with God and to work for the kingdom of God that Christ came to bring. If our memories of the past do not create hope for the future, they are little more than chains of nostalgia, holding us back. The people of the church in Corinth needed to move forward, to trust and work in hope for an alternative society to the one in which they were living, in order for the Breaking of Bread to become to them a truly “Holy Habit,” a living grace of Jesus Christ in their lives.
The Breaking of Bread; remembering and re-enacting; creating a people of hope.
I would like to close with some words by the Swedish poet, Huub Oosterhuis:
As we accept bread at his table,
broken and shared, a living sign;
here in this world, dying and living,
we are each other’s bread and wine.
This is the place where we can receive what we need to increase God’s justice and his peace.