17On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” 19So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. 20When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; 21and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” 23He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” 25Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
26While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”27Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
This story of the Last Supper is a familiar story, made even more familiar by its frequent and regular reenactment in churches throughout the world. When people of faith gather around the table for bread and wine, we are engaging in an act of remembering.
More accurately, we are engaging in an act of remembering those who were remembering those who were remembering. That is, the church remembers Jesus and the Twelve remembering those who reached the Promised Land, remembering the night of their escape from Egypt. At each level, the act of remembering is an act of shaping identity.
To “remember” is to re-attach oneself to something. In the New Testament, the word “member” (μέλος) primarily refers to a body part. Only secondarily, and by analogy, does it refer to something like a “church member.” In those cases (e.g. Romans 12:4ff.), the term is used organically, rather than organizationally. That is to say, church members are body parts, each one a part of the body of Christ and therefore organically connected to one another.
I recall seeing a reference once to a letter written by Benjamin Franklin, in which he asks his recipient to excuse his shaky handwriting, because the gout in his large toe was bothering him. To be a “member” of a church is to be connected in such an organic way that when one member suffers another member is shaken by it.
That organic sense of the word “member” is rarely honored in our common use of related words, except when we speak of a body part being “dismembered” when it is detached. I propose that we retain the organic meaning of the word “member” whenever we speak of “remembering.”
To “remember” is not just a matter of the mind hitting a recall button. To “remember” is to gain back that which belongs organically to oneself. It is a matter of identity, a recovering of something that is essentially a part of one’s story.
When a church gathers around a communion table the church is re-membering, re-attaching itself to a story to which it organically belongs. Specifically, we re-member the story of Jesus, gathered with his disciples, on the night on which he was betrayed.
To be sure, it is a re-attaching on this side of the resurrection—that is the only way one can call it “the joyful feast of the people of God”—but it is also a way of participating in the drama of the moment. Those gathered around the table, re-membering this moment, share in the anxiety of wondering, “Surely, not I” in the face of a betrayer. We share in the somber tone of finality. We share in the grace of forgiveness and hope of eating and drinking anew with Christ when the Reign of God has come in all of its fullness. We “re-member” this story because it is who we are.
In doing so, we are remembering the night that Jesus and the disciples were remembering. It was a radical act for Jews living under the Roman Empire to re-attach themselves to this particular story. They were celebrating the Passover, the story of liberation from the Empire of Egypt. The fact that Jesus and the Twelve—along with virtually every Jewish character from the gospel stories—were breaking bread that night means that they were re-attaching themselves to their ancestors’ act of remembering the story of liberation.
The power of re-membering is that it draws us back, re-attaches us, to a story that gives us identity and meaning. The temptation of re-membering is that the formality and the rituals of the observance itself overshadow the identification with the story.
Beneath layers of controversies over how, precisely, the body and blood of Christ are really present in the meal; beneath layers of restrictions over who may approach the table, either on the serving side or the receiving side; beneath layers of pietistic practices or industries of raised-lettered communion tables; beneath it all is an act of re-attaching oneself as a participant in the crucifixion story. Beneath it all is the act of sitting with Jesus and the Twelve as they re-attach themselves to the story of liberation from slavery. Beneath it all is the act of sitting with the people of Israel as they crossed over into the Promised Land and, for the first time in forty years, re-attached themselves to that fateful night when God liberated them.
The temptation of re-membering is to lose the story, to dis-member the essential purpose of it all, under a mound of practices and prohibitions.
When we gather around the table, we remember. We remember those who were remembering. And in doing so, we re-attach ourselves to the story of the cross, which is attached to the story of liberation, which plants us squarely in the story of God’s faithfulness overcoming imperial resistance. At that table, we remember who we are.
D. Mark Davis is pastor and head of staff for St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Ordained in 1996, he holds a PhD. in theology, ethics and culture from the University of Iowa and a D.Min. from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia. He is the author of two books: Talking About Evangelism (May 2006) and Left Behind and Loving It (Fall 2011), and he blogs intensive Bible studies regularly at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com.