Letting the Plate Pass By.
This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me…. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor. 11:24-25, 27-29)
This passage is familiar, often read before our monthly (more or less) participation in Communion; its sobering tone meant to guard against abuse of the Table. To be sure, the Lord’s Supper is sacred and mysterious. Self-examination postures us to receive it rightly. But I wonder if fear of judgement leads us to misapply this Scripture at times and, in fact, prevents us from taking Communion in the hour we most need it. As a teen, I watched a friend let the plate pass by because she had argued with her sister that morning and did not want to incur wrath. Years later, a close friend who was struggling with doubt withdrew from participation for over a year for the same reason. However, as the passage above also states, Communion is an act of remembrance, a biblical understanding of which shows us that it: (1) makes us participants of God’s saving acts; (2) preserves us through difficulty; and (3) offers us a sense of God’s presence. In this way, God uses the Eucharist to sustain the saints, giving grace to conquer doubt and sin. It should therefore most especially be kept by those who feel least worthy of it.
Communion as Remembrance.
It’s easy to identify what the bread and cup help us remember: Christ’s body and blood. Peter explains the significance of Christ’s body: “He himself bore our sins in his body…that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). As the bread is broken in Communion, it is remembered that Christ’s giving over of his body healed our sin-problem and made a way for us to become righteous. Further, the cup reminds believers of Christ’s blood, which Jesus specifies as the blood of the “new” covenant, indicating his inauguration of it. Jeremiah describes the new covenant as one where: (1) God writes his law on hearts; (2) all of God’s people know him; (3) and he forgives their sins. Thus the cup, representing Christ’s blood, reminds us that we are participants in the new covenant, meaning obedience is possible, knowledge of God is accessible, and sin is forgiven!
What Does it Mean to Remember?
But the question remains: how does remembering the body and blood through the elements help believers conquer sin and doubt? And should it be avoided when one becomes aware of shortcoming? This is where a biblical understanding of what it means to remember helps: remembering as participation, preservation and presence.
First, participation. The Catholic Catechism says that the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events, but that in the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. The witness of Scripture affirms this. Israelite children were taught to remember God’s historical salvations by participating in them. When each generation asked about Passover’s meaning, parents answered, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:8). The manner Passover was to be eaten (belt fastened, sandaled, staff in hand, in haste) related them with the first generation, who had to be ready to leave Egypt immediately. Sojourners wanting to participate in Passover even needed to be circumcised, because it was not a dead ritual! It identified one as having been saved by God and therefore belonging to him.
Second, preservation. Deuteronomy often repeats the command for Israel to remember in order to live, well-indicating its preserving quality. By contrast: “if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods…I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut. 8:19). They were warned that forgetting God’s saving acts would lead to destruction. Unfortunately this did not stop them from it, which ultimately brought judgement through exile, demonstrating that those who remember the Lord are remembered by him and are preserved to and through the end.
Third, presence. That remembrance brings a sense of God’s presence can be seen most clearly in the Psalms. In Ps 42 the psalmist is asked, “Where is your God?” He responds, “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you”. Afterwards he declares that the Lord’s steadfast love is with him. In another Psalm, David, surrounded by enemies, questions God’s nearness using figures of speech, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water”; but his soul will be satisfied when he remembers. In other words, remembering was the way the psalmists affirmed that God really was with them.
Remembering was an act of participation, preservation and presence for Israel; so too for believers in Communion. Later generations recalled the Exodus event and declared themselves participants; through Communion, we recall the cross and declare our participation in it: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing” (Rom. 6:6). Remembrance as participation confirms that we really are a new creation, no matter how many mistakes we have made! As remembering served to preserve Israel from destruction, so Communion as remembrance preserves believers. Luther professed, “He is worthy who feels most miserable and destitute of grace.” He further argued that believers are more able to repent after the sacrament than before. We do not approach the Eucharist because we have conquered sin and doubt; we leave equipped to do so! Finally, remembrance as presence is also experienced in Communion. The blood and the flesh (remembered in the cup and the bread) made God’s holy presence ever-available. In addition, Jesus’ assertion that the bread “is” his body and the cup “is” his blood causes us to consider how/if Christ is actually manifest in the meal. Catholics teach that “he is present…most especially in the Eucharistic species”; Luther, that Christ’s presence was “in” and “with” the bread. Though differing on how Christ’s presence is manifested in the meal, nonetheless, both maintain that he is in the midst of it. The Lord’s Supper as remembrance, then, is an affirmation of our right to approach God and a means of experiencing the presence of Jesus.
Don’t EVER Let the Plate Pass By!
The Lord’s Supper as “remembrance” means it is more than just a mental reflection on what Jesus has done. When remembrance is defined biblically, we discover that Communion accomplishes so much more! Remembering the body and blood affirms our identity as new creations because of our participation in Christ’s death. Observance preserves us through doubt and sin, as it is a means through which God communicates his grace to us. As well, it affirms that God’s presence really is with us, even made real in the elements. When we understand what the Lord’s Supper as remembrance entails, we will not partake of it only when we feel deserving. Rather, we will rightly receive it when we are most aware of our need. Thus, it is important that believers regularly approach the Lord’s Table, most especially when we feel least worthy of it. We need Jesus in order to be made like Jesus. And at his Table, he gives to us of himself. Who knows…it may be on that Day when the kingdom is finally fulfilled, we will find that as we were faithful to keep Communion, it was actually what kept us.