I don’t know what those first followers did after he was gone.
I know they cried, some wailed, all wondered what to do. Where to go. Who they are now. If we follow him, and these other, really smart, highly educated, super powerful leaders don’t like what our leader (is he really the Messiah?) had to say, are we even going to be Jews?
This was the radical idea Paul pushed for, actually. He pushed a massive deconstruction of the Jewish identity, rendering Jesus’s followers as being both Jews and not Jews. While the faithful, the ones there in the decade after, the ones frightened in the room, fearing persecution from their own people saw themselves one way, Paul, the latecomer, so “untimely born” pushes a new direction, a different direction. We’re Jews, but we aren’t really Jews anymore.
The identity question is huge for Christians, and has been from the beginning. In some ways, it really does mark a sharp contrast with Judaism, in which identity is more clear, or perhaps rigidly claimed. For Christians, identity is important, but never really settled.
Perhaps that flows naturally from the last meeting they have with him: the Last Supper. In the Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), the Last Supper is the Passover. Gathering to share the Passover in Jerusalem is a good Jewish practice, for sure. But it also matched the vision Jesus wanted to leave them with.
A vision of family and togetherness.
A vision of sacrifice and thanksgiving to GOD.
A vision of hope for liberation and renewal.
A vision of GOD’s presence with them in the darkest times.
A vision of a new community, built to fulfill the Law, the divine community of justice and jubilee.
So he has, in this dinner a personal touch, a moment of improv perhaps, in which he says to them,
When you get together, when you eat, when you celebrate the feasts, when you gather as a people to give thanksgiving, and you pass around the bread and you break it up and feed each other, remember me.
Certainly these are my words, not Jesus’s. But Jesus does try to tell them to do this and, well, he makes it personal, doesn’t he? And he does the same thing at the end, when they are to drink the wine, he says the same thing,
When you pass this cup and you drink in community, giving thanks, remember me.
And we know they fear what is coming, because Jesus has been saying over and over and over that he is going to die in Jerusalem. And here he’s hinting that this is the last time: there will be no more. So listen up, do this and remember me.
So we join followers throughout the generations since in a ritual of remembrance. We eat and we drink and we remember.
The church has solemnized the moment, the ritual. It isn’t the Passover. For many of us, it is the weekly Sunday. It isn’t a meal, a feast, it’s a wafer and a sip. It is not so much a celebration, and more a meditation. We certainly seem to be doing it differently.
And yet Christians have taken from day one that this was central to our identity, that we follow this command quite directly. Get together, break bread, drink wine, and remember Jesus. And so we do. Everywhere. For 2000 years.
What we think is happening within the Eucharist is ultimately moot. We have had a deep theological divide between whether to take literally the word “remembrance” or take more literally “I will be there”. For most, this is still a debate.
For me, it is a much smaller issue than the fact that ritual itself looks so unlike the Last Supper and so unlike the practice of the earliest followers, the proto-Christians. It means more to me that our practices are stuck in the medieval and Reformation periods than anything else.
When Jesus said to remember him in the Passover and the feast: in the bread and in the wine: I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about the Holy Eucharist as we know it. I think that is pretty fair to say.
What Jesus also doesn’t seem to weigh in on is how we might “remember”.
And what we are doing in our Eucharists is we have a presider standing at a table with bread and wine and leading the congregation in prayer. And then she gets to this interesting moment. The part in which we recall where the mandate comes from. We call this “the words of institution.” And here, the presider often touches the plate or lifts it up and quotes Jesus. Then touches or lifts the cup and quotes Jesus.
Several liturgists have warned that the presider is not playing Jesus. She is not to give a voice to Jesus as if she were acting in a play. She is not Jesus.
And they say this because what else are we supposed to think here? That in this thing that feels like a reenactment of the Last Supper, with Jesus words in quotation in the prayer, with a presider playing the part, it so feels as if she is playing Jesus.
And then, when she visits the sick and feeds the hungry and hangs with people in a bar, maybe wearing a collar, maybe not, and she is trying to be like Jesus (isn’t that what we’re all trying to do somehow?), but unlike the rest of us, she went to seminary, she’s been blessed by a bishop or presbytery and she is the professional Christian, so she’s a bit more Jesusy than I am, so…
Isn’t she Jesus for me?
When Paul calls us the hands and feet of Christ, aren’t we Jesus for each other?
And our identity confusion rears its ugly head and our sense of confusion and hope for a leader to fix the problem for us, and a sense that it is they, not us, that have the power, and they are the one who gets to be Jesus, not me. When all this happens, do we not lose sight of the actual Jesus?
How does the way we approach leadership affect the way we approach Jesus?
In what ways is it helpful to look at our neighbors and our leaders as Jesus? In what ways is it harmful?
Do you feel that sense of play acting? That sense of remembrance and thanksgiving? That sense of hope and renewal? Do you feel the power of the moment?
In what ways might we bring a renewed sense of thanksgiving to our gatherings, to our celebrations, to our Eucharists?
Are we doing enough to remember Jesus (as opposed to the Christ?) in our Eucharist?
Are we doing enough to share, honoring the intimacy and the challenge in Jesus’s command?