Published on 27 Aug 2012
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 26, 2012
Dean Peter Elliott
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon.
After a mild stroke, a friend of mine said, “the problem with losing your memory is that nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be.” Memory—that elusive aspect of our mental functioning is so important to keeping us balanced and whole. And memory is not just an individual thing—it also belongs to communities, to cities and countries, and also memory plays an important role in spiritual or religious communities. There’s a word that Christian theologians use when talking about the Eucharist—it’s anamnesis. Anamnesis comes from the same root that we get the word ‘amnesia’. Whereas amnesia means to not be able to remember, the word anamnesis means to remember but it conveys much more than that. It means to remember in such as way as we participate again in the event we’re remembering. Anamnesis is often translated as ‘memorial’ and is used when Christian theologians talk about the Eucharist. Because what we’re doing here each time we gather to bless and share bread and wine is to remember Jesus, to have a memorial meal—and in that remembering, in that memorial we believe not just that we call Jesus to mind, like we call to mind a fond memory—but that Christ is present to us under these forms of bread and wine. Through this sacred act we literally re-member, we become members again of Christ and brothers and sisters to one another in community.
Anamnesis—remembering, memorial; Bill Crockett in his book on the Eucharist suggests the term ‘actualization’ for what goes on in the Eucharist—it is a potent communal way of calling to mind the acts of God and, at the same time, it is a potent way that God calls us into our deepest and best selves[i]. With this background of anamnesis we can begin to appreciate the rich theological landscape that we find in John 6.
This morning we have heard some excerpts from this chapter of John’s gospel: here at the Cathedral over the past 4 Sundays we have celebrated a number of holy days and taken a detour from the lectionary. But had we been following the lectionary we would have been reading through the 6th chapter of John for the last four weeks and concluding today. There are a number of things to point out as we consider it this morning.
First is to remember that in John’s gospel there is no narrative of the last supper. Instead, on the night before Jesus death, he washes the disciples feet. Yet it’s clear there was a Eucharistic practice within John’s community. Secondly, Jesus words about being himself the bread of life follow the story of the miraculous feeding. In all four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—we find this story told in slightly different ways in each, but with the same overall point—that unlike the elite banquet tables of the Roman aristocracy, the community of Jesus was wildly inclusive—and there was enough food for all. In account after account in the gospels Jesus is seen publicly eating and drinking not with people not just the socially acceptable but with all sorts and conditions of women and men. The story of the miraculous feeding always begins with an assumption of scarcity—we don’t have enough—and offers the miracle of abundance—there’s lots of leftovers.
So in John’s gospel, this feeding miracle happens just before Passover and prompts a long discourse on Jesus himself being the bread of life. Without actually providing a narrative of the last supper John’s gospel provides a rich Eucharistic theology, one that informs our practice here and this morning we lean into this theology to help us more fully appreciate this sacramental meal of bread and wine.
For Eucharist is the way we worship here at the Cathedral. Each day and twice on Sundays bread is broken, wine is blessed, the faithful receive Christ under these signs and our life in God is renewed. Here every day and twice on Sundays we experience anamnesis, the actualization of the presence of God in Christ amongst us. Here we begin to meditate on the words of Jesus, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
These two statements, “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” are two of the so-called I am statements found in John’s gospel. Of course, for a well tuned Biblical ear as soon as we hear the words “I am” our minds immediately go to remember how Moses encountered God at the burning bush and when Moses asked who he should say encountered him, God said, “Tell them I am spoke to you.” God is the great I am—being itself, the source and ground of all that is—and when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” he is of course linking his work and mission with the work and mission of the one he called Father—the great I am.
In his words, ‘the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh’ we learn why this way of being together around the bread and wine is so very important. It is because Christians believe that in Jesus Christ there has been opened a new possibility for being human. Whenever we gather around the bread and wine for Eucharist—and remember the word “Eucharist” simply means “thanksgiving”—we remember—anamnesis—Jesus as the one who was crucified and risen. We remember his death and his resurrection not like remembering a family event or a moment from history—but in this peculiar way—anamnesis—of actualization—of entering again fully into this mystery. Christians refer to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the paschal mystery. Because—and this is the important part—we remember not just Jesus who died, but Jesus who was raised up. The crucified and risen Christ is at the heart of this sacred meal—both crucified and risen at the same time. This of course confounds the rational mind but it speaks volumes to the spiritual heart. The one who we call to mind, who we remember, is the one who gave his flesh for the life of the world, the one who was betrayed by his friends, who suffered a painful death on the cross, and on the third day, God raised him up—and he returned to his friends bidding them peace and offering them forgiveness. In the resurrection God, in Christ, breaks the cycle of violence and opens to the human community the possibility of living into that resurrection life. Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it this way: “The resurrection of Jesus makes it impossible to take for granted that the world is nothing but a system of oppressors and victims, an endless cycle of reactive violence. We are free to understand ourselves and each other…as mutual gift not mutual threat. We can collaborate in the relations that the resurrection sets in motion, relations of forgiveness, equality and care.”[ii] What this anamnesis does, this actualization again of the paschal mystery, this receiving of Christ who is the bread of life, is to change us from being captive to the cycles of violence and revenge that are the way of the world and transform us into being part of the body of Christ, the forgiving victim who opens a new way of being human.
This is the gift of the Eucharist, the gift of God that expresses the good news that we can barely comprehend—a love beyond death, a breaking of the cycle of violence, an opening of a new way of being human. It is simply ours to receive. Let me tell you a story.[iii] A man was on a hunting expedition in Africa and left camp early by himself, hiking several miles into the jungle where he surprised and eventually bagged two wild turkeys. Buckling his catch to his belt, he headed back toward camp. At some point, however, he realized he was being followed. With his sense heightened by fear, he stopped, hands on his rifle and looked around. His fears were dispelled when he saw that he was being followed at a distance by a naked and obviously starved adolescent boy whose objective was food, not threat. The man stopped, unbuckled his belt, and letting the turkeys fall to the ground, backed off and gestured to the boy and the could come and take the birds. The boy ran up to the two birds but inexplicably refused to pick them up. He was, seemingly, still asking for something else. Perplexed, the man tried both by words and gestures to indicate to the boy that he could have the birds. Still the boy refused to pick them up. Finally in desperation, unable to express what he still wanted, the boy backed off several meters from the dead birds and stood with outstretched and open hands….waiting, waiting until the man came and placed the birds in his hands. He had, despite hunger, fear and intense need, refused to take the birds. He waited until they were given to him; he received them.
In the same way, it’s not because of anything we’ve done right or wrong in our lives, it’s not because we’ve earned it, or we deserve it, it is simply because it is God’s gift that we receive Christ the living bread, who gave his flesh for the life of the world. We receive it and are, I believe, changed by it into becoming life for the world—lives filled with grace so that as we practice forgiveness of others and of ourselves, we are part of a new community that seeks to break the cycles of violence and open a new way.
Anamnesis: do this, Jesus says, to remember me.
[i] Crockett, William R. Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation. New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1989. p. 21-28
[ii] in the introduction to James Alison’s Knowing Jesus London: SPCK Classics, 2012, viii
[iii] adapted from Ronald Rolheiser’s Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist New York: Doubleday Religion. p. 97
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