Remembering: Part One

Remembering is an essential part of the Jewish faith. But such remembering is not just a matter of recalling something in the past. To remember is also to reexperience. The past becomes present in such a way as to instruct, inspire, warn, and transform. When the Hebrew Scriptures call upon Jews to remember the liberation brought about by Yahweh through the exodus, they are not asking people of faith simply to recall the event as something which happened in the distant past. Those passages do not say “our ancestors were slaves in Egypt.” They state, “We were slaves in Egypt.” The past becomes so real in the worship and memory of Israel that Jews centuries after Moses and the exodus reexperience that act of liberation.  

Jesus and his Jewish followers were very familiar with this kind of remembering. At the Lord’s Table in Christian worship, we hear those familiar words from Jesus as he breaks bread and passes the cup: “Do this in remembrance of me.” As we remember, we take our places at that two-thousand-year-old meal. We are there joining those original disciples and all the followers of Jesus over the past two millennia. But what are we to remember? Too often the focus is on Jesus’ death. But Jesus did not say, “Do this in remembrance of my death.” He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We are to remember the totality of his being on this earth: his life, his teachings, his deeds of healing, his courageous acts of truth-telling, his embrace of the disenfranchised and rejected, his wrongful condemnation, his death, and his resurrection. Invariably, truncated theology occurs when we forget some aspect of his life and witness on this earth. His death makes no sense without some appreciation and understanding of his life. Traditions which overly focus on his death as a means to salvation conveniently overlook his teachings and radical call to discipleship. Such a selective memory allows for many Evangelical Christians to relish “being washed in the blood of the Lamb” while forgetting Jesus’ own focus on loving one’s enemy, having compassion on the vulnerable, and doing unto others (all others regardless of race, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) as you would have them do unto you. Such a skewed focus allowed white Christians in the past to praise Jesus during Sunday morning services and lynch Blacks on Sunday afternoons without ever questioning how despicable their actions were. If all that matters is that you are “saved by the blood of the Lamb,” it doesn’t matter how much other blood you shed through your bigotry and hatred. 

Those who focus only on Jesus’ life and teachings while ignoring his death never come to appreciate the cost of his faithfulness to the way and will of God.

Those who focus only on Jesus’ life and teachings while ignoring his death never come to appreciate the cost of his faithfulness to the way and will of God. Jesus was more than just a good teacher and miraculous healer. He was a revolutionary prophet whose witness threatened the foundations of the status quo of his world. His death reveals the cost of such devotion. (It also reveals the depths of God’s compassion and solidarity with the very world which sought his death.) As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Jesus is as much the example of faith as he is the object of faith. In fact, he can never authentically be the object of our faith until he becomes the example we embrace in our own lives. There is no faith without discipleship, and the discipleship to which Jesus calls us is as revolutionary and dangerous as the path he chose in his own life. His crucifixion was the result of that choice of faithfulness to God, solidarity with the “least of these” in this world, and his love of even those who killed him. This Jesus can never be just the guru so many sophisticates want in our day. 

And those who triumphantly focus on the resurrection totally misunderstand the vital link between the crucifixion of Jesus and God’s raising him from the dead. We can never get to Easter without first going through Good Friday. There is no resurrection without crucifixion. Resurrection in the Jewish faith was all about restoring justice. Because the early church understood Jesus to be God’s way of entering history, embracing creation from the inside out, and experiencing comprehensive solidarity with all of humanity and the created order, it interpreted Jesus’ resurrection as “the first fruits” of God’s intention to bring justice, liberation, and healing to this world God so loves. This God whose “eye is even on the sparrow” can be trusted to bring all of creation home. But this homecoming is possible only because of God’s costly solidarity with every part of creation. God in Christ enters our suffering, oppression, sin, and death and takes it all into the divine self with the intention of healing everything and everyone. The facile and shallow understanding many Christians have of resurrection leads to a triumphant misunderstanding of the depths of the Christian faith. Such a misunderstanding has led to what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” which is no real grace at all.  

We are called to remember—to reexperience in the depths of our hearts and lives all of the Christ event–his life, death, and resurrection in such a way that they become a part of our story. Or better yet, until we become a part of his story. But is this all the remembering we are called to do as followers of Jesus and children of God? Stay tuned for Part Two of “Remembering.”

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