April 1, 2021
John 13:1-7, 13b-35
Along one wall of our living room, Maggie and I have put up pictures of our extended family. It helps us remember them. There’s a picture of my grandfather in his World War II army uniform. There’s a picture of Maggie’s parents on one of their first dates. We even have a picture of my great-grandfather meeting FDR. Those pictures help us remember who we are and where we come from.
It’s a natural human instinct. Think about Washington, D.C., America’s living room. You can’t turn a corner in D.C. without running into a memorial of some kind or another. Lincoln. Washington. Jefferson. King. We put up these monuments in our living rooms to help us remember who we are and where we come from.
But we also know, deep in our bones, that these things won’t last forever. Pictures fade. Monuments rise and fall. Statues crumble. In his great poem, “Ozymandias,” the poet Percy Shelley writes of a shattered sculpture standing alone in the desert wastes.
“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The irony is not lost on us. The one who thinks they are King of Kings is subject to the shifting sands of time like the rest of us. Though they wish to impose their memory upon us with stone, even they are helpless to the fate of forgetfulness. Tell us, Ozymandias, where are your mighty works now? For not even your memorial, not even the monument to yourself, has lasted. As the old hymn says, “though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust” (“All my hope on God is founded,” Hymnal 1982, 665).
This impermanence of things will only accelerate in our digital culture. Come to think of it, I don’t have any physical pictures of my best friends. I don’t have any physical letters that I have sent or received; no tangible reminders of friendship or of love. It’s all in the cloud, whatever that it is. “boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Yet here we are, gathered tonight to remember one man. And not just one man, one moment in one man’s life two thousand years ago that took place on the other side of the globe. Think of it: there is no monument, no memorial, no framed picture to remember that fateful meal on the night before he died. There are no commemorative plaques marking the room in which Jesus gathered with his disciples. We do not have the dishes Jesus used; we do not have the towel he wrapped around his waist; we do not have the pitcher of water he poured over the feet of his friends. Those have all been lost to time. And yet somehow, this memory lives on.
The memory of Jesus lives on because that memory of that night is not set in stone. Rather, that memory lives on every time we take, bless, break, and give in remembrance of him. Christians have gathered in every conceivable place and in every conceivable time to celebrate this simple meal in memory of our Lord Jesus. It is this meal’s flexibility that has allowed it to withstand the test of the time. Statues fall to dust, pictures fade, monuments crumble. Like Ozymandias, in trying to make things permanent we have actually made them fragile. But this meal’s very malleability is what sustains it. By being so very flexible, the Holy Eucharist has survived in every time and on every continent. This meal is permanent simply because we share it. It reminds us of who we are and where we come from; for when we gather for this bread and wine we are drawn back in memory to that Upper Room. In this meal, we remember the sorrow, the wonder, and most of all the love of that night. Jesus needs no imposing statue of marble. Jesus needs no framed picture or memorial for us to remember him. This meal will suffice. (see, The Shape of the Liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix.)
And yet, we cannot stop there. This meal is not mere memory. It has to be more. What separates this meal from all other monuments is that this meal lives. Through this bread and wine the Spirit enlivens, quickens our faith in the Lord Jesus. This meal is not a mere memorial, a statue to some dead past. No, this sacrament brings our faith to life. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it, this sacrament is not only a badge or a token of what we believe. This sacrament is an effectual sign of grace, this meal is God’s good will towards us, and through this meal God works invisibly in us (paraphrase of Article XXV, Book of Common Prayer, 872). Stone, scultpure, or picture might stir our memories, but they cannot give life like bread and wine.
This gets to the very root of what it means to be human. Think of it – you could live a perfectly normal, fruitful life without monuments or pictures. Humans could never have carved a single statue or left a single plaque and been just fine. But we must have food. Little children, when they are playing with their imaginations, don’t build memorials or statues to the past. But little children do play make believe with food. They have tea parties for stuffed animals and make picnics with imaginary sandwiches. God created us in this way – to need sustenance by food. So it should be no surprise that we are sustained by faith with food (see Systematic Theology, Volume 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, Kate Sonderegger, 399). Our very souls long for this holy food because we were created to depend on God.
And so the memory lives on. We gather week by week, month by month, Maundy Thursday by Maundy Thursday to share this meal. A sculptor crafts a statue once and leaves it to the fate of time. Eventually, they all become “colossal Wrecks.” Not so here – the memory of Jesus lives through the ages because the Spirit draws us together for this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. With every broken bread, with every shared meal, with every moment of giving and receiving the Lord Jesus is made known to us. God will keep alive the memory of those saving acts in God’s living room. And of course, God’s living room is the human heart.