October 16, 2016, Remember – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Every week, when we celebrate the Eucharist, I raise the chalice full of wine and I say this: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you, and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.” The Eucharist, which is the center, the heart of our worship together. Other denominations emphasize other parts of worship – for some churches, the sermon is the focus: to worship is to feed on the Word of God. For some churches, the music is the focus: worshiping is singing praises. And those things are part of our worship as well. But for us, because it was established by Jesus himself, and because it was the center of worship from the very beginning of the church, the Eucharist is the heart. And the Eucharist is an act of remembrance. And so, first of all, I want to think about what it means for us to remember the things we remember.
When we were in school, which was a long time ago for some of us, and not so long for others, remembering was just something that had to do with keeping facts in our head – and often, just until the test. How much do we really care now about remembering the name of Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, or how to conjugate an irregular French verb, or how to take a square root? But real remembrance – is having those things that we care about deeply, fixed in our mind. When I expect Carroll to remember our wedding day, which he always does, it isn’t that I think he will forget the fact of our marriage, or even that I want to be sure I get a nice present. When Carroll and I remember our wedding day, we call to mind that we pledged to love one another as long as we both lived, so that to remember our wedding is to remember that we live in that covenant of love today. We celebrate our anniversary every year in remembrance, not that we had one special day all those years ago, but that our lives were forever changed that day, and we give thanks – and incidentally, eucharist means giving thanks in Greek – we give thanks for the life and the love we shared yesterday, and share today, and will share tomorrow. That’s remembrance: holding on to what is true.
Jeremiah wrote: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
The new covenant we celebrate when we raise the cup of our Lord’s blood every week, is the new covenant that Jeremiah was talking about. Jeremiah was a prophet 2,500 years ago, in the days when the chosen people of God had become corrupt and unfaithful, in the years when the Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem was crushed and her people taken captive by the King of Babylon. That all happened in the time of the first covenant, the old covenant that God had made through Moses when he rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and established them as his own nation.
Friday night we watched the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” for probably the 10th time, if not more. It’s a wonderful movie, and part of what makes it so wonderful is the way it depicts the Jewish way of life, the way of life that has its origin in the old covenant God made with his people. You probably remember the song “Tradition!” where the hero, Tevye, sings the praises of Jewish life. “Our traditions tell us how to eat and how to wear our clothes, how to pray and how to work.” he says. The Law of Moses developed over the centuries into a unique and strong and beautiful culture that sets God’s chosen people apart from every other nation, even today. The writer of Psalm 119 wrote in praise of the covenant: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.”
The old covenant was a good thing. It was established in love; God says, “I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt.” “I was their husband,” he says. Through the covenant God accomplished what he set out to do, to rescue the people he had chosen from slavery in Egypt, and to bring them into a land where he established them as a new nation. But by the time God called Jeremiah, the limitations of the old covenant had been revealed, because it was clear that God’s people had utterly failed to keep their end of the covenant. And so God made this promise: “I will make a new covenant with them – not like the old covenant which they broke, though I was their husband.” Because the real failure of the old covenant was this: that it was not able to heal their unfaithfulness. The Law only had power to judge external actions; it had no power to transform the hearts of men, and the heart is where man’s real problem lies – all men, not just the nation of Israel, but the heart of every human being. Our heart.
Paul wrote to the Galatians: “If a law had been given that had the power to give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” But the law, the old covenant, Paul tells us, failed in the one essential thing: to heal what was broken in man by the power of sin. The law of the old covenant was only a guardian, until the new covenant came along, and the One came who would be our righteousness: who could save us from the curse of our sin by becoming sin for us on the cross, and who could share his divine life and holiness with us by transplanting his Spirit into our human hearts.
The new covenant was initiated when God the Son put on real flesh and blood and bone in the womb of a young woman, and was born into our humanity. Like the old covenant, the new covenant was born out of God’s love for us. Every act of God is an act of love. “God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave us his only Son…not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” Even though God’s chosen people broke faith with him, even though we break faith with him time and time again, he does not give up on us. He did not divorce his faithless wife; instead, in the new covenant he reveals himself as the bridegroom who is committed to present us, his bride, pure and spotless and without blemish. The new covenant was revealed in the works of Jesus’ ministry: when the followers of John the Baptist came to ask Jesus if he was really the One, Jesus said, “Go tell John what you see: the blind see, and the lame walk. The deaf can hear, the dead have been raised back to life, and the good news is being preached to the poor. Those are the defining works of the new covenant, healing and new life. And finally, the new covenant was sealed on the Cross, when Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.”
When we come together, we eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance that God pledged his human flesh and blood that we might surely be healed of our brokenness, the brokenness of our minds and bodies and hearts. We aren’t simply memorializing a past event. We’re proclaiming our continual assurance that our God is still doing his work of healing, and that he “will never leave us or forsake us.”
The new covenant is not like the old covenant in this essential thing: that it goes to the root and cause of the problem of mankind, which is that we have all of us become separated from God, who is our true home, and on our own none of us had the power to make things right again. Jesus shed his blood to cleanse us from our guilt and our shame, but he did more than that: he set his Spirit within us to begin a work of healing and transformation and reconciliation. Without the healing power of the new covenant we would have been caught forever in a cycle of failure and repentance, throwing ourselves on the mercy of God day after day, only to fail all over again.
Every time we eat the bread and drink the wine of the Eucharist we remind ourselves and one another that not only are we forgiven of all that is past – and that in itself is something huge to celebrate – but that by the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ we are being healed day by day of the selfishness and meanness and unfaithfulness that looms so impossibly large over every one of us. As our God promised through Jeremiah, he has put his law of love in our hearts, so that we can all know him, from the greatest to the very least of us.
When we offer the elements of bread and wine today – plain old bread and plain old wine – we ask in all confidence that God will do once again the miraculous sign of the covenant when we pray: “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.” And then we pray, in all confidence, that God will continue to perform the miraculous work of the new covenant in us, plain old human beings that we are, and bring it to completion. We pray: “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”
Remember today that our God has promised to be with us always. Remember, in the sign of the new covenant, that he is with us in the giving of his own body and blood; that he is here in the bread and the wine that we can touch and smell and see and taste, that we can hold in our hands, a tangible sign of new life to us – no longer the continual hopeless striving day after day of the old covenant, trying to be good on our own strength and failing time after time, but the sure hope of healing and transformation, the promise of becoming whole and fully ourselves at last, as we put ourselves into his hands, yesterday and today and forever.