by Ellen Sims
Gospel reading: Mark 11: 1-11
“Remember me,” said Jesus at the end of his last meal with his followers. Of all the weeks in the Christian year, this week is when we especially remember Jesus’s last meal, last words, last breath.
But how do present-day Jesus followers remember a man we never actually knew? How do we remember a person we’ve met only through stories—some of which are contradictory, all of which are ancient, incomplete, and written as story, not history.
The truth is you and I cannot remember Jesus of Nazareth. Not in the way we remember our first grade teacher or Aunt Sally.
But for the Church of Jesus there is another kind of remembering. Our remembering is neither an intellectual feat nor an individual act.
I’d like to begin an exploration of the spiritual practice of remembering by telling you what I remember about my maternal grandfather. I’d like to. But I can’t. Because I never knew him. My mother’s father, John Bunyon Lee, died when my mother was seventeen. Yet all my life I’ve felt close to him—though he was killed in a farming accident while plowing his fields ten years before I was born. I account for my sensation of memory because of the stories my mother told about her father—no doubt imperfectly remembered and selectively retold by someone who lost her father when she was young enough to keep an idealized memory. I think my mother unconsciously and consciously passed along certain stories in certain ways to lead me to a well of deep love and teach me not only about my grandfather but also about life and faith.
This story of my grandfather is, of course, according to my mother. (Hear echoes of the Gospel phrases “according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John.) The Story According to My Mother featured a rough-hewn farmer, tender toward his children, who directed the singing at the First Baptist Church. His steady baritone would sometimes tremble when the beauty of a hymn, or the sight of his eight children packed into the family pew, or something—who knows what?—moved him. He would cry through the hymn, transported, unashamed. Mother didn’t comment on the memory—just left it brimming with possible meanings for my siblings and me.
According to Mother, my grandfather was her champion. For instance, Mother wanted to play basketball in high school. She was a natural athlete. But her mother objected to the scandalously short shorts the team wore. She never heard what her father said to sway her mother, but Mother believed he added a dose of common sense to the family’s pious practices. Mother became the co-captain of the team.
I wish my mother could still share memories of my grandfather. Sadly, she lost her memory and all touch with reality two years ago as Parkinson’s mangled her mind. The gift of memory has never been so precious to me now that the one who gave me birth has no memory of me. But many of her memories remain—in my heart as much as in my mind—and in the mind of God, where they will never be lost. You see, I believe remembering as a spiritual practice is communal. Our remembering of Jesus is not an individual experience and not an intellectual endeavor. Jesus is held in our collective memory. And that memory is deeply embedded and embodied.
Clinical psychologist Alan Dienstag spoke about a memory deeper than intellect on this week’s radio broadcast of On Being, hosted by Krista Tippit. Dr. Dienstag has worked extensively with Alzheimer’s patients and understands that some memories are more visceral than stored facts, events, and names. He talks about body memory, in which sensations like being out in the warm sunshine or hearing familiar song can elicit emotion from people with severe memory loss—even after rational memories evaporate. Many Alzheimer’s patients can recite the Lord’s Prayer after they’ve lost the ability to create a sentence on their own. My mother’s dementia robs her not only of normal communication but almost all interaction with the world—yet a familiar voice can still calm her. Some memories hold on tenaciously.
Dienstag tells the story of an Alzheimer’s patient who was visited regularly by his wife. Day after day she asked her husband if he knew who she was. He said he did not. He did not. But his wife kept asking. One day he told her, “I don’t know who you are. But I love you.”
The apostle Paul said it this way: Knowledge will pass away, but these things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest is love. The greatest and most enduring—is love.
In focusing this morning on remembering Jesus, I want to be clear that we’re talking today about the pre-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is in union with but different from the post-Easter Christ, the Christ of faith, our focus for next Sunday. Our adult discussion group spent more than a month of Sundays developing a good list of attributes of Jesus. But remembering Jesus as a collection of attributes can’t take us to into the fullness of the Christian story. So come back next Sunday as we turn to the post-Easter Christ.
Our 9:30 discussion group recently created a list of attributes from Bible stories and scriptures about Jesus. How is it that our group came up with descriptors of Jesus far different from the ones people are using to condemn LGBTQ folks? When the governor of Indiana says, “Jesus would never have welcomed a sinner into his workplace,” I realize how many Jesuses are out there. It’s a temptation for all of us to create Jesus in our own image and for our own purposes and self-justification.
As you probably know, scholars have debated for centuries about whether or not the real Jesus of Nazareth is recoverable in any historical sense. The Bible itself has variations in the stories about Jesus that change how we understand him. In today’s Gospel reading, for example, Jesus rides a colt into Jerusalem. But in Matthew’s gospel he rides both a donkey and a colt. In Mark’s version Jesus enters Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd, then goes straight to the temple apparently just to look around at everything. But in Matthew’s account—the version most people remember about this part of the story—Jesus enters the Temple and overturns the tables of the money changers. Do you see two different pictures of Jesus emerging from these two accounts? Do you see how that complicates our aims to follow Jesus? I mean, are Jesus followers to inspect the Temple or run people out of the Temple? And even if we find a way to choose between these two stories—how do we know the best way to emulate behavior that can’t be repeated today since the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE? The point that most people recognize in the four different Gospel versions of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his visit to the Temple—is to explain why Jesus ran afoul of the religious and political leaders.
Because of the multiplicity of Jesus stories within and beyond the Bible, we have work to do to reach back to the original Jesus. But the way to do so is neither to create a mishmashed composite sketch nor to choose one portrait over all others. Instead, we may have to read back and forth among the various Jesus stories with help from biblical scholars and with humility about our capacity for knowing THE Jesus Story. This is a way of “remembering” Jesus’s life in community. I’ll add another dimension to this process next week as we consider the ongoing life of Jesus the Christ and our own experiences of the enduring Christ. For now I stress that we need other Jesus followers to support us in a communal act of remembering him. A seminary professor once warned us, “You can get some squirrel-y ideas sitting on a branch all by yourself.”
Of course, we ritualize this act of remembering Jesus each Sunday, not simply by reading and interpreting a Jesus story— but by going so far as to re-enact a crucial Jesus story, the story of his last meal his followers. Thus the Jesus story is not just in our heads; it’s enacted by our bodies. This story is not just my memory; it’s a corporate memory.
The Iona community in Scotland understands Holy Communion in a way that underscores this sacrament of memory as both a communal act—and as an embodied act. John Philip Newell explains: “Our experiences of communion [in Iona] are glimpses into . . . original unity. They are a rediscovery of what we most truly are—one. . . , the remembering of a unity that is deep in the body of the universe. The best of our rituals and religious disciplines of communion reflect this. They do not create oneness. They help us remember our oneness. They do not make unity. They release our unity. They free us from the forgetfulness of thinking we are essentially separate. They liberate us from the delusions of isolated individuality. In our sacrament of communion in the Christian household, when we share one bread and one cup together, we recite Jesus’ words, ‘Do this to remember me.’ We do this to re-member, to bring back into relationship again what has been forgotten, to reawaken within ourselves the way of oneness, the truth of oneness, the life of oneness.”
Such is the meaning of the word re-member in the context of the Church. If the Church is Christ’s body, it is a broken body. But through communion we come together—the various members of Christ’s broken body—and we are re-membered. The members of the body that have been dismembered are re-membered. Remember me, Jesus said. I suspect he’s not commanding us to recall him so much as to reconnect to our oneness. He’s not so concerned that we remember facts about him; he’s urging us to come together as one body with all the dismembered parts reconnected. That is how we remember Jesus–through an embodied experience, through a communal act. This remembrance is the ongoing project of the Church.
I believe long after various stories of Jesus fade from human memory in the equivalent of a cultural Alzheimer’s fog, we will remember Jesus when we come together, across all differences, in love.
PRAYER: O God who holds all memories and futures in your mind, help us see our unity. Today’s story says Jesus is cheered by people who will soon turn against him, forgetting who he is. Let us remember.