We might not realize it, but God, through the gift of memory, has blessed our lives in a mighty way. Now humans share the capacity for memory with other creatures of this earth. But human memory is very different from the memory given to other earthly creatures because our God-given capacity for memory allows us to assign meaning, emotion, and significance to what we remember. In our remembering, we take all of that meaning, emotion, and significance and represent it by a symbol.
A symbol allows us the ability to recall more than what the symbol appears to be. A symbol is always physical, but it conveys a depth of meaning that cannot be expressed simply by how it appears. I know at this point I am sounding like the old joke about pastors. “Pastors are invisible six days a week and incomprehensible on the seventh.” I don’t mean to be hard to understand. It is important that we get the point about memory and symbols. When we see a physical symbol, we can recall an expansive meaning that that symbol represents.
Let me give you an example. Not that many years ago, on a beautiful Tuesday morning, our nation was attacked by terrorists using highjacked aircraft. Sometime during the rescue and recovery operations, New York City firefighters displayed an American flag rising about the rubble. The desire to display American flags, a physical symbol, across the country became virtually insatiable. Flag makers could not meet the demand. Why? Because people wanted, needed, to remember. We had been shaken to our core and we needed to remember. We needed to remember the safety, security, liberty, freedom, power, strength, courage, compassion, and promise that the flag represented. The flag itself does not directly offer any of those cherished and desired emotions. The flag was a symbol of something so much larger than its physical self. This is what symbols do for us. When we see a physical symbol, we can recall an expansive meaning that that symbol represents. This is a trait of memory uniquely given to us by God.
Why was it important for God to give us the capacity to see what is physical and recall the meaning that those physical things represent? I think the answer lays in the truth that we, in our human capacity, cannot fully and completely comprehend an infinite God. The Old Testament Book of Job contains a conversation between God and Job in which for several chapters, God quizzed Job about Job’s understanding of God and God’s ways. God asks: 4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? 6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—7 while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? 8 “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, 9 when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, 10 when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, 11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?”(Job 38:4-11) Job had no answers.
Job endured a few chapters of God’s questions and then finally replied, “2 I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:1-3). The totality of God cannot be fully and completely understood and, therefore, God refers Job to certain physical things as a symbol of God’s power. But…There is always a but isn’t there? But the risk with physical symbols is that we will love the symbol more than we love what that symbol represents. God knows we have that tendency and so God forbid that we would make any idols and worship them. So, we are to see physical things as symbols but not worship them. The symbol must not rise higher or equal to what it represents, otherwise that it has become an idol.
With that bit of background on memory, making meaning from memory, symbols, and idols, I think we are ready to explore our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of Matthew. We are looking today at Matthew, Chapter 26, verses 17 through 28.
We begin with verses 17 through 19. “17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ 18 He replied, ‘Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’’ 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover (Matthew 26:17-19). As we begin looking at this passage, we immediately encounter a religious symbol, the Passover.
The Passover to Jesus and the Jews of that time was a physical thing that served as a vehicle to the greater spiritual truth. The Passover contained many symbols of an emotional quality for the Jewish people. The Passover meal included a roasted lamb shank bone as a reminder of the Hebrews who placed lambs’ blood on the doors of their homes so that God would pass over their homes when death came to the first born in Egypt. The unleavened bread used in the meal was a symbol of the haste with which the Hebrews had to leave Egypt upon God’s command. The bitter herbs of the meal eaten in the Passover meal reminded the Jewish people of the embittered lives they lived as slaves under the Egyptians. All these symbols taken together reminded the Jews that they had been chosen by God to be his people and to become a light unto the rest of the world. And so, we begin this scene with the Passover, a comforting moment of gathering the Jewish people together to remember the provision of God and the safety, security, liberty, freedom, power, strength, courage, compassion, and promise offered by God to them.
But the comforting mood of that gathering was about to change drastically. Matthew wrote, “20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?’ 23 Jesus replied, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.’ 25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?’ Jesus answered, ‘You have said so’” (Matthew 26:20-25).
“Betrayal” is an emotionally powerful word conveying the awful, ugly, and uncomfortable breach of trust of someone close. Betrayal is singular and complete. Betrayal whether in one thing or many things is betrayal through and through. Jesus’ words stung.
The disciples were alarmed and alert because they understood what that word “betray” symbolized. Jesus had told them on three separate occasions that betrayal would mean he would “will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” (Matthew 20:18b-19).
One by one the disciples said to Jesus, “Surely it is not I?” The disciples were frightened that they might fail Jesus and cause him harm. The disciples’ question reveals that within faithful people Godly impulses and foolish impulses exists within us. Side-by-side within us rests the capacity for faithfulness and betrayal.
It must have seemed to the disciples that the emotive qualities of the Passover with its safety, security, liberty, freedom, power, strength, courage, compassion, and promise were completely gone. The meal that was supposed to bring comfort had become exceptionally bitter. We know this to be true from our own life experiences. If you have ever suffered betrayal, you can attest that betrayal is a bitter and gut-wrenching experience. For the disciples, the concept and symbolism of the Passover meal had ended.
Jesus knew that his announcement of betrayal ended the symbolism of the Passover meal. Jesus said what it said at the time he said it because Jesus wanted to create a new symbolic meal to replace the old one. Matthew recorded for us, “26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ 27 Then he [Jesus] took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them [the disciples], saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:26-28).
Jesus took two elements; bread that resembles the firmness of his body and wine that resembles the flowiness of blood. The bread was a symbol of his body and the wine a symbol of his blood. The bread Jesus said was given that his disciples should eat of it. His blood was given to his disciples that they should drink of it. The essence of Jesus life, his body and blood were to be consumed. Why did Jesus want his disciples to see the bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood to be consumed? Jesus wanted his disciples to remember.
What is it that they and now we were to remember? There are three things I think we should take see from these symbols of bread and wine.
First, is that Jesus is the savior of the world. Jesus’ teachings and his miracles were inspirational and captivating and give the wisdom and encouragement needed to move in the direction of God. But Jesus’ teachings and miracles are not enough because his disciples remain an odd mixture of Godly impulses and foolish impulses. Jesus disciples sin and in the economy of God, sin is death. This is why Jesus needed to go to the cross. Jesus paid the price for sin and because Jesus who was sinless went to the cross, he can extend to forgiveness to his disciples for their, our, foolish impulses. We can remember that all our foolish impulses of sin are covered by Jesus.
Second, Jesus offers forgiveness to all but does not forgive everyone. Jesus work on the cross was sufficient to cover all the sins of the world but Jesus said his blood was given for the forgiveness of many but not all. The forgiveness of Jesus, the pardon offered by Jesus, is given freely only to those who receive him. Judas for example stood condemned because he would not receive Christ. Judas’ sins were not forgiven. We can remember that if we believe and accept Jesus as our savior, then we are forgiven, completely.
Third, Jesus is the center of his disciples’ life. Jesus gave this meal amid the discussion of his betrayal and his death. Shortly after this meal, the disciples would desert him, and Peter would deny him. Chaos, confusion, and conflict consumed the disciples. Yet, amid the darkness of the moment, the meal, the bread and the wine, stood as a bright light reminder of the safety, security, liberty, freedom, power, strength, courage, compassion, and promise Jesus continued to offer. Our lives can become confusing and chaotic. Life can be noisy, and we can become disheartened. The voices of some can drown out the still small and reassuring voice of God. Yet, amid our darkness, we can come back to the meal, the bread and the cup, and experience it as the fullness of Christ. We can take part of the meal in this complex world and remember the simplicity that Jesus offers us.
In just a few moments, we will come to the Lord’s Table and remember. We will remember that Jesus is not just the Savior of the world, Jesus is your savior and my savior, because we have accepted him. We will remember that in Jesus our lives are made simpler because he leads us to act in right ways and to love and do what is good and pleasing to God. We will remember through the powerful symbols of the bread and the cup. Amen and Amen.