The Eucharist: Commemoration or Communion

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Why do we read the Bible? What are we expecting from reading it? This past week, reading a book about Biblical interpretation, two options were proposed about what we may be looking for when we read Scripture – the options being that we may either read the Bible to know about God or we may read it to know God. Reading this seemingly simple dichotomy of possibilities has led me to reflect on my own Bible reading; so as not to be alone in this, I’m now going to pause for a moment to let you ponder the same question – when you read the Bible do you do so to know about God or to know God? In fact, let me expand on the question – do you come to church to know about God or to know God?

We have something of a problem in English when we pose such a question for the single word ‘know’ in the question has two distinct meanings. In many other languages these two senses of ‘to know’ are represented by two distinct words – for example, in Spanish they use conocer and saber, where the former implies ‘knowing’ someone while the latter is about ‘knowing about’ someone or something. Our singular word for ‘know’ in English therefore imposes some restriction when we read Scripture.

Using this bifocal lens of two senses of knowing, therefore, let us look for a moment at our Bible readings this morning.

First let me summarise them. Our reading from 2 Kings 5 told us about the story of Naaman the Aramean commander who suffered from leprosy. The King of Israel received the summons to cure him of the disease; Elisha offered to undertake the assignment but did so by simply issuing a message of instruction which was passed on to the Aramean – ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ [v10]. Naaman was seriously offended at the seeming dismissive missive and was ready to storm off home until his servants said:

Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’? [v13]

It was clear that Naaman had known enough about the capacity of divine power for him to have listened in the first place to the advice of his wife’s servant that he should send for the prophet Elisha. What is also clear is that his initial perceived knowledge of the power of the divine was such that he expected Elisha dramatically to:

Come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord and wave his hand over the spot. [v11]

For that was what he knew about God, that God required respectful spectacle if he were to respond to requests to act. But Elisha did not satisfy his expectation, instead he sought to upend what Naaman thought he knew about God.

While Naaman didn’t understand this, his servants did and so they sought to enlighten him. So it was that Naaman put aside his knowledge about God and thus, as a result, came to know the real God:

So Naaman went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God (and) his flesh was restored. [v14]

Our reading from 1 Corinthians 9 used the metaphor of a race with Paul having invited his listeners to:

Run in such a way that you may win it. [v24]

In this key line in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he had pointed out an alternative way of running a race but rejected it. He had warned against running ‘aimlessly’, punching the air dramatically; rather he encouraged his listeners to run in such a way ‘that (they) might win it’ for then they might better know God.

From his epistles, it is clear that Paul knew the difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing about’. Later in the same letter as our reading this morning, Paul would indicate that he knew he could not know everything about God – listen to 13:12:

Now I know only in part; then I will know fully. [13:12]

Here he was clearly referring to knowing about. But that was not to say that Paul didn’t feel he could know God even if he didn’t know everything about him. Listen to what he wrote to the Ephesians:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him. [Eph 1:17]

Finally, our Gospel reading from Mark related the beautiful miracle of a leper being healed, a story well worth thinking about, but it is to this verse I wish to draw attention this morning:

See that you say nothing to anyone; but go show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them. [v44]

We know the healed leper didn’t obey, immediately going out and ‘proclaim(ing) freely’ what Jesus had done for him. But why did Jesus not want the healed man to proclaim freely? I believe it was because in this episode we find the two senses of knowing. By his healing, the former leper had come personally to know Jesus in a way that only such a healed person could; whereas his proclaiming this fact to others would only enable them to know about Jesus by report. Jesus wanted each person to come to know him by their own deep personal encounters not by report.

I am inclined to this interpretation given the way this same episode was related in another gospel, in Luke. In that gospel, Jesus told the healed person to go to the synagogue as a testimony to his healing [5:14] – in other words to seal his new knowing of God in a place of worship. [A similar instruction also appeared in Matthew’s relating of the episode – Matthew 8:4]

I am suggesting that Jesus was wanting the healed man to treat his new found knowledge of God sacramentally. That knowing about God is not sufficient was highlighted by another episode of healing related in Luke’s gospel [4:41]. Listen to this verse about that episode:

Demons also came out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But Jesus rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah.

In other words, the demons knew about Jesus and God, but because they did not know him sacramentally, Jesus did not permit them to proclaim their knowledge.

As we each reflect on the question of whether we came to church to know about God or to know God, let me introduce another solitary English word which has two concepts buried within it – the word ‘time’.

Last Sunday evening my radio guest was Jonathan Jackson; we talked about his book The Mystery of Art: Becoming an Artist in the Image of God. In this book, he treats with two concepts of time – Chronos and Kairos. Chronos time deals with the time that passes, like on a clock ticking; while Kairos time refers to the moment of now and, in spiritual terms, can be considered the touch point of eternity with our time-bound world. Both Greek words are used in the Bible with the same English-problem that they translate as the one word ‘time’ and so we lose the special significance of when Kairos was used in the ancient Greek instead of Chronos. Let me give one example, in Romans 5:6 we read:

At the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

The Greek word for time in this line is Kairos, not Chronos. By using Kairos, we get an eternal ‘nowness’ in the meaning rather than an historical sense of ‘at that time’, way back in about 33 AD. To read the sense of time in the Chronos sense would enable us to know historically about God through Jesus’s resurrection; but to read about it in the Kairos sense invites us to know God through the resurrection of Jesus in our own lives.

We are about to come to the Eucharist when we will hear the words of Christ:

Do this in remembrance of me.

The invitation sounds historical – for we remember things that have happened; and if we treat it that way we will be about to have a commemorative event as we take communion. But, there is an alternative way to approach the word ‘remembrance’ – Dean Frank has frequently encouraged us to consider the word as being a re-membering, bringing back together the members of the body of Christ. Such an approach to remembrance wisely breaks free from the historical act of remembering for it draws on the original source of the word ‘member’ – ‘to be mindful of’. At the Last Supper, Jesus asked his disciples to forget about historical remembering, the annual retelling of knowing what God had done for his people and replacing it with a mindfulness about him, the Son of God. At that Paschal table, all the disciples knew about God from the Torah and tradition; now the Son of God was telling them to know God in a Kairos way. In Matthew 3:2 we read about what happened at the time of Jesus’ baptism:

The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

Now years later, on the night of the Last Supper, the Kingdom of Heaven came near all those present. But Jesus’ instruction to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ was addressed not just to those disciples that night but to all of us through time. Understanding the Kairos meeting of eternity with our own now, we will always have the opportunity to know God through Jesus, not just know about him. We will shortly hear these words:

Therefore we do as our Saviour has commanded proclaiming his offering of himself made once for all upon the cross, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension … we celebrate, with this bread and this cup, his one perfect and sufficient sacrifice …

[At the 8am service: And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this Holy Communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction.]


Renew us by your Holy Spirit, unite us in the body of your Son, and bring us with all your people into the joy of your eternal kingdom.

[At the 8am service: We beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.]

Those words don’t really mean anything if the act of communion simply remembers an historical event; their power comes from their invitation for us to go beyond knowing about what happened with the disciples that night to knowing Jesus in our own present, in our own lives – a sacramental act of union through communion.

This morning, will we come to the Eucharist to know God through the Son, sacramentally to be at that divine table with Jesus?