Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

I want to invite you this morning to consider two very different ways of thinking about ‘remembering’. We all spend time remembering, especially when two old friends get together for a drink, a family gathers for a special celebration, or when people gather after a funeral service. I suggest that there is a positive and a negative to remembering.

The negative is a backward-looking sort of remembering. This is the remembering that holds on to past wrongs, real or perceived; that dwells in an unhealthy manner on the past; that keeps alive grudges, won’t forgive, can’t move on. Immigrants to a new country, and I can speak as one of them, are sometimes referred to as “when-we’s”. Their conversation quickly becomes boring because it is peppered with sentences beginning with the words, “When we…” When we lived in such and such a country or city; when we were at school …; when we were young we never, or always… While there is a place for this sort of remembering it becomes tedious after a while, and can become negative and obstructive – a constant harping back to the ‘good old days’. We all do it occasionally, this looking back with longing for the time of a previous prime minister, premier, mayor, school principal, bishop or even dean.

It’s this sort of negative remembering that Isaiah’s words in chapter 43 touch on. “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way for the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior.” Look back, by all means, says the Lord, remember what God has done in the past – how Moses led you through the Red Sea, clearing the water with his staff, rescuing you from the pursuing army with its chariots. But don’t stay in the past. Why not? Because something much greater is about to happen, and you need to have your ears and eyes open, your wits about you, or you may miss it. This exciting passage that is read as our first reading today is written to the Exiles from Jerusalem who have spent forty long years in Babylon. They have kept themselves alive by recalling the past glories of their kings, their cities, the God. They are ‘when-we’s’. But not anymore, says the Lord. If you think that was great, just wait till you see what I am about to do next. It’s an exciting reading, aimed to stir the people into action, to get off their butts and get on with living.

It’s an odd reading to have on Passion Sunday, less than two weeks out from Good Friday and a day when the idea is to focus on the Cross. But there it is. If you think the reading from Isaiah is odd, what do you make of the psalm choice? Nothing lugubrious about that! Psalm 126 is one of the psalms collectively known as Psalms of Ascent, and thought to have been composed for pilgrims to sing as the climbed the hill to the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a psalm of praise to God; God who has restored his people to life. These are people who are ready to say to anyone – our God reigns, look at the great things God has done. No wonder there is rejoicing. How can it be otherwise? These are people no longer locked in the past, heads turned looking over their shoulders. These are people excited, forward-looking, on the move, people with a future. After all, they are literally climbing a mountain.

St Paul knew very well his past, and was not shy about rehearsing it when it suited. A man with an impeccable pedigree, he had every reason to boast – few could find fault with someone whose life had followed the Law of God quite so assiduously, circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews … a Pharisee. He had it all. And yet – he regarded it all as loss because of Christ. Something changed to make him stop looking back, stop rehearsing his family tree and how great his ancestors were, which ship they came out on, which school he was sent to, how much he had done, achieved in his life time, which important person he had lunch with last week!!! No – his new knowledge of Jesus Christ, his fresh understanding of God’s dealings with people, especially the love for the world shown by God in Christ on the Cross – all the past faded into insignificance as Paul focused his life on Christ. Hymn-writer Christopher Idle captured it well when he wrote:

Eternal light, shine in my heart;
eternal hope, lift up my eyes;
eternal power, be my support;
eternal wisdom, make me wise.

Eternal life, raise me from death;
eternal brightness, make me see;
eternal Spirit, give me breath;
eternal Saviour, come to me.

In his letter to the Philippians St Paul expresses his understanding of the new things that God has done in Christ. Paul longs to share fully with Christ in the resurrection, the righteousness of God that invites us into God’s presence. Paul was prepared to suffer all manner of hardships (he is as eloquent in listing his sufferings as he is in listing his pedigree – you can look up the references for yourselves) if only he could share the life of grace offered by Christ on the Cross. Paul understood too that this grace, this wonderful and amazing gift of God, this gift of new life, of eternal life, was on offer to all people, and that he, Paul, as one who had caught a glimpse of what was on offer, had an obligation to share it. And he did. Paul devoted the rest of his life to travelling, preaching, teaching, cajoling, encouraging the early church – the first people to be called Christians, the people of Philippi, of Corinth and Ephesus.

What then can we say about today’s Gospel reading, one of the most poignant stories in the whole of the Gospel? If we accept the work of New Testament scholars we will acknowledge that the Gospel of John was written considerably later than the letters of Paul. The Gospel is commonly thought to be the work of the old man John, who had had many years to reflect on and remember the extraordinary experience he had as a young man while one of the disciples of Jesus. I think John knew Mary, Martha and Lazarus very well; he must have done to write as he does. In today’s few verses he takes his memories and shapes them into a different mould. The placing of the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus is quite intentional in the Gospel. Let’s think about it for a moment.

The timing is crucial – six days before the Passover, the great Jewish celebrating and time of remembering, of rehearsing and teaching the ancient story of God’s salvation. Jesus is at home, as much as he ever was, among people he loved and trusted. This is an intimate dinner party with some of his closest friends. Notice who they are and what they are doing. Martha, who in another context had asked Jesus to chastise her sister because she, Martha, was having to do all the work, gladly takes on the role of servant; she is the cook, the one who prepares and serves the meal. Lazarus is there. Just a few verses earlier in the Gospel we were embroiled in his story – how, despite the expected stench surrounding his corpse, he had been called out of the tomb. Here he is now, full of new life, enjoying Jesus’s company over a meal. Mary kneels at the feet of Jesus. She has done that before. When she met Jesus at her brother’s tomb she knelt at his feet. Instead of the expected stench of death, as on the previous occasion, this time there is the sweet scent of perfume. She has lavished the very best she has on the one she loves more than anyone else in the world. For this action she is known and remembered and honoured to this day.

Could these three people, these three siblings who lived at Bethany, could they, in the mind of the old disciple whom Jesus loved, stand for the church of God? Could they be an intentional reminder, a remembering, of the new life offered to all, this new thing that God promised way back in the time of Isaiah? Martha – willingly taking on the role of a servant, in the Gospel foreshadowing what Jesus would say to his disciples following the foot-washing incident. Lazarus, once dead but now raised to life – an example of the life of every person baptised into Christ. Mary, on her knees washing the feet of her beloved Lord and Master, giving all she has in an act of love, foreshadowing Jesus’s own action in taking a towel and basin and washing the feet of his disciples – even of Peter who would shortly deny him, and Judas, thief and betrayer.Part of the prayer prayed over the bread and wine at communion is known as the anamnesis. It’s a Greek word capturing something of the Jewish understanding of ‘remembering’. To a Jew, remembering means far more than simply looking back to the past. It means building on the past as gift for the future.

We might think of the negative sort of remembering as dis-membering; the constant pouring over the minute details of the past that actually leaves things in disarray. This is not anamnesis. Anamnesis is the bringing together of the threads from the past – re-membering, which makes for a meaningful present and thrusts us into the future. Will that transform our understanding of the Eucharist?

Jesus took bread and said, “Take, eat. This is my body. Do this in remembrance – to re-member – me.”

After supper he took the cup, and said, “Drink from this all of you … in remembrance – to re-member – me.”

Food for thought, and then action!