What Does It Mean to Remember Jesus in the Lord's Supper?
Evangelical churches typically recite these words when taking communion—or the Lord's Supper: "Do this in remembrance of me." Whether your theology of communion leans toward the Calvinistic "spiritual presence" or Zwingli's memorial view, or you find yourself floating back and forth between the two, I would guess we all desire a heightened sense of what God holds out to us in these dynamic symbols.
In 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 (see also Luke 22:17-20) Paul recounts the instructions Jesus gave the disciples when inaugurating the new-covenant meal. Jesus says as we grind the broken bread (his body) in our teeth and as the bitter taste of the wine (his blood) lingers on our throats, we remember Christ's death.
More Than Recalling
So what does it mean to remember? Does it simply suggest we shouldn't let thoughts slip out of your mind? Does it mean we reminisce on the sufferings of Jesus so I feel really thankful or really awful? For many Christians, to remember is an ambiguous mental activity. But in the Bible, a call to remember—especially when tied to a covenant sign or ceremony—is a vibrant, powerful, and participatory concept where we recalibrate our lives according to what's being remembered. According to Herman Ridderbos in his outline of Paul's theology, "It is not merely a subjective recalling to mind, but an active manifestation of the continuing and actual significance of the death of Christ."
Michael Horton layers our understanding of "remembrance" with the Jewish context. "In our Western (Greek) intellectual heritage, 'remembering' means 'recollecting': recalling to mind something that is no longer a present reality. Nothing could be further from a Jewish conception. For example, in the Jewish liturgy, 'remembering' means participating here and now in certain defining events in the past and also in the future."
Here are two brief examples where the Old Testament "remembers" in an active way of bringing past realities into present-day living.
After the flood, God tells Noah the rainbow is the covenant sign that he will not cover the whole earth in judgment with water again. Each time the sign of the rainbow appears the covenant is remembered. "When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. God said to Noah, 'This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth'" (Gen. 9:16-17). The covenantal sign of the rainbow reassures us of God's promises that still apply today.
The preeminent picture of redemption in the Old Testament is the exodus of Israel from Egypt, memorialized in the Passover meal. Every year the Israelites would again participate in this meal to remember who—or whose—they were. It's not dry history to be learned but dynamic history to be lived. They participate in the meal because they are partakers in the reality of this redemption as Israelites. "This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statue forever, you shall keep it as a feast" (Exodus 12:14).
The Puritan John Flavel distinguished between two types of remembering. The first is speculative and transient, and the second is affectionate and permanent. "A speculative remembrance is only to call to mind the history of such a person and his sufferings: that Christ was once put to death in the flesh. An affectionate remembrance is when we so call Christ and his death to our minds as to feel the powerful impressions thereof upon our hearts."
When the Lord's Supper is served believers experience an affectionate remembrance because the gospel is recalled and reapplied. We remember the grace purchased at Christ's death is the same grace we need when we come to the table.
Even as a new husband I know the importance of remembering my wedding anniversary. It wouldn't quite cut it if on that day I did nothing special for my wife and only mentally acknowledged our anniversary. She wouldn't say, "How thoughtful! I'm glad you didn't forget." You don't remember your anniversary by stating the facts. She would rightly expect that the concept of remembering our anniversary involves a layer of activity, such as me writing a note or taking her on a date. We remember our covenantal promise as I pursue, cherish, and love her afresh like I vowed on our wedding day.
One of the things encouraging me is the current resurgence of understanding the ongoing application of the gospel. Christians today regularly hear that the gospel is believed once for salvation but is reapplied daily. The gospel rhythm isn't one-and-done but rinse and repeat. This growing awareness of what it means "to preach the gospel to ourselves daily" or to "apply the gospel" might give us some insight as to how we look to Christ and again receive his grace as we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord's Supper.
Every time we take communion the gospel is proclaimed, and we believe and embrace it again—in other words, we remember. My hope is that Christians come to the Lord's Table with eagerness and expectancy, believing this is not a dull religious ceremony but a spiritual gospel experience.