Remembrance

From CBM Board member Rev Dr Mike Thornton, minister of Epsom Baptist Church.

We will remember them. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, on the TV and on the radio, in magazines and newspapers, in documentaries and at the cinema, at conferences and during weekend enactments, at the Cenotaph and before war memorials, in schools and of course in our churches: we will remember them.

Remembrance Sunday is not far away. Annually, we remember them. The British do remembering. After all, we have a lot of history, though not all of it glorious. As I began to think about remembrance I soon realized that I (like everyone else) bring a load of baggage to it. Memory is notoriously selective: we choose what to remember and how to remember it. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the case of the First World War, which some see as a huge disaster in term of the vast and fruitless loss of life, while others are inclined to be more generous in their estimation of its significance. We need not be surprised by that: history has a way of dividing opinion, even among those who in other respects might be on the same side.

Remembering is political. How we conceive and narrate our past – whether nationally, locally or personally – has a direct impact on the polis, on how we live together today. It matters. Specifically, it matters whether we tend towards the narrative of shared memory and collective identity, or towards the narrative of struggle and conflict, of oppression and minorities. Certainly, we need to move to a model of inclusion rather than exclusion, of unity rather than division, though sometimes that needs an acknowledgement of past injury as well as past provision.

There is an awful lot of remembering in the Bible. The command to remember is fundamental, not only to God’s people but to God himself.

God is a God of covenant, and covenant is a form of self-binding that is made real in history. Following the flood God establishes a covenant with Noah, his descendants and, importantly, ‘with every living creature that is with you’. This he promises to remember and never again let the waters become a flood that will destroy all life. (Genesis 9:10). Abraham is engaged in a similar way and God remembers his covenant with him in Exodus 2:24, as does Moses when he appeals to God to overlook the wickedness of his people in Deuteronomy 9:27. Of course the greatest narrative of shared memory and collective identity in the Old Testament is the people of Israel remembering their slavery in Egypt and their rescue from Egypt (Deuteronomy 7-8).

This motif carries forward dramatically into the New Testament, where the act of remembrance is central to the life of the young church. The Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist is the foundational act of remembrance – remembering Christ and his sacrifice for our salvation: ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). This remembrance of Christ gives new meaning and significance to God’s promises and remembrance of Abraham, Moses and indeed David. To remember Christ in the Eucharist is to take this long-standing remembrance of God and turn it into something new.

Both Old and New Testament narratives take us on a journey of alienation, rescue and repeated, constant loving help. This is brought into sharp focus as God meets his people, all people, in the cross. As Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, Gentile Christians ‘are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household’ (Ephesians 2:19). In another respect, however, that simply makes them feel all the more strangers on earth. 1 Peter makes it clear that, whilst no longer being strangers to God, Christian believers remain strangers in the world, a claim that recurs throughout the epistle. This is a cohesive narrative and provides for a cohesive identity, but one based on being an outsider in receipt of hospitality and grace.

In this sense, the biblical narrative points us to a memory of vulnerability, of shared need, of the right kind of triumph that can allow us to develop an identity and celebrate a past that humanises us in a way that gives us a hope for the future built on actions and lessons past. In that way, we can be radically inclusive in our telling of the greater story.

Translating that into our Acts of Remembrance come that November Sunday morning may help us avoid the pitfall of being radically divisive. Perhaps refocussing our remembrance on the Lord’s Supper will give greater comfort and greater hope as we also ‘remember them’.

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