By David Ney
Since there always seems to be so much to remember to do, Hebrews 13 doesn’t feel at all like good news. We are told to remember to show hospitality to strangers, remember those in prison as if we were together with them, remember those who are mistreated as if we ourselves are suffering, and remember our leaders — those who have brought to us the Word of God.
And then again, at the end, in verse 16, we are urged one final time to not forget to do good and to not forget to share with others. If we didn’t have enough to remember beforehand, we certainly do now.
The author of Hebrews asks us to remember again and again and again because humans are prone to forget. The things our senses and our imaginations suggest wander in and out of consciousness. I’m praying the liturgy and a baby starts to cry, and I look up instinctively. I return my attention to what I was trying to do.
But then it hits me: did I leave the oven on? My kids have a little joke that says something like this. “Hi. I’m Bob. I’m a goldfish. And a goldfish has an attention span of Hi. I’m Bob. I’m a goldfish. And a goldfish has an attention span of Hi. I’m Bob. I’m a goldfish. And a goldfish has an attention span of” — you get the point.
A goldfish apparently has an attention span of nine seconds. A study released in the year 2000 indicated that humans fare only slightly better, coming it at around 12 seconds. And in 2015 Microsoft released a follow-up study that suggests the average human attention span is now less than that of a goldfish. The human attention span was found to be about eight seconds.
Researchers believe this number will continue to decrease as screen time continues to increase. But there’s a deeper issue than just modernity or technology. It has to do with creatureliness, limitation, and ultimately mortality. Sickness or age is going to catch up with me: the time will come when I will no longer be able to remember anything at all. That’s just how it is going to be with me, and with you.
What about God, though? Does he forget and remember again? “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me” (Isa. 49:15-16). When God remembers, he does not remember as we remember. At least not in every respect. This is simply to say that divine and human remembering are not the same. They are analogous.
That little phrase about remembrance from today’s psalm puts this in perspective: “Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered forever.” If the word forever here is just a vague eschatological horizon — the descendants of the righteous will remember them long into the future — then perhaps it refers only to human remembrance. But if the forever here is really a forever, then it must be God who does the remembering.
There’s another little phrase from Hebrews 13 that helps us out here. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” It’s a quotation from Deuteronomy 31:6: “Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
What does God mean when he says that he will never leave us or forsake us? Well, like the meaning of the word remember, the meaning of never depends upon the person who says it. For some people, “I will never leave you” means “I want to have sex with you.” For others, it means “Until death do us part.” But when God says it, never means something else. And what it means is determined by who he is.
In his word, God gives himself the name “I Am.” I am who I am. I will be who I will be. My character will unfold before you as you walk with me, and I will remember my covenant with you. And thus my name is “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” What is so remarkable, it turns out, is that the statement “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” doesn’t just define who God is. It defines who these people are.
“He is not the God of the dead but the living,” Jesus says, as he interprets these words. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the living, because God says to them, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Heaven and earth will pass away, but his word to them will not pass away. They too will not pass away.
When this same word is given in the letter to the Hebrews, it isn’t just a pat on the back or something you put on a bumper sticker. It changes everything. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
In other words, why try to amass wealth for yourself right now? In the end, it will all be yours anyway. For, as Paul puts it, “He who did not spare his own son; how much more will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).
You can spread abroad your gifts to the poor, because it will not be taken from you. You are free to show hospitality to strangers, those who cannot be expected to reciprocate. It doesn’t matter whether they reciprocate.
“The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” Well, they can kill you. Fair enough. But even if they do, his word to you — “I will never leave you or forsake you” — will endure. His word endures as long as he endures.
You too will endure. God will remember his word to you, and that means resurrection. God’s remembering is different than human remembering, not just in terms of duration. We remember until we forget, but he remembers forever. His remembering is different than ours because it carries explosive creative power.
In a few moments we are going to turn our attention to Holy Communion, according to the pattern set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. For God, we are told, “did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.”
It is our duty, we are told if we wish to abstain, to receive the Communion “in remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, as he himself hath commanded: which if ye shall neglect to do, consider with yourselves, how great injury ye do unto God.”
If offering a perpetual memorial is about perpetually keeping Christ and his cross in mind, then we probably won’t be able to do it, even if we play as a team. But human remembrance echoes divine remembrance in a very important way. You recall what it is that you ought to do, and you do it.
So, to return to Hebrews 13, you don’t just bring strangers to mind, you show hospitality to them. You don’t just think about those in prison, you act as if you are confined with them. The problem for us isn’t just that we are going to struggle to find the brain space to remember these extra things. The real problem is that remembrance is a matter of the heart and the will. It is something we are going to need to have the heart and the will to do. According to Psalm 112, the righteous one doesn’t just think about the poor. The righteous one “freely scatters gifts to the poor.”
Paul seems to think that he knows the identity of this righteous person. God in Christ, has “freely scattered his gifts to the poor.” In today’s gospel reading from Luke, chapter 14, Jesus tells his host, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13), but he only does so because God himself is the master who, as this passage adds, commands his servant, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:23). It’s true, what you’ve heard before. We remember the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind because God remembers them. And we remember them in act, by what we do, because God remembers them in act, by what he does for them.
Our remembrance at Holy Communion is, as Thomas Cranmer rightly insisted, coming forward in faith — offering ourselves, in faith, because Christ has already offered himself in faith. Cranmer, in strict Protestant fashion, insists that since God, of his tender mercy, “didst give his only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death on the Cross for our redemption: and who made there a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,” it is not necessary for the priest to sacrifice him again and anew.
All that is necessary is for the people of God to continue “a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.” And yet, after Communion, these same people say that what they have just done, in coming forward for Communion, has been to “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee.”
The liturgy does this sort of thing several times. It seems to give with one hand what it takes away with the other. As Bishop George Sumner observes, the person up front looks and acts priestly, and does priestly things even while insisting that there is but one great high priest. The minister becomes a figure of this great high priest, even while frantically back-peddling, as if to say, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m only play-acting.” And, as Sumner puts it, “The liturgy acts out its non-sacrifice by way of pointing to the real sacrifice, and so of indicating that a secondary, personal kind of sacrifice is called for as well.”
We might say, then, that within the prayer book tradition at least, the service of Holy Communion can be likened to a 4-year-old riding a bike with training wheels. The service bumbles along at a slow pace, the bike teeters back and forth from side to side, but the child presses on, because she is eager to follow the example of her father, who is gliding ahead.
But maybe even that image doesn’t quite capture it. Maybe what we are dealing with is one of those kids’ attachments a father can add to the back of his bike. The child gets her own pair of handlebars, her own seat, and her own pedals. But at the end of the day, she can pedal as frantically as she likes, but it isn’t her efforts that are turning the wheels. She is just being carried along.
Our service of Holy Communion isn’t the perpetual memorial of the righteous one. It is an echo of the real deal. As the Book of Revelation puts it, the perpetual memorial is in the heavenlies, where, day and night, the four living creatures give praise to God. Therefore, in the service we are having right now, and with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory.”
As we are paying homage down here, up there is “the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.” They encircle the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they are saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (Rev. 5).
What that means for us, here and now, is that when we remember Jesus, we are remembering the remembered one. We are remembering the one of whom it is said, “You will not let your holy one see decay.” For the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. We know full well that we don’t have what it takes to offer a perpetual memorial, and yet, to borrow the language of today’s Psalm, we gather nonetheless to remember “the righteous one who never be shaken; the one who will be remembered forever,” because God has remembered him.
As we come to the table today, we step forward to offer to God our little acts of remembrance. And God, I have no doubt, is pleased with our offerings. But in the end, we come not as those who remember but as those who stand in the presence of the God who remembers.
When I remember, I remember only if my mind and my will enable me. And I may or may not manage to bring what is in my head down to my heart, hands, and feet. But when God remembers, he remembers forever. And when he remembers, he always remembers in act: in remembering he gives the gift of new life.
We know this is the way he works. We know God gives the gift of new life to those he remembers, because we see in the Scriptures that he promised as much to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and delivered as much when he raised Jesus the Christ from the dead, as the righteous one who will be remembered forever. So, as we come forward today to perform an act of remembrance, the real point is that we come forward in faith, to ask the God who remembers, to remember us by giving us this same gift of new life.
Remembrance must be memory in act. And in this context it means, quite simply, getting up and coming to the banquet even though we know full well that we are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it, it means crying out, with the Syrophoenician woman:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy, so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he is us. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of Church history at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.