Grief Around the Table
Remembering Him

Meditation on John 16:17-28, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg


Scripture Readings:

John 16:17-28

17 Some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” 18 They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”
19 Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? 20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. 23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
25 “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. 26 In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.


I invite you at the beginning of this message to spend a few minutes with me thinking about memories and memory.

To do that, I would invite you to think of a memory that you have - choose whatever, whoever you want. Now, with that memory in your mind, I would like to ask a question. If you are thinking of a person - is that person here this morning? (If so raise your hand.) Now there are some who raised their hands. If you were thinking of a person and they are here it is hardly a memory unless you were thinking of an event in which that person was involved. I guarantee you, the event that you were thinking about is not here, it is part of your past - after all, otherwise it would not be a memory.

Memories speak to us of what is not here, they tell us what is missing or no longer continues. They speak about the person or the event that is absent, missing, yet important to us, to who we are.

In fact, not only do memories speak of the void, what’s missing, memories also speak to the reality of who we are. There are thousands of things each one of us could have chosen to remember, but we choose to remember the one we did, and with very few exceptions, we choose the memory we did because somehow that memory is important to us, it shapes what we are thinking about today, it shapes who we are, our struggles, our self identity, maybe even our emotions. Some of us will have remembered painful events, some of us will have remembered joyful events or people - somehow each one of these memories has and continues to shape us in some way. Not only do memories speak of the void we feel, they also speak of the fullness we are.

Let me bring that to an illustration, it was almost 11 months ago that Joe passed away, it was 6 (+3 days) months ago that David passed away. Some of us may have remembered Joe, some of us may have remembered David. Our memory is our body’s way of telling us they are missing, yet our memory tells us how full they have made us. Memories speak to the void we feel, they also speak to the fullness we are because what we missed has so profoundly shaped us. In a sense, our memories define our poverty but tell us we are rich, the joy we once had is our groaning today, it is only when we have loved that we truly lose.

Memories by speaking of the void tell us who we are. As such they are like a wagon wheel  which has 30 spokes, a rim and a hub but meaningless without that hole in the center( that fits around an axle.)*  Or take this communion cup, memories are like this communion cup, clay, coloured artistic, but without the void in the middle it would be meaningless.* Meaning is discovered in the void. It is what is not there that gives meaning to the cup, it is what is not here that gives meaning to the memory, to the act of remembering, even to us. Memories have a way of talking about what is missing, yet what is missing gives the meaning.

Memories are mysterious.  What is missing gives meaning, our emptiness defines how full we are, our present poverty defines how truly rich we are.

Jesus taking the bread and giving thanks said “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” He said this just as his disciples were falling head long into a grief they never thought would happen. In that last supper, just as everything important to them was being ripped away from them, just as the crashing walls of grief were overwhelming them, Jesus said: "Whenever you do this - remember me." Jesus was inviting them into the mystery of memory, how what is not defines who we are.

We have experienced those crushing rollers of grief, sea billows that overwhelm. For some of us, every day the dinner table at home seems so empty - someone is missing. As we have been around this table, we have known all to well that some of us are missing, Emile, Joe, David, spouses, brothers or sisters, even parents that have passed away. We come to this table and our grief is real. Our memories remind us of those days we were together at the table. For some of us those memories happen every day.  For some, every hour.  To come around the table is to dine with the mystery of memories.  It is a time of grief.

And so there are very appropriate tears around tables and around this table - for eating is an activity which quickly lends itself to remembering. As David would say “My tears have been my food day and night...” And maybe we should, around this table have a space left over, a gap in the circle, to acknowledge that we are remembering - and some are missing...That is what the Anglican church in Britain did after the 1st World War.  They lost 750,000 young men to the war, and then immediately after the war, they lost another 150,000 members to an influenza epidemic. The emotional and spiritual void was so overwhelming that some members were turning to spiritism to try to get in contact with their dead sons. To make room in church for powerful grief, they left empty seats at the communion table, after all, some were missing. The church needed to embrace the mystery of memory - meaning in the void, riches in our poverty, fullness in our emptiness.

Jesus told his disciples, he told us to remember him.

As often as we eat and drink - with our tears remember him, how his absence gives us life, how his poverty has made us rich and even though we are poor we are rich, how his emptiness has made us full, and yet in our emptiness, we are full. His invitation is to embrace the mystery of remembering him, for he is the one who fills our cup to overflowing, even though it is empty.  “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  Come to the table, embrace the mystery of memory.

St. Augustine believed that we live in an eternal present. The second the present slips into the past it is gone. And the future - that is not yet. But we have been given memory by which the past can be made present to us. And we have been given memory, which we call hope, by which the future can be made present to us. So Augustine’s entire concept of time was wrapped up in the mystery of memory.

Jesus said - “Do this in remembrance of me.” He was inviting us to embrace the mystery of memory, bring the past into the present, even bring the future into the present.
Now this is where this passage becomes very interesting!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

To describe this remembering, the writers of the New Testament had to adopt a word that was otherwise not part of the Greek language at their time. They had to find a old Greek word that they could pour all kinds of new means into because for the church, to remember became such a powerful concept.

Already, in the Old Testament - “to remember” had themes that the Greeks had never thought of. To remember had themes of covenant, of commitments made to the Lord and the faithfulness of the Lord to us, so to remember was to take a stand on a life shaping truth. To remember had to do with a story, the story of being delivered from Egypt and made into a holy nation and a called out people. To remember not only involved the past, not only involved what was missing from the past, but to remember shaped the present, because it was their story that made them the people that they were. A Hebrew could also say:  "You have to remember the future. Now doesn’t that sound like an oxymoron - we need to remember the future - yet in its paradox, it is true. So the writers of scripture came up with the word anamnasis.

Let me very quickly try to summarize how remembering Christ wraps up all these themes into one.

To remember Christ is not only to notice he is missing, but it is to remember what who he was, how he spoke, what he said, what he did, how because of his covenant and faithful love, he with determination laid down his life on the cross for us, his sheep. To remember is to embrace the grief of his passion, to understand personally the depths of his sacrifice for us. But to remember is also to remember the rest of the story.  It is to remember that he arose again and ascended to the right hand of the Father where he is King of Kings and Lord over all. Death could not hold its power over him. Though he is missing, he is at the right hand of the Father. To remember is to embrace the victory of Christ. So memory, out of Christ’s absence, speaks of our fullness. Because of what Jesus did, we are new creations in Christ. Our present is shaped, our meaning is given by what is not seen, what is now missing. Christ has made us into a new creation, our sins are washed away, our life is in him. To remember is therefore to take our stand as conquerors in Christ by faith, and so Paul speaks of this when he says, 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. To proclaim is to take a stand - this is who I am - and all of it comes from memory - for those things absent from the present make us who we are today.

And, in this rich understanding of memory, we are also invited to remember the future. For the day will come when we will all be at the feast together, and our loved ones in the Lord will not be missing, and our Lord will not be missing for he walk among us, all our tears will be wiped away, sorrow will be no more, the joy or our reunion will be beyond our present description.

So Jesus told his disciples that though right now is our time of grief, our grief will be turned to joy - as long as we remember - let our memories speak of the void that gives us meaning, let our memories turn to hope for what is hope except our longing for reunion with what is missing.

So this morning, come and remember but as you remember what is missing, remember the whole story, the story of our Redeemer, remember the hope to which you are called, remember that we will once again eat together at an eternal banqueting table.


*Themes taken from Rubem Alves, "The Poet, The Prophet, the Warrior"


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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