To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.
Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.
-Revelation 3:1-3 (NIV)
Remembering is hard. It’s hard because it takes the focus off ourselves and the things with which we’re concerned from day to day. Remembering is hard because it reminds us that what we are and have has at least as much to do with the people and events that came before us as with the people and events that surround us and make up our lives today. Remembering is hard because, in remembering, we shake off just a little the tyranny of Today, Right Now, the Urgent.
We can probably be forgiven for thinking that our generation is the most important and significant that has ever arisen in the world. Advertisers spend billions to tell us so, after all. Routinely now, we look back on the cutting-edge technology of even five years ago with disdain, laughing about the days of brick cell phones and dial-up internet as though they were the Stone Age. Pop culture dismantles idols as quickly as it can tear down the previous incarnations of the Next Big Thing. Since the Fifties, at least, teenagers have dismissed their parents’ generation as irrelevant and out of touch. The evidence suggests, though, that this dismissal of the past is no longer restricted to those who are creating and developing their own identities. It seems that it may be something that forms and shapes us throughout our lives now: a wholesale rejection of the past for the present and future.
Here it is Memorial Day weekend, and there will be the requisite sentiments honoring those who have given their lives serving in the military. But, truth be told, for most Americans Memorial Day is significant as an extra day added to the weekend. We’ll cook hot dogs and drink beer all weekend, and in fact not much will be remembered. Places like Antietam, Meuse-Argonne, the Bulge, Pusan, Khe Sanh, Afghanistan, and Iraq won’t be on our minds much. We’re too busy with Now. Too focused on Tomorrow. And too ambivalent of the past, or distrustful of the motives of those who would remind us, or uncomfortable about sharing in the view of the world that past generations assumed.
But in the process, we lose our memories.
Faith is a matter of memory, to some degree. Maybe that sounds strange to you. The words look a little strange to me on the screen, honestly. We want to argue, I think, that faith is about my belief in God in the present. Or my trust in him for the future. The past is the past, we want to say, and faith beckons us forward, into our futures with God. Looking back, we think, can only hold us back.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in a letter to struggling believers, the author of Revelation, John, tells his readers to “remember?”
You’d think he might call their attention primarily to the future. He doesn’t really do that, despite the way lots of Christians over the centuries have read Revelation. Even his looks forward into the future have a foot squarely in the past. When John shows those hurting Christians what’s coming, he shows them in terms of what’s already past. What’s happening to them is nothing that God’s people through the ages haven’t dealt with, and the outcome for his readers will be the same as it was for those righteous sufferers who came before them. That’s, of course, because the God who was with them that moment when they first opened John’s letter had always been with them. And he’s always faithful.
And that, incidentally, is why believers read Revelation as God’s word two thousand years later.
“Remember what you have received and heard,” John tells one of those churches. Contrary to what some of the church growth experts tell us, forgetting the past isn’t necessarily a good thing. Oh, we might well do some things differently from previous generations. But the sustaining heart of any church is “what we have received and heard” - the story of Jesus, and the promises and demands of following him, and the hope of his kingdom.
Richard Harris, a psychology professor and Kansas State University, has spent a lot of years studying memory. While we sometimes think of ourselves as either having good memories or not, Dr. Harris says that’s not true. Take remembering names. Some of us might say about ourselves, “I’m just not good at remembering names.” Dr. Harris would say the problem might be that you’re just not interested in remembering names. “Some people, perhaps those who are more socially aware, are just more interested in people, more interested in relationships,” he says. “They would be more motivated to remember somebody's name.” To those who argue that they just don’t have a very good memory, Dr. Harris simply says, “Almost everybody has a very good memory for something.” If you’ve ever had a child who knew how to spell the names of every species of dinosaur ever discovered, but couldn’t remember to do his homework, then you know what he’s talking about.
Remembering the past isn’t the primary measure of a church’s faithfulness: there’s a lot in some churches passed down from generation to generation that needs to be forgotten. Or, maybe better, remembered and then consciously set aside. But, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus still says to this church, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And, as Paul put it a few years later, in doing so we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Novel, isn’t it? To point toward the future by remembering the past? Reminds me of the old song, sung to the tune of Troyte’s Chant: “And thus that dark betrayal night/with the last Advent we unite/by one bright chain of loving rite/until he come.” If the language doesn’t quite resonate with you, it’s about connecting the past - Jesus’ death - with the future - his second coming - by the “rite” of the Lord’s Supper.
Who’d have thought it was possible?
The past can be a tyrant of course: over people or organizations. So maybe the criteria for remembering the past is this: “Does it tell us something about who we are now, and who we will be in the future?”
By that standard, the church must be a remembering people. Even when it’s hard. Especially then.
Remember what we’ve received and heard. Remember, because in remembering we come face to face with God’s faithfulness and love, and the hope we have in Jesus.
Remember, and hold it fast, and repent.