Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men [mortals]; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men [all people].” With these words the historian Thucydides honored those who fought and died in the Peloponnesian Wars 2,400 years ago.
Today, this Memorial Day weekend marks the end of school and the beginning of summer. Count me among the guilty who too often forget what this holiday is really about. We trace the first Memorial Day to Arlington National Cemetery three years after the Civil War. Major General John A. Logan declared May 30th as a day to honor the dead. He said, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
Perhaps we are accustomed to honorific slogans for those who died in war. Yet these words of Thucydides and Major General Logan are remarkable because they acknowledge the heroism of those who fought on both sides—Spartans and Athenians, Union and Confederate soldiers. For them the terrors of war became a strange witness of the kinship that unites soldiers of every nation who declare from the grave that they are one—one race, one tribe, one people, one family of God. In fact, today, Civil War soldiers from the north and south are laid side by side in Arlington National Cemetery.
The war dead speak to us of the unity for which Jesus prayed. I wonder, could any of their deaths have been prevented if our ancestors had held Jesus closer to their hearts? What future tragedies might be averted if we were to do so now?
In the last moments before his arrest, Jesus looked up to heaven and poured out his heart’s deepest desires to God. Jesus prayed that we would love one another across our differences. He prayed we would be willing to preserve and cherish our God-ordained oneness. He told us we don’t have to make this unity happen–it already just is. We just have to get out of the way, stop denying, judging, and dividing for that unity to be revealed. Jesus prayed that we might awaken to the unity we already have, entrust ourselves to it, live into it—so humanity can avoid tragedies like war.
Jesus still prays for us now. Jesus prays we be one with God and each other because that is precisely how the world will finally see, taste, touch, hear, and find Jesus now. The bible offers many metaphors for faithful union with God. Our name being just one of them, Immanuel, God is with us. St. Paul famously said we have become living parts of one body. The gospel of John said each of us are like branches grafted into and growing from a single true vine. Another biblical image is less familiar but powerfully intimate in which the unity between humanity and God is as close and mutually interdependent as the unborn infant child is to its mother.
The singular form of the Hebrew word for compassion, meaning ‘womb,’ is often used of God in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. (Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 48). To say God is compassionate is to say that God is womblike. Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us and all things. As a mother loves her children and feels for them, so God loves and feels for all creation. As we soon will sing Christ has sung for us, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me. I will bring you home. I love you and you are mine” (ELW # 581).
Jesus’ prayer issued in a new heaven and a new earth which, even after two thousand years, we have barely begun to comprehend. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic presents humankind with an opportunity to pause, step back from routines, step closer to the God of true Oneness, and gain perspective on the false gods that preside over Us-vs-Them.
Somehow, despite Jesus’ prayer, we managed to manipulate his message into one that eternally divides humanity into two— believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned, those who go to heaven and those who go to hell. We have separated God from creation, cut off the baptized from the natural world. We’ve sliced the world into sacred and secular, body and soul, matter and consciousness, human and dead.
Instead of seeing in the Crucified Christ a gracious God who is launching a renewal of creation, we fashioned an idol for ourselves of a wrathful God who sacrifices his Son only to satisfy himself and save a few believing souls for heaven—miraculously, somehow this always includes us, our family, and our friends while excluding everyone else. Yet, while only the few remain Godly while others are ungodly, if some of God’s creatures are merely stuff to be used and not revered, then it should not surprise anyone that we are doomed to repeat endless wars and that the earth continue to die by our own hand.
The setting for Jesus’ prayer was the upper room on Maundy Thursday, and the mood in that room as Jesus spoke to God was heavy and poignant. “He has just said goodbye to his disciples, and every word, deed, and gesture he has offered them is weighted with grief. He has washed their feet, fed them bread and wine, promised them the Holy Spirit, and commanded them to love one another. He has spoken to them with both tenderness and urgency, as if time is running out. Because it is” (Debie Thomas, That They May Be One, Journey with Jesus, 5/17/20).
Yet, just like Memorial Day, many of us lose track of what Jesus’ prayer is actually about. Jesus prayed that heaven be brought down to earth, as the Lord’s other Prayer proclaims, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The great 14th century English saint, mystic, and abbes, Julian of Norwich said of God: “I am the one who makes you to love; I am the one who makes you to long; I am the one, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.” Strain for this glory for even if it eludes our grasp the mere pursuit fills our hearts and illumines our lives. We live the good life by living as Jesus lived—the life for which he prayed. Life eternal and abundant, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our ascended Savior, life in God, now and forever. Amen.