“That They May be One”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
May 28, 2006
Scriptures: 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
“I have written these things so that you may know that you have eternal life, those of you who believe in the name of the Son of God.” –1 John 5:13
“That they may be one as we are one.” –John 17:11
Today is the Sunday on which we observe Memorial Day, which originated as yet another initiative of that remarkable 19th century New Yorker Julia Ward Howe.. She also gave us Mother’s day, originally the “Women’s Day against War,” on which women first publicly protested against the murder of their sons in war by a state in which mother’s did not have the right to vote. And she gave us that awful paean to nationalist pride, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which makes the cause of the Union into the cause of God. Memorial day, however, redeems her in my eyes, because she marked it as a time when Union women would go and tend Confederate graves. The Republic had a functioning department for the care of war graves, but the Confederacy was no more, so Julia rallied women to go on this day to tend the graves of the erstwhile enemy. She also too up the cause of the Confederate war widows left destitute by the collapse of their state and the disappearance of their government. The theme of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is “that they all may be one,” and its natural link to Memorial Day is Ms Ward-Howe’s act of common decency towards the fallen and their widows of the CFA. She showed us one important way to be one again, and I propose that we Christians take our cue from her.
Whether to be One is better than to be Many is one of history’s contested questions. Our War of the Rebellion of 1861-1865 was in Lincoln’s eyes a war for the One Union, while the CFA fought for the right to secede from the One in favor of the many. The Union won on the field of battle, but brute force does not answer questions of principle. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989 there have emerged many states where once there was just one Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and a united bloc of dependent states. Most recently, within the week, Montenegro, a minuscule mountainous enclave in the Balkans voted to declare independence from Serbia, thus wiping away the last trace of Yugoslavia, the erstwhile federal state of the Southern Slavs. In the past 15 years the number of sovereign states in the United Nations has risen from about 160 to over 190. So on the international stage recent history gives the accolades to fragmentation rather than unification, to the many rather than to the one.
Nevertheless, the Christian movement continues with unabated conviction to assume that when Jesus says he wants all his followers to be one he lays on us the obligation to weld all our Christian institutions into one, speak with one voice, and follow one shepherd here on earth. The Roman church is probably the most zealous ecclesial body in the quest for unity, because unity for it means the triumph of the Roman See over all other Christian authorities and the penitential return of all who name the name of Jesus to the Roman obedience. They have recently started again to deny the name of “church” to non-Roman Christian bodies. We Protestants are now “ecclesial organizations,” while the Orthodox, I think, are “church” with a small “c” because, while they have most other necessities, they lack the Roman obedience.
How shall we think about this? Since it is Memorial Day Sunday and the day was set aside for remembering the Civil War dead, not for auto racing, we might begin our reflection with that costly war. 65000 gave their lives (read: “were slaughtered”) for the preservation of the Union, and like the current war in Iraq, when that reason no longer had any clear definition the reason shifted, in this case to the “emancipation of the slaves.” In Iraq we are already on the third or fourth reason, while it becomes daily more clear that 2400 so far of our young people have been sacrificed to the personal ambition and private passions of the most morally shameful and operationally incompetent president in the history of the Republic. That is, they have died for nothing, for no national interest, and there is no end in sight. If we can hear through the roar of the Indianapolis engines we might pick up the sounds of lamentation of young lives cut very short by a fantasy more elusive even that unity.
I felt sad this morning in the service of worship I attended because the patriotic music and upbeat preaching seemed to glorify war, and in any case you would not have known from anything said or sung that we are even now in the midst of a bloody war, and that our children and theirs are dying daily. I felt that the roar of Indianapolis and the nostalgia of past wars was conspiring with the mendacious make-believe of the president to spin the current slaughter as a celebration of American military might and American values. We make war only for just causes and we honor the dead. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Woe to you , scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets (soldiers) and adorn the monuments off the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets (soldiers). Thus you witness against yourselves , that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:29-33.) ( When last did you hear Jesus quoted in this tone? When last did you dare to peep into the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel? Perhaps if we Christians spoke more of the real Jesus and less of the selectively synthesized sage of innocuous fatuities, more people would take him seriously). I also plead this Gospel rhetoric in mitigation to those who consider my denunciations of the president to be extreme. I have not yet publicly threatened him with hell; (could it be out of sympathy for the devil?)
Let us, however, resist further railing against such tragic sinfulness and leave the president to the divine judge while we on this Memorial Day think again about what Union might mean for us Christians. We take our cue from the Johannine indication that the union Jesus seeks for his followers is like the union between him and his Father. “That they may be one just as we are One.” That means in short that the union of the Christians is to be like the inner union of the Persons of the Trinity, and that is a profoundly mysterious union.
There are however some things we can say about this mystery, because the Holy Trinity has revealed himself to us in Jesus and the apostolic testimony to Jesus. The two characteristics revealed to us are Humility (kenosis) and Deference (perichoresis). The first has the Crucifixion as it symbol and the second is a dance in a circle. At the Cross the divine humbles himself utterly and in the dance He defers perpetually within himself, the Father making place for the Son, the Son for the Spirit, the Spirit for the Father and so on. So the Union of the Trinity is humble deference; humble deference is the structure of perfect union. This “One in the many and the many in One” is possible only by the humble deference that we call love. So the union of the Christians must be a union in love if it is to be like the union Jesus has with His Father. I believe Julia Howe’s gesture towards the defeated enemy was act analogous to such a union, and our nation owes much to her leadership in the art of humble deference.
It is difficult to achieve this union. The Romans have turned from the Vatican II position that wherever the name of Jesus is sincerely named there is true church, albeit imperfectly realized, to the position that outside the Roman and (in a qualified sense) Orthodox folds there is no Church, only “ecclesial organizations.” (This reminds me of the Palestinian term for the State of Israel, “that Zionist Entity”). This is a bitter blow to those of us who regard the Church as the fellowship of all who call upon the name of Jesus, imperfectly realized on earth because of human sinfulness, but perfect in the mind of God, and to be revealed at the end of days. So we long for the Roman church to respect us.
And then it occurs to us that we do not respect those who call upon the Holy Name to warrant foreign wars, domestic tyranny and apocalyptic sadism. We are even more eager to deny the warrant of Christ to the so-called “right-wing Christians,” than the Romans are to humiliate us. We assume that we know the truth and they do not, and our arrogance increases as their antics grow embarrassing.
So what shall we do? I confess that I am tempted to disaffiliate from all Christian institutions, and though I know I shall not yield to that temptation, I am already distancing myself psychically from the institutional expressions of the faith, chiefly by means of the currently popular attitude of irony. Irony means that one affirms and denies something in the same breath. This seems to me to be an inescapable human stance given the potential and actual violence of true belief on the one hand and the pathos of unbelief on the other. We can only believe as pilgrims in this world who have here no abiding city (Heb 13:14; cf. Heb 11:1-12;29).
So what does the Jesus of John mean when he prays that we Christians should be one as he and his Father are one? His prayer has two aspects, that is he looks from two points of view: One is our current day-to-day life in this world, and the other is the perfection of all things in the future, final Kingdom of God. By the former he intends an ironical attachment to the necessary institutions of religious life, the churches that do so much harm, and so much good, to some aspects of which we must in the name of Christ say no, no, and to other aspects on which we depend for our spiritual survival, yes, yes. By the latter he intends the final perfection of the creation in God, that is the life of the Holy Trinity from which we come and to which we return. “May they be One,” that is, in this world loving and deferential, “as we are one,” that is, in eternity taken up fully into the divine deference and humility that we in our fumbling way call Love. Then we shall be one as the Trinity is one, healed and whole and full of joy; now we shall be humble and deferential, and yes, ironic too. We shall tend the graves of our enemies before we tend the graves of our sons whom they killed, and we shall nurture and comfort their widowed mothers as we comfort and support our own, and “… They shall know we are Christians by our love.”