Growing up in NJ in the ancient times, I loved going to the theatre. Half price tickets made it all so accessible! I have a particular fondness for the musical West Side Story, which re-tells Romeo and Juliet in the context of the social and racial divisions of the 1950s. Leonard Bernstein’s One Hand, One Heart is one of the most poignant songs, as Tony and Maria promise themselves to each other for eternity. Make of our hands one hand/ make of our hearts, one heart/ make of our vows one last vow/ even death can’t part us now.
In last year’s movie, the couple sings the duet inside a church at The Cloisters museum in New York. In the original play, the song is staged in the dress shop, because a wedding between Tony and Maria is impossible, for social and cultural reasons. Knowing the violent and tragic way their romance will unfold, and especially this week, the song is a heart-wrenching promise of love transforming a divided world.
This weekend we celebrate the end of Easter season, the Sunday after the Ascension. The ancient tradition teaches that the risen Christ has ascended into the heavens, leaving his disciples and the new converts behind to figure out their future. For practical, not theological, reasons, the resurrection is less formidable to me than the plausibility of ascension. (Apparently in my mind death is transformable by love, and gravity is absolute). I can reckon more readily with the disciples’ confusion and fear, as they struggle to discern a path forward in a world dominated by cowardly ideologues and without their teacher, who before he suffered had prayed that they would be united in heart.
The struggles of spiritual and theological and interpersonal relationships are in my face with predictable regularity. I observe this as I work with other Episcopal clergy. (You may think we are of one mind; we are not). I experience it in ecumenical work, which can be more challenging than interfaith work. I expect to have a perspective different from my Jewish and Islamic colleagues, yet the bitterness of division among Christians is unsettling, even shocking. Perhaps you perceive this also in your daily life. Beyond the normative and healthy distinctions between individuals and groups, the forces of estrangement and contempt are strong and persistent in our time. In secular terms, we are losing sight of our common mission and of the common good. This disrespects those who have given their lives for the sake of the Republic. In theological terms, I am increasingly certain that these forces are diabolical, because they corrupt and diminish our common humanity, separating us from one another and harming the vulnerable. This disrespects God.
There is a sense of immediacy in our lessons today that God really is present and acting within human time, making possible what appears to be impossible. God really is with Paul and Silas, as they remain in their prison cell and convert their jailer. The wicked will not be able to harm the innocent, because of the protection of God. An aging John, isolated on the island of Patmos, really hears the voice of God, who promises to give the water of life to all who thirst. One hand, one heart, one holy people. This is the vision, this is the dream of God. How are we doing with this?
What shall we do now, as the forces of divisiveness, war, violence and evil swirl around us? Can we believe that a generous unity is possible across our many differences? Do we work in the spirit of our baptismal covenant? I want to say yes, and there are weeks when it feels as if we are swimming against the current.
The Gospel offers us a way forward in fearful times. The Greek word which is translated “believe” also means “trust.” Belief in God and in Jesus, especially as presented in the Gospel of John (for example, 1:12; 14:1; 17:20), is not an intellectual exercise. Belief is not measured by the ability to memorize verses or to repeat catechisms. It is measured by the capacity to trust Jesus, who embodies God’s love for the world and who calls us friends. To believe is to invest our life in Jesus’ teaching that love is the guiding principle of life, to work as though all our neighbors are actually our friends, and to trust that God will be victorious in the end.
Some principles of discernment to ask ourselves: Are we putting on the “breastplate of righteousness” or the mantle of self-righteousness? The “shield of faith” or blinders of self-aggrandizement? Living a life committed to the way of Love is difficult and often involves a cost. The only measure is the consideration of what God’s love actually looks like. (Pro tip: Read Phil 2: humbling oneself, letting go of power politics, always serving/caring for the other).
Our prayer must not be inclined toward begging God to act unilaterally, according to our will, but trusting that God can move our hearts to seek justice. We are not powerless. Our power is rooted in an act of Love revealed in a cross. The world has never understood that. The cross stands, not as a memorial to powerlessness but as a memorial of the divine breaking the hold of unjust power.
Some wisdom from Episcopal Bishop Steve Charleston: Don’t doubt the love that may be hidden but is always present in every sorrow. Behind the tears, despite the anger, love will remain. Love endures. Love for the lives lost on the battlefield, love for the innocent taken without warning. One day even all of this will be redeemed in ways we cannot imagine. But for now, trust the power of love to do what we do not seem to be able to do for ourselves: end the madness and begin the healing.
Meda Stamper. Commentary on John 17.20-26. Working Preacher Blog. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1720-26-5