Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-2
Tomorrow is the day that the Christian community celebrates Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. It was on Pentecost that the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s coming united the early Christians at the deepest level, in a living experience of God’s presence and power. They were transformed from a loose collection of individuals into a new creation, a vibrant community that was of one heart and one mind. Jesus sent the Spirit of Truth, just as he promised, and this Spirit-filled human community became his continuing presence in the world, the Body of Christ.
This year, the celebration of Pentecost falls on Memorial Day weekend. This unusual alignment of these two days of remembrance has spurred me to do some thinking about the relationship between Memorial Day and Pentecost. The former is traditionally a celebration in remembrance of those who have given their lives in military service, while the latter commemorates the in-pouring of God’s Spirit into the world. Many Christians will celebrate these two days side by side, without any sense of contradiction.
I cannot do that. As a Quaker, I believe that when Jesus Christ disarmed his disciples in Gethsemane, he disarmed the Church. I believe that when Jesus died on the cross, he set an example for those who would follow him – taking on suffering rather than inflicting it, blessing those who curse us. As a follower of the Crucified Savior, I must remember the martyrs – those who sacrificed their own lives, possesssions and comfort in order to demonstrate God’s love to a world in pain. This Memorial Day, I will remember the faithful servants who have gone before, joining Jesus in blazing the trail that I now walk.
I will remember those like Stephen, who was put to death for his witness to Christ’s love and justice. I will give thanks to God for the faithful service of Paul of Tarsus, Francis of Assisi, George Fox, James Nayler, Edward Burrough, Margaret Fell, Tom Fox, and all those who have suffered for the Truth. Whether by a martyr’s death or simply through handing their entire lives over to the work of Christ in the world, they paid the ultimate price for their faith.
I will remember the way that so many have laid down their own privilege and comfort to serve the poor and the lost. And I will remember how I was one of those lost ones. I will give thanks for the grace these servants of God showed, loving me in spite of all the ways I pushed them away.
I will remember Dorothy Craven, who lived a life of simple faithfulness and gentle love for all people. I praise God for the way she laid aside her comfort and walked in faith with the Friends of Jesus commmunity in Wichita, Kansas. She served as an elder to us, a mother in the gospel. She introduced me to the writings of Thomas Kelly and taught me Algebra, even though I was probably the most frustrating student she ever had. She loved me when I did not deserve it. She believed in me when there was no good reason to do so. She was Jesus to me.
Dorothy has now joined that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds me. Sitting at Jesus’ right hand, these faithful witnesses call me forward. They spur me to greater courage and vulnerability in love. They are my heroes, and I experience them as being somehow, mysteriously alive in the Spirit that unites us. This Memorial Day, I will remember these holy ones who stand, unarmed, by the throne of God. Together with Jesus, they call me into a life of fearless love and peace. This Pentecost, I will celebrate the Holy Spirit that unites us beyond life and death.
Who are the witnesses that call you forward?