Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hope Springs

My very first sermon in seminary was on the text Romans 8:18-25. Somewhere in the bottom of the barrel I probably still have it. But I don’t have to dig it out and re-read it to remember most of what I said. Like many a fledgling preacher, I did my best to do justice to the text, and did my darnedest to make it interesting to my theoretical hearers. Many people would say that, when it comes to St. Paul, you can do one or the other but not both. Either you can unzip his writing and do your best to figure out what he was talking about; or you can seize some spark that flies off his words and use it to shed some light on contemporary life or perhaps to create some heat of excitement about God or Jesus that people can get worked up about. But it is highly unlikely that the preacher can do both these things.

So, lest you mistake my purpose in preaching today,I am going to let you in on the fact up front that I would like to spark you to get fired up about the gospel if you already aren't, excited about Christian living, enthusiastic about what Jesus Christ means for you and your world. And to come quickly to the point, the key to the message I hear is this verse, which I translate slightly differently from what you have already heard: “When an object of hope is seen, there is no further need for hope. Whoever hopes for what one sees already? But if we hope for something that we do not see, we wait for it patiently.” This slice of Romans is about hope, and that is where we begin.

One of the reasons that a number of people have great difficulties with St. Paul is that their view of life is so different from his that much of what he says makes little sense to them. I might also point out that one of the reasons that some people love St. Paul is that they assume what he is talking about is what they are talking about—and that he therefore agrees with them. But the truth is that Paul’s outlook on the world, history, and the future are hardly at all in sync with what the average person—even the average Christian person—even the biblical literalist—thinks and believes in the 21st century. In short, Paul believes that Jesus Christ, especially through his death and resurrection, has brought about the swift end of the world as we know it and has inaugurated an age that is radically new. Paul has sense enough to know that the world “as we know it” has by no means disappeared. He believes, however, that it is on its way to conclusion. Christ has made possible an entry into a new age by those who believe in him. This is not a matter of going to heaven when you die, as a great many people would in time come to believe. It is a matter of living a qualitatively different kind of life here and now, a life that will continue past death but which begins not at death but with our union with Christ through baptism.

If you will stop and think about that for a minute, I believe you will recognize that you have heard something like that before. It is not entirely strange language. But it surely is different from what a lot of folks think Christianity is about. It is clearly not about living a pretty decent life with the hope that you will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven when you finally die. And it is definitely not about having God at your beck and call so that when you have a physical or spiritual need God will jump to answer you the way you want. All of that may be fine, but it certainly is not what Paul has in mind.

Now it is important to see that the core of what Paul is driving at if we are to understand anything much about hope. If for Paul, hope is not about going to be with Jesus when you die, let alone doing so because you have been good and deserve to live in heaven forever, neither is hope about extending your prosperity or your influence or your position here on earth. Hope is what keeps us going towards the realization, the fulfillment, of this new age that Jesus has begun. Hope has to do with the redemption of our bodies from the old world—the one we presently live in—and the transition of our bodies to the new world, a world which he describes as “glory.” That world is indeed a world that has not yet fully come into being. And it is indeed a world that, like Christ himself, will never end. We are on our way to its fulfillment, but be sure of one thing: that world has already begun. We, if we are “children of God,” believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, are right now living in it.

All this is not a matter for preachers and theologians to slug out. It has practical impact for everything the Christian does from Monday through Saturday, as it were. Now here is the thing: you do not have to understand or even agree with Paul’s world view in order to see that the important dynamic here is hope. Paul sees hope as not just a factor in human psychology—the thing that keeps us moving towards a better future that we can imagine either in this or some other world—but a dynamic built into the very fabric of the universe itself. He sees that the entire natural world, while marked by a bondage to decay and death, is groaning in anticipation of being renewed, liberated, brought into a new life of freedom that the children of God share through Jesus. That is important for a couple of reasons. One is that the natural world is not just a disposable playground for the human race, but is itself thoroughly redeemed through Christ and therefore has some lasting importance. I don’t know that we can argue that Paul sees the world as being put in good shape the way modern ecologists would imagine that, but it certainly has an importance that rules trashing it totally unacceptable.

The question is: what are we hoping for, as Christians, and what difference does our hope make? If we take Paul seriously—even if we have a different view of the world from his—it seems to me that we will see that the essence of our hope is for a radically different future for ourselves and for our world. When Paul goes to spell out what Christians actually practice, he uses such phrases as “walking by the Spirit.” By that he means that we give our allegiance to a Christ who brings us into a life that is vastly different from the way the world ordinarily lives. Instead of greediness, it is a life of sharing. Instead of a life of self-preservation, we live lives of compassion. Rather than a life of fear, it is a life of confidence. We do not behave inconsiderately or arrogantly, but with understanding. We understand that whatever sufferings we endure for the sake of living this life in union with the Risen Lord are nothing compared with the glory that we are on our way to sharing fully, as little by little our very selves are transformed. Rather than being motivated by the fears and divisions and ethnic clashes and economic fluctuations and political rivalries that fill the workaday world, we are directed by the Spirit of God that lives within us, producing such things as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Day by day we hope to live more of God’s life and less of a godless life. And we see ourselves moving into a future that looks more and more like the risen Christ. Paul calls it “glory.”

So our hope is not about pie in the sky by and by. It is about a thorough transformation of life right now, not because we think that by living in a new way we will gain eternal life, but precisely because living in this new way is eternal, unending life. That kind of hope cannot help but make a tremendous difference in the way we view the meaning of our lives. And the more we live in this kind of hope the more the whole world changes. The more we practice working for justice in the world, the more just the world becomes. The more we struggle for equality for all those who are oppressed, the more equitable the world becomes. The more we give ourselves to be living sacrifices, totally dedicated to God’s purposes, the more light shines through even our cracked places, illuminating the world with God’s goodness. When we bless those who persecute us, when we love our enemies for the sake of Christ, the more we add to the total energy of Christ in the world. When we live as peacemakers and reconcilers rather than warmongers and hotheads, the more chance of the world reflecting the Spirit of God more strongly.

Be ablaze with light and joy as you live out this hope! The darker things get, whether economically or politically or socially, the more the world needs you to walk by the Spirit in the apparently foolish hope that your life can make the world a better place for all God’s children and creatures. Keep the vision of the future before you, and don’t let those who pit tribe against tribe, race against race, who rouse the rabble for their own ends, enlist you in their service. Remember your baptism, and spend as much time as you can making every life you touch feel the glory of the Spirit of God which is the love which lives in you. Let every pain you ever feel unite you to the suffering of the Lord Christ, and turn each ache into a new occasion to shower compassion on the aching world.

About the bleakest, most hopeless novel I have read in the last few years is one by that wonderful author Cormac McCarthy. It is called The Road, and pictures the world after an apocalyptic catastrophe has destroyed civilization. A father and son cling together against terror and the constant specter of death as they pursue the long road to the sea. Their very journey is a journey of hoping against hope that they can somehow find a way to survive, drawing on everything they have ever learned and all that they can remember. At the end of the road is death, but also the promise of life in the form of a small human community that might be able to make a new start. It is small, but it is a hope. Most of the time, thank God, our lives have not come to quite so stark a place. But even if they should, we have those things that abide—faith, hope, and love—and the one that keeps us moving towards God’s future is hope.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011