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Living Hope

April 28, 2014

“Living Hope” 1 Peter 1:3-9 © 4.27.14 Easter 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Back in the early 1980s, soon after I began doing campus ministry, a national survey was taken of the college students of the day. These would have been the last wave of Boomers and the firstborn of Generation X. They were asked about their feelings regarding the future. Given that there was chronic and substantial international tension at the time, their attitude is not surprising. They were generally pessimistic about prospects for lasting peace or for solving the pressing problems of the day.

We might expect, then, that they were unsure about what lay ahead for them personally. Not so much. I don’t know whether to chalk that up to the typical young adult idea that he or she is invulnerable or to a kind of isolation from the world that probably increased, ironically, with the advent of cell phones and social media in subsequent decades. But that’s a discussion for another time. All we need to know this morning is that the kids in the ‘80s uniformly expected to find good jobs and suitable mates, raise families, and generally do well in life. Indeed, some of you may recall how one of the popular songs of the era claimed the “future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

Those who heard the letter called 1 Peter could’ve sung the same tune. But they anticipated a glorious future not because they were naïve or insulated from the real world. Indeed, they knew all too much about the harshness of everyday life. Most of them were slaves or women, so they had little freedom or voice of their own. A wife of an unbelieving husband could only embrace the new faith by the man’s indulgence of what he considered foolishness. Of course slaves could only go to a church meeting if their owners gave permission. The humiliation inflicted and the demands given by masters or husbands were added to by local authorities who harassed the believers because of their religion. They were looked on with suspicion by their neighbors because of their conversion to the new and strange faith, with its invisible God and talk of eating flesh and drinking blood. They did their best to stay under the radar, but sometimes they still suffered.

These Christians were in scattered churches over a huge area of 200,000 square miles in several Roman provinces around 90 AD. An elder from the church in Rome wrote in the name of the great apostle Peter to encourage them and remind them of the hope they had in the risen Christ, a hope that could and did overcome their circumstances. In their recent baptisms, they had been born anew to a living hope, gained an inheritance that nothing could take away. Whatever might happen to them in this life, they were assured of salvation. And right now, that knowledge could sustain them in their trials.

This kind of hope is not optimism, a cheery outlook on the world through rose-colored lenses. Optimists pretend that evil and bad things can easily be defeated and maybe don’t even exist. As one writer has said, optimism is the “belief that everything will turn out fine” (Paul Steinke, “Pastoral Notes on AIDS and Hope,” The Christian Century, 5/20-27/92: 533). Optimists use superlatives and speak in absolutes. Here’s an example from the book Megatrends 2000 about how great the 1990s were going to be: “We stand at the dawn of a new era. Before us is the most important decade in the history of civilization, a period of stunning technological innovation, unprecedented economic opportunity, surprising political reform, and great cultural rebirth. It will be a decade like none that has come before…” (John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene: 11). I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember the ‘90s turning out that way.

By contrast to optimism, hope doesn’t crack under the pressure of circumstance. The late social critic Christopher Lasch observed that hope “asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits. It cannot be defeated by adversity” (The New Republic: 10/2/95: 48). And Victor Frankl’s study of Holocaust survivors showed that they were able to make it by looking forward to a reunion with loved ones or to finishing some task. Somehow they believed God was still out there in tomorrow as well as present even in the horror of concentration camps. Their hope was a power by which they could at least survive, and even truly live.

There wasn’t much chance the slaves who heard the elder’s exhortations were going to be free or given a lighter workload or that the husbands of the women would suddenly become enlightened and treat them as equals and partners. But still they hoped, against the data of everyday experience. Such hope was counterintuitive, but it was real. It was the gift of a God so powerful and faithful that he raised Jesus from the dead.

We are always some distance from the biblical text in time and space, knowledge and tech, but in the case of 1 Peter, we are more removed than usual. None of us is owned by anyone else; we are not slaves, except perhaps to some desire or habit. The majority of this congregation is female, but you ladies do not need the permission of a husband or a father to believe or think or feel as you do. Indeed, in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and in like-minded churches, women lead, teach, and preach. None of us is a new convert who has had to turn his or her back on family and culture and be baptized as a risky act. In fact, in America, Christians of all sorts make up about 78%-83% of the population, and a certain brand of Christianity even has unofficial status as the favored religion in state and local governments and corporations.

Nevertheless, we share with the audience of 1 Peter that basic human need for hope. It’s so essential that I would call it the bread of the soul. We want to know when we face adversity, trouble, grief, loss, sickness, loneliness, sorrow, heartache, and rejection that there is something more and better awaiting us, that someone is guiding our history and that of all creation toward a satisfying and peaceful ending. We need to believe in our deepest being that there is “higher love” as singer Steve Winwood once put it. We, like those oppressed folk long ago, believe against the data that God has granted us in Christ an inheritance that is unfading and imperishable.

We don’t know how that can happen anymore than we know how God raised Jesus from the dead. But as Walter Brueggemann has observed: “Hope, the conviction that God will bring all things to full, glorious completion, is not an explanation of anything. Indeed, biblical hope most often has little suggestion about how to get from here to there. It is rather an exultant…conviction that God will not quit until God has had God’s full way with the world” (Texts Under Negotiation: 40). Hope focuses not on how or what or why or when, but who. And for the believer, that’s Jesus Christ.

In a piece entitled simply “Lament,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us of the power of such hope from beyond ourselves and our resources, when all around is despair: “Everything is far/and long gone by./I think that the star/glittering above me/has been dead for a million years./I think there were tears/in the car I heard pass/and something terrible was said./A clock has stopped striking in the house/across the road…/When did it start?…/I would like to step out of my heart/and go walking beneath the enormous sky./I would like to pray./And surely of all the stars that perished/long ago,/one still exists./I think that I know/which one it is—/which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,/stands like a white city… (Stephen Mitchell, editor and translator, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke: 9). Someone has commented: “The sky is full of false hope, dead stars—but there remains a true star, ancient and true which is not a deception” (Dow Edgerton, Theology Today, 1/87: 477).

The risen Christ is our true star, the bright and morning star. The new Jerusalem is our shining, white city, our inheritance which will not fade. When lesser hopes fail us, we may still know with assurance that tomorrow belongs to God, for in Christ he has faced the worst humankind can do and emerged victorious. His final defeat of the forces of wrong and evil may not be today or tomorrow or even a hundred years from now. But still the promise holds true. Its reality is proven by small reversals and signs of change that may be hard to notice. In them the eye of faith sees the hand of God, working with grace to bring in his reign of justice, peace, and compassion.

We can live with courage and hope even if all we get are glimpses of the new thing God will bring, even if we only know from time to time the power of resurrection, even if we are sober in our assurance and realistic about the difficulties of life. Too many believers these days proclaim and profess triumphalist schemes in which Jesus makes us happy now and life is all about getting to heaven. Jesus will be back any day and make things right. I have found that often such people deny their pain and their doubt and paste on a smiley face. I for one would rather face the real world, yet refuse to give up hope in God’s purposes. I would rather not give in to despair or cynicism, no matter how strong the temptation.

In William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury, Dilsey, the old African-American cook, has been with the Compson family for years. This particular morning, she’s up early as usual. No sooner has she come into the main house but the sickly Mrs. Compson begins making demands on Dilsey. The cook’s grandson Luster is shirking his chores again, occupied instead with some mysterious activity in the cellar. So besides cooking biscuits and ham and being at Mrs. Compson’s beck and call, the elderly woman has to do Luster’s chores, too. Later on, she has to deal with a family crisis. Apparently, Dilsey is the only sane person in the household. She has to hold the Compson family together. And she’s tired and irritated. Not just today, but every day. As we read, we become angry at those who would take such advantage of her and treat her so badly.

Soon we discover that the day is Sunday, and not just any Lord’s Day. It’s Easter. Despite Jason Compson’s selfish objections, Dilsey, Luster and Luster’s mother Frony go to church, where they will hear a guest preacher from St. Louis. The man doesn’t look like much, but Faulkner says his insignificance appearance is soon forgotten “in the virtuosity with which he ran and poised and swooped upon the cold inflectionless wire of his voice, so that at last, when with a sort of swooping glide he came to rest again beside the reading desk…the congregation sighed as if it waked from a collective dream…” (366). The preacher spoke of how he saw the darkness and death that overcome every generation. But then before his sight was the One who is the resurrection and the light, the meek Jesus who was killed but lives again. Tombs cracked, and horns sounded. The dead found new life.

Dilsey leaves worship crying. Her daughter is embarrassed by the tears and wants to know why Dilsey acts so with all the people around. Dilsey, in a dialect I won’t try to reproduce here, says that she has seen the first and the last, the beginning, and now the ending (371). She could face whatever the Compsons could dish out because she had been touched by the glorious hope of the resurrection. She had found meaning and joy in the midst of her daily oppression.

This is the amazing message of Easter. God has given us a hope that lives in our heart of hearts and lifts us up even when everything around us is determined to beat us down. Whatever you and I summon from deep within to get us through a day, to sustain us in hard times, that’s our resurrection hope. It could be a scripture or a song, a memory or a marvel of nature, a dream of a better tomorrow or a vision of a golden city, but it is always and ever the gift of God’s Spirit, the reminder that we are touched by the mercy of God in baptism, born anew and empowered for living.

The hope that lives in us enables us to say with the hymnwriter, as he echoes the baptismal imagery of 1 Peter: “We know that Christ is raised and dies no more. Embraced by death, he broke its fearful hold; and our despair he turned to blazing joy. Alleluia!

“We share by water in his saving death. Reborn we share with him an Easter life as living members of a living Christ. Alleluia!

“The Father’s splendor clothes the Son with life. The Spirit’s power shakes the church of God. Baptized we live with God the Three in One. Alleluia!

“A new creation comes to life and grows as Christ’s new body takes on flesh and blood. The universe, restored and whole, will sing: Alleluia!” (John Brownlow Geyer, “We Know That Christ Is Raised,” 1969).

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