Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
8 May 2022
I read a paper recently, originally delivered as a lecture in the summer of 2019.
The author makes three suppositions, none of them happy ones. When he first delivered his address to a gathering of theologians, pastors, and lay people the lecture was met with silence, broken by the exclamation of a pastor and theologian, “Well, thank you for that rosy picture.”1
The suppositions put forward are these:
1) That the context for politics worldwide, and the United States in particular, is in the early stages of a profound shift that promises to be significantly more violent, oppressive, and aggressive.
2) Two important factors are driving this shift, a) the steady but uneven erosion of political, economic, and cultural power worldwide enjoyed by the US, and b) the collapse of limitless economic growth as a plausible assumption and praticable policy goal.
3) It is important that the church find a way not to go down with the American imperial ship. … Were the church to be seen as complicit and supportive of the coming rages … we will be erecting still more obstacles to faith …2
The author, you may be able to tell, is American. However, the issues of a changing world concern us all.
It is not my intention to convince you of the author’s view. Rather, whether we agree with his analysis and conclusions does not matter. The question I want to raise is how it is possible for us as followers of Jesus to be a people of hope?
The above named suppositions suggest that life will not get easier but harder. And if life were to get harder, this would be a reversal of what most of us have experienced in our lifetime. Since the end of WW II, things have consistently gotten better for people of the Western hemisphere, even though not everyone has benefited in the same way.
So if things were to get harder, if climate change is a serious threat, and if the political stability we have enjoyed for so long is being eroded, then how can we not get depressed and not turn our eyes away from reality and find our escape elsewhere? How can we be a people of hope? If Easter teaches us anything it is that we have reason to hope. After all, Jesus and the disciples had come to the end of the road yet the end proved to be the beginning.
By hope I mean neither optimism, differing from pessimism only by being monochromatically rosy instead of monochromatically gray,3 nor do I mean a pious disposition that looks to heaven as our place away from the struggles of the world, because such a disposition no longer faces the world, not does it seek to make a positive contribution to address the crisis in which we find ourselves. Faith engages the world and cares about the world because God loves the world.
It is the season of Easter and at the beginning of each service we remember our baptism. We remember that God claimed us as God’s own, that we are God’s beloved. We remember this other times as well. If you pray Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayer you begin by invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and making the sign of the cross. Or you do it in the service at the mention of the tri-une name of God and you remember you belong to God. Or you do so as you come forward for communion and pass by the font and you remember that you are God’s beloved.
When you do so, you remember not only that you personally are God’s beloved but that God has made you part of God’s people the church. The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson reminds us that as God raised Israel from Egypt so God raised Jesus from the dead. That is the story to which God has joined us.
So when we remember that we are baptized, we remember that we have a story, and a story has a story teller, and the story teller is God.
You see the problem with optimism is that it has no story, no coherent narrative. It is positive for the sake of being positive. Besides, it is really hard work to always be optimistic and cheerful, because it often requires self- deception and it forces us to create the circumstances in which we can maintain the attitude of optimism and that is too great a burden to carry. Optimism also knows nothing of the power of sin.
By comparison the hope that comes from being incorporated into God’s people and having been raised with Christ as God raised Israel from Egypt gives us the assurance that we do not have to save the world because that is God’s work. That helps us not to despair and we don’t despair because we see the goodness of God in the lives of the saints who have gone before us, which is our story also. But while we know that God has saved the world in Jesus, we are not dismissed from participating in God’s work of salvation, rather as people who have a story and who have hope we can participate in God’s work of salvation with joy, in the face of evil, of struggles, and of suffering. Thomas Aquinas says that hope is the virtue needed to acquire the arduous good.
In this way our hope is motivated by love. We are motivated by love because we don’t just face problems but we are in relationship with others and with one another. The basis for this relationship is God’s love for the world.
The Greek title of the Book of Revelation is Apocalypse. But apocalypse is not about doom, and not even the end, but about the unveiling of God’s purposes where the Lamb takes the place of the Lion of Judah. Peace takes the place of violence.
And in today’s reading we see that the end will be the beginning, that it will not be bad but good, that there will be a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (v.9)
This vision is not rooted in optimism, or in the belief in the goodness of human nature, or the belief in progress, scientific or otherwise, but in the salvation of God, the story to which we have been joined in our baptism, and the story that has become our story.
There is room for goodness but it is a goodness given by God and a reflection of God’s goodness. And there is no promise that it won’t be hard, only that all things will be well, as Julian of Norwich said.
So let us be a people of hope with our eyes open, our hearts devoted to God and each other, and our hands working in service to others.
1 D. Stephen Long in the forward to Michael Budde, Foolishness to Gentiles, Essays on Empire, Nationalism, and Discipleship, 2022 Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, page xiii
2 Ibid. pp. 14-15
3 Terry Eagleton, see https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/hope-without-optimism