Gospel of Jesus
What’s so good about the Good News?
By Peter J. Gomes
Summer Salad ’n’ Study 2009
Wednesdays beginning July 22
Animated by Canon Jim Irvine
1 An Offending Gospel 1
2 What Would Jesus Have Me Do? 4
3 The Gospel and Fear 8
4 The Gospel and Conflict 12
5 A Gospel of Hope 17
Holy Communion 21
The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus
An Offending Gospel
When Jesus speaks of the good news in Luke 4:43— “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose”—he is not proclaiming the status quo as sacred but is promising that there is a new message and a new messenger. He comes not to confirm but to confront.
John’s Question and Jesus’ Answer – Tangible Terms
Jesus came to John to be baptized, and although John might have declined to baptize Jesus on the grounds that Jesus should baptize him, he consented, and the baptism of Jesus occurs at the hands of John. Later on, John will want to make certain that Jesus is the one who will continue to proclaim the offending gospel, when from his prison cell, John asks about the deeds of Jesus and through his disciples asks Jesus some pointed questions, including, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” The implication is clear: should we invest our lives in you, or are you wasting our time? It is this question that Jesus answers in this way:
The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.
Jesus answers in tangible terms, and the extraordinary has now become the routine. The usual order of things has been reversed. Transformation and renewal are signs of the age and time: if you want to know who I am, see what I do. This is not just an advertisement for the age of miracles; these miracles, or wonders, testify to the power of Jesus and are signs of the new age.
In the old age the blind were blind and thought to be so because of some sin that they or their parents had committed, and in the new age the blind are among the first to be given real vision. What is more radical than the first vision of one previously without sight? Everything, even the most mundane, is new. The same is true of the lame, whose affliction was also thought to be a cost of somebody’s sin, and whose worst affliction was that they were dependent on others to help them get around. Think of the radical sense of independence given when the lame man in the Bible, confined to his litter, can obey the commandment of Jesus to “Take up thy bed, and walk.” The formerly lame enters into a new world. In the “real” world the dead remain dead and there is nothing more certain than that, but in this new world of the gospel the dead, as Paul later puts it, “become the first fruits of them that sleep.” To be dead is to have lost all chance and hope; to be given new life, a second chance, is to participate in the new creation at the most fundamental level, for if the dead can be revived, then the greatest fear there is—the fear of death—is itself destroyed. Later, Paul will say that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Jesus, as proof of the legitimacy of his ministry and at its very start, proclaims that new life, the ultimate revival, is the most authoritative sign that something new and profoundly different is breaking in.
The Beatitudes – Luke 6:20-26 – The status quo
Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “Happy are you poor; the kingdom of God is yours. Happy are you who are hungry now; you will be filled. Happy are you who weep now; you will laugh.”
The usual haze of familiarity covered the faces of those in church who were used to hearing the same verses over and over, to the extent that they sound like the scriptural equivalent of white sound or ambient noise. As the lesson went on, however, people began to sit up and take notice:
“But how terrible for you who are rich now; you have had your easy life; How terrible for you who are full now; you will go hungry! How terrible for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep! How terrible when all men speak well of you, because their ancestors said the very same things to the false prophets.”
Those who appear to win by worldly standards, who are now the haves and not the have-nots, have every reason to be anxious about tomorrow, for if the good news, the gospel, is that worldly victories are only temporary and subject to reversal, then those who win today will lose tomorrow. Those who have it made today will have it unmade tomorrow. If you are at this moment at ease and satisfied, enjoy it, for it will not last; now is your reward, but now is not forever.
This clearly was a message for those whose worldly circumstances stood in need of improvement, a word of encouragement to those mightily discouraged; and a crude, streetwise translation of this passage from Luke might sound like this: “You’ll get yours, and I’ll get mine.” This does not mean that we will all share and share alike; it means that those of us who have much now will lose it, and those who have nothing will have more. It is the ultimate redistribution of wealth, and one can see why a certain kind of socialist would find it appealing, and a certain kind of capitalist find it appalling.
The gospel message in Luke is simply that knowing this, we now have a chance to do something about it before it is too late. Thus, in the verses that follow in Luke 6, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, practice the Golden Rule, love those beyond our comfort zone, and be merciful to others as we hope God will be merciful to us.
When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed. There is no appeal to an earlier Golden Age when things were done right, and the contemporary scene holds no promise, for it merely makes sacred the experiences of the people in power. The gospel's arena is the future, the time that is not yet and is to be, and thus everything short of that time is suspect, mortal, and inadequate.
Most people do not go to church to be confronted with the gap between what they believe and practice and what their faith teaches and requires. One of the reasons that religious people are often cultural conservatives, and that cultural conservatives take comfort in religion, is that religion is seen to confirm the status quo. When a member of a congregation says to the preacher at the door of a church on a Sunday, “That was a first-rate sermon,” he or she is saying that the preacher said all the things with which the person agreed, but only half as well.
The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus
What Would Jesus Have Me Do?
What Would Jesus Do? remains a problematic question because it implies that it is Jesus’ role to enter into our world and become the solution to our problems, when we are meant to live as bravely and as fully in our world and time as Jesus lived in his.
1. “What Would Jesus Do?”
How many Good Friday sermons have tried to address the words of doubt, anger, and even fear that Jesus cries out on the cross in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Certainly he was quoting scripture, but the scripture he quotes begins, as do many of the psalms, with a querulous and all too-human doubt in God’s reliability and presence. Any of Hollywood’s leading men would make a far more heroic Jesus than cross is an embarrassment to many who yearn for a more heroic figure. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would make a better Christ figure than Jesus, for the purpose of a heroic Victim.
When people ask “What Would Jesus Do?” they do not usually have those nonheroic moments in mind, nor does it seem that they would be particularly prepared to follow the example of Jesus in other matters. It is not an easy thing to forgive one’s enemies, for example, yet Jesus does exactly that from the cross when he asks forgiveness for those who are busily crucifying him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What Jesus does does not square with what we would do, or even with what we would want him to do.
When Jesus speaks about the care of the poor, when he associates with those of low social caste, when he tells people not to worry about clothing, food, and drink, when he enunciates his ethic in the Sermon on the Mount, when he advises that we turn the other cheek, and when he says that the chief ethical activity is love, most of us of a certain age find that what he says squares with our own natural response to similar situations. In an analysis of why traditional stories about Jesus do not appeal to contemporary young people, however, I read that one respondent said that, according to what he read in the Bible, Jesus was a wimp. Jesus would never make it in the average American high school, the respondent suggested, and therefore trying to do what Jesus did is either impossible, as he is, after all, the son of God, or undesirable, for in terms of the world he doesn’t win.
2. A Better Question
The dilemma about what Jesus would do is avoided, or at least compromised, if the question is put differently and, in my view, as Jesus himself put it in the Gospels. The question should not be “What would Jesus do?” but rather, and more dangerously, “What would Jesus have me do?” The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semidivine human beings to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity; he wants us to live in the full implications of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding. Anyone can evade responsibility by attempting the impossible and failing; what Jesus asks is that we do what is possible, and that is the challenge that makes life interesting. Jesus does not ask us to behave as he did; he asks us to behave as we ought—which is why asking “What would Jesus have me do?” is far riskier than asking what Jesus himself would do.
Our situation would be easier if Jesus were less clear about the priorities he sets for us. As Mark Twain is said to have remarked, “It is not what I don’t understand in the Bible that troubles me; it is what is perfectly clear that does.” At the heart of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” “All these things” refers to such things as food, clothing, and other fundamental necessities of life, plus security, safety, and moral clarity. The priority that Jesus asks us to seek is God’s kingdom, God’s righteousness, the first thing above all else to which we are meant to direct our attention and efforts. That is also the first petition in the pattern of prayer that Jesus taught his followers to say: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ...” We should notice that only after that priority is established are we encouraged to ask for our own needs, in the form of daily bread; only after we have established the priority of the kingdom are we to attend to matters of economics: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors ...”; and only after the priority of the kingdom are we encouraged to worry about temptation and evil. Even the future age, the coming “power and glory,” happens within the context of what we can call “kingdom priority.”
3. Love, Love, Love
Mrs. Julia Child said that her creed, such as it was, could be summarized in the words of Jesus: love of God and love of neighbor. Good theology, like a good recipe, does not waste words. “Love of God and love of neighbor” is what the Book of Common Prayer calls the summary of the law: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
To those looking for an airtight Jesus-based ethical system, this may seem too simple, or even simplistic, yet of all the things that we might derive from the teachings of Jesus contained in the Gospels, Jesus himself ascribes priority to these two commandments. If we really want to know what Jesus would have us do, we have to take these two commandments as seriously as he did.
The love of God is not just a sentimental obligation but the incorporation of a worldview that we respond to God as God acts toward us. To be created in God's image—a view from Hebrew scripture that is reiterated in the Gospels—is to realize that we have been made worthy by one who is worthy. There is something of the divine, of God, in every one of us. Psalm 19 tells us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork,” but we too in our own creation declare the glory of God, for we are, again in the words of the psalm, “wonderfully and fearfully made.” While the power and imagination of God is never to be denied, it is an article of faith shared by Jews and Christians alike that our very creation, our very being, is an act of love. To love God is to reflect on God the love that brought us into being.
To love God is one thing, but what is it to love what God loves? This is not as easy as it sounds, for God's love at times seems less discriminating than our own. We tend to love those things and persons agreeable to us, and the notion that God could love things that we cannot is a hard pill to swallow. For most of us, it is reassuring to think that God loves what we love, and hates what we hate, but if "the love of God is broader than the measure of man's mind," as the old hymnist wrote, then our love of God must extend beyond what we alone know and love to embrace all that which God loves as well. If God loves all that he has made—and he has made everyone, not just ourselves, in his own image—then the commandment to love God means that we must love all whom God has made, even those different from ourselves, and disagreeable to us.
4. A Step Too Far?
The popular evangelist Tony Campolo recently asked a congregation in The Memorial Church if we had prayed for Osama bin Laden. Up to that point he had had the congregation in the palm of his hand, agreeing with his every utterance and hanging on his every word, but then there was an awkward silence, for we have made of Osama bin Laden a demon, and we do not normally pray for demons. “Pray for your enemies,” Jesus said, however, and Tony Campolo had reminded us of this commandment. We have no choice.
Praying for our enemies—and not just for their defeat—is one thing, but what about praying for people who are not our enemies but of whom we simply disapprove, people who have done us no harm, people we neither know nor like? This is the hardest part of the ethic of love, but it is at the heart of the first commandment, that of the love for God and all his works.
All politics, morality, religion, and law can be found rooted in compassion and love, and the works that proceed from them are all one needs in order to do what Jesus would have us do, and become what Jesus would have us become. Nothing more is necessary; nothing less will do.
The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus
The Gospel and Fear
How easy it is to forget that we worship God not because of what he does for us but because of who he is.
It fell to me to remind my congregation that nothing in the Bible promises us a stress-free existence in this world, and that to confuse worldly success with divine approbation is a dangerous, even idolatrous, enterprise. When ancient Israel tried it, God profoundly disapproved, and showed his displeasure. When Rome tried it, God let it fall. The New Testament Christians, especially those who expected an early and fiery end to this world, seemed to understand that while this world lasted there would always be trouble and difficulty.
As I considered my sermon for what I knew was to be a memorable Sunday filled with anxiety and expectation, I was mindful of the verse from the Gospel of John that is so often read at funeral and memorial services:
These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In this world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.
How interesting it is to note that in his farewell discourses Jesus does not promise an earthy paradise where everything works out according to plan. He states as a fact that “in this world ye shall have tribulation.” In other words, the faithful should expect trouble, anticipate difficulties, and be prepared to cope with disaster; only a fool would confuse this world with the lost world of Eden or the promised world that is to come.
Set a straight course and keep to it; and do not be dismayed in the face of adversity. [Revised English Bible]
It sounds vaguely familiar, although it comes from one of the books in the Apocrypha, and is given here in the Revised English Bible translation. In the King James Version it is even clearer in its sense:
Set thy heart aright, and constantly endure, and make not haste in time of calamity. [King James Version]
Such a verse seemed to make a good deal of sense in a time when people were losing heart, uncertain of what endurance meant, and tempted in the face of calamity to rush to judgment and action.
When the pundits and editorialists asked, “Where was God?” they meant in part to argue at least one of two points: (1) If we are nice to God, why isn’t God nice to us? Isn’t that what the bargain is, what he is supposed to do? or (2) All this attention paid to God is wasted if, when we need him most, he isn’t there. Isn’t this a wake-up call to a mature and secular understanding of how the world works? The question, with its irony and cynicism, was not dissimilar to the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal in the Hebrew Bible. The God who could deliver fire was the God who was to be taken seriously.
The real issue for consideration, however, was how faithful people deal with tribulation in the world, and as the question is not new, we should not be surprised to discover a wide range of answers. Tribulation, the text from Ecclesiasticus 2:2 suggests, goes with the territory, and has done so ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and forbidden to return by fearsome angelic sentries.
2. Good People and Bad Things
It is a dangerous, even heretical, notion that Christians, even faithful Christians, have a right to expect a turmoil-free existence, that somehow we are entitled to a “Get out of jail free” Monopoly card. We sometimes assume that if only we go to church, or believe in the right things, or do the right things, all will be well.
Where did we get such an idea? When Rabbi Kushner wrote his famous bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he was tapping into the popular assumption that “good” people are somehow entitled to expect a little favorable reciprocity when bad things happen. This is a profound misreading of the Christian faith, and at the very least it is an incompetent reading of the Bible. What is dangerous about this view of things is that it tends to make an idol of prosperity, and that even if we use religious language in such a view, we are tempted to worship the blessings and not the source of the blessings. From that we soon come to believe that we deserve the blessings, that we have earned them, and that they are a right like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
3. Inner Strength
In one of his great poems, Choruses from The Rock, T. S. Eliot asks, “Why should men love the Church?” This is his answer:
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget. She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good ...
“Dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” seems an apt description of much of the effort of modern life, even in the church.
Inner strength comes from the sure conviction that God has placed us in the world to do the work of life, and not of death. What this means socially we will discuss toward the close of this book when the recovery of a social gospel is addressed. What it means for individuals is that inner strength comes not from stoic endurance or even heroic resistance, but from doing what God means us to do in life, despite fear, doubt, and even death. The kind of inner strength that stands the test, even when we wish we were not tested, is best described by Saint Paul in Romans 8:
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
4. Strong Words
In the Book of Common Prayer there is a wonderful collect that begins, “God of all comfort ...” Some people are prepared to stop there, not satisfied with the church’s traditional role of offering comfort and consolation when it can do nothing else, but the precise meaning of the word “comfort” is to offer strength, for it has more to do with fortification and being fortified than with consolation or mere sympathy. The inner strength to do what must be done comes from God. The God of all comfort, of all strength, is the one who supplies us with what we most lack when we most need it, and this comfort has to do with power and energy, not simply with solace.
5. Compassion and Strength
The opposite of fear is not courage but compassion. We fear what we do not know, and the mother of fear is ignorance, but we cannot fear that which we love, for, as Jesus tells us, perfect love casts out fear. Compassion leaves no room for fear; we are too busy doing what we can, what we must, and what God wishes us to do, to take time to fear the consequences. If the Good Samaritan had indulged his fears both of the dangers of the highway and of what others might think of his imprudent but compassionate behavior, he would have done nothing at all. Compassion has to do with the exercise of that inner strength that allows us power in the face of powerlessness and of the powers-that-be.
The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus
The Gospel and Conflict
We are not there yet, however. We must manage to live in the world as it is until we have the world as it is to be; and a part of this world involves living with conflict. To pretend otherwise is to be unprepared, whereas opportunity, especially for good, comes only to those who are prepared.
1. Conscientious Participation
This young man had grown up in a world where peace, or at least the absence of conflict, was the ideal. The struggle to achieve that ideal in a fallen world is not made as clear as it ought to be, and the notion that Christians have always been engaged in a life-and-death struggle for their own souls as well as for the peace of the world is no longer at the forefront of religious teaching. It has long been out of fashion to think of the world as inhabited by hobgoblins and lions, foul fiends and giants; and Satan as an active figure making mischief in the world has been reduced to a Halloween character, or to a particularly obnoxious boss in such films as The Devil Wears Prada. The church in many ways has disarmed itself. Perhaps it is atoning for previous excesses of militancy, but the result is that it appears to have no voice when conflict inevitably arises.
This was not always so. Originally, in the Rite of Infant Baptism, now usually referred to as a rite of initiation into the Christian family, the child was not only purged of the stain of original sin and welcomed into the community, but was also armed to fight against a world set implacably against God. The language was self-consciously militant, and after the act of baptism had been performed, the minister said these words:
We receive this child (person) into the congregation of Christ's flock; and do sign him with the sign of the cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.
Somehow we have communicated that baptism is an inoculation against the germ of sin and its consequent troubles, when actually baptism declares that one is now prepared to fight against sin, the world, and the devil. It is no small point to note that immediately after his own baptism by John, Jesus was forced to submit to three excruciating temptations at the hand of the devil. Baptism did not protect him from conflict; it enabled him to engage in conflict and by God’s grace to prevail, at least for the time being.
Conflict is an unavoidable part of the world in which the believer must live. The question is not how to avoid conflict but how to engage in it with the least amount of damage, and here the biblical record is not altogether helpful. The common complaint against the Hebrew Bible is that it is filled with violence, for God is described as “angry” and “jealous,” and there is no lack of fighting, conquest, and defeat. When the people of God set about rebuilding the broken walls of their city, as described in the book of Nehemiah, in order to defend themselves they do so with instruments of construction in one hand and of war in the other. Jesus in the New Testament says that to manage in this world we should be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, but it is also ascribed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, his most important teaching, that the peacemakers are blessed.
While conflict may be a reality, there is no doubt that peace is the ideal of the gospel. When we read the Beatitudes, where the commendation of peacemakers is found, we make a fatal mistake if we believe that the passage is describing things as they are; and when Matthew 5 is read out in church most people roll their eyes, because they realize that it is not describing any world that exists or ever has existed. In the “real” world, as we know, the kingdom of heaven may belong to the spiritually powerful, but they are cut no slack here.
When we read the Beatitudes, however, or, as the Sunday school argot calls them, the “happy attitudes,” we realize that the Bible is pointing to something that is yet to be. This is an example of how the Bible points beyond itself to the gospel, the good news wherein we are to be liberated from the burden of the conventional wisdom.
The first heaven and the first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished. And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne, “Now God’s home is with men! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more grief, crying, or pain. The old things have disappeared.” [Revelation 21:1-5 Good News for Modern Man]
Not yet, though, for the first earth and the first heaven have not yet disappeared. This is a vision, an anticipation of things to come, good news for those who suffer under the burden of bad news or the same old news.
Perhaps this is all too biblical? Years ago, I was much encouraged when I discovered that Gandhi had a list of seven social sins that, if not resisted, could destroy both persons and countries. In listing these seven social sins, we find that we are compelled to fight for their opposites in worthy conflict:
politics without principle
wealth without work
commerce without morality
pleasure without conscience
education without character
science without humanity
worship without sacrifice
3. The Conflict Within
In the book of the prophet Micah are these famous words: “He hath shown you, O man, what is good.” What God expects of us is no secret; it is not hidden in an esoteric philosophy requiring a special code to understand it. As my old colleague and teacher Krister Stendahl used to say, “We know what to do.” Micah tells us, in the words of the Revised English Bible, to:
walk humbly with your God
1. It would seem a simple thing to do. In the law courts of England, before a trial begins it is stated, “Let right be done.” To act justly is to do the right thing, to practice the rule that we would act toward others as we would have them act toward us and as God has already acted toward us, with mercy, generosity, and the opportunity of a second chance. To act justly is to do more than the law requires: it is to risk error in favor of goodness.
2. We practice loyalty when we remember how God has treated us, and when we live and love in the light of that remembrance. We love God because God first loved us. Loyalty requires that we remember that, and because of that remembrance we are kind and good to others.
3. Humility toward God is perhaps the most difficult part of this activity to carry out successfully, for religious people who are intimate with God tend to be arrogant and lacking in charity toward those they believe to be less intimate with God. When Henry David Thoreau was on his deathbed, his Calvinist aunt asked him, "Are you right with God?" Thoreau replied sweetly, “I wasn’t aware that we had quarreled.” To walk humbly with God means that we do not walk arrogantly with others.
4. Social Sin
Social sin is easy to see: nation making war against nation, the perpetual poverty of the disinherited, the mendacity of nation-states, and the sources of civil discontent that gave rise to the social gospel and, in our own times, to theologies of liberation. Many would describe racism, sexism, and homophobia as social sins, and to that list could be added addictions to drugs, alcohol, and pornography.
At the heart of all these social sins, however, these corporate acts of malfeasance, are human beings for whom the easy wrong is preferable to the difficult right. It is only in the church that that connection is made explicit, which is why the confession of sin, and thus the personal indictment, is all the more difficult to accept.
The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus
A Gospel of Hope
Revelation is not a book written to inspire fear or terror. But it is definitely written to increase a sense of urgency for our world. It is an apocalyptic wake-up call for each of us, precisely because there is hope for us and for our world.
1. The Advent of Hope
One of my least favorite liturgical seasons is Advent, which comprises the four weeks that follow Thanksgiving and precede Christmas. The conventional wisdom is that Advent is the season of hope, and we light our Advent candles, one more on each Sunday, not simply anticipating the light but increasing it. Although Advent is, like Lent, meant to be a season of penitence, hope as a theme has long triumphed over the mood of repentance, and I do not criticize Advent because, to all intents and purposes, it has become a month long dress rehearsal for Christmas and a commercial phenomenon that is beyond the power of mere Christians to defeat. Years ago, when in October I saw the first Santa Claus in a store window and heard tinny carols in a department store elevator, I knew that Thanksgiving could not be far away and that the battle for Advent had been lost. What I find difficult to take seriously about Advent is the note of false rather than authentic hope that is imposed upon people.
I watch congregations struggle with the Advent hymns. In my own congregation, we begin every Advent Sunday with the popular hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, the final verse of which tells us what to expect:
O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven's peace.
The irony is that envy, strife, and quarreling are very much the order of the day; the world is hardly filled with heaven’s peace. Are we praying for the restoration of some imagined time of bliss and satisfaction, or, despite the evidence of our own experience, are we looking toward something that has not yet been achieved?
2. “Now what happens, now what do I do?”
Many years ago, I assisted as an extra pair of clerical hands at the Christmas Eve service in Boston's historic and splendid Trinity Church. The crowd waiting to get into the church from Copley Square, on which the church fronts, was so great and so agitated that a detachment of mounted police had to be dispatched for crowd control. The scene outside the church looked like the prelude to a rock concert, and inside there were wall-to-wall people, not the usual Sunday worshipers but a rather odd collection of people waiting for something to happen. They sang the familiar carols with gusto, but the rest of the liturgy seemed unfamiliar to most lost of them. Then, in their hundreds, they accepted the invitation to come to the communion rail. The church was beautifully decorated, the music incredibly grand, and the general effect pregnant with expectation. At the rail, after I had given the cup to one young man, through his tears he asked, “Now what happens, now what do I do?” I told him to go back to his seat as there were people waiting for his place at the rail. It was an inadequate response; perhaps I might have given him Emily Dickinson’s lines about hope:
Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words And never stops at all.
Rather than the hope of organized good cheer, Dickinson’s image offers an elusive, fleeting clarity, vividly vague, as it were, that endures in the most intimate of spaces and never gives up. Hope, in her view, is not a policy or a doctrine or a form of nostalgia either theological or secular. It is, rather, “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” I like the use of the word “perches” here, with its suggestion of the precarious or delicately balanced. There is something fragile about it and yet it abides, however precariously, at the very center of our being—the “thing with feathers.” Perhaps it was such a precarious hope that had brought the young man to the altar that night: I wished I had better served him.
3. Ambiguity of Hope
When the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his once very popular hymn I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, he spoke to the ambiguity of hope, a hope that seemed precarious, even mocking, at the time of the American Civil War. The first verse tells of what is expected:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
Then reality sets in, and the contrast between what the bells say and the actual state of the world is painfully obvious:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Good Victorian that he was, however, Longfellow concludes with an affirmation of hope that stands the test of time:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
4. Muscular Hope
We usually do not think of Saint Paul as a sentimental man, and it would be a wild stretch of the imagination to mention him in the same breath as the Belle of Amherst and her version of hope as “the thing with feathers,” but could her hope be that hope of which Paul speaks in Romans 5? He writes:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Muscular hope such as that of which Saint Paul speaks to the Romans comes with a price, and usually suffering and privation are involved. This kind of hope requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready return. Paul’s sequence reminds us of this: we pass from sufferings that are not avoided to endurance, which is the quality that allows us to keep on when it would be easier to quit. The process of enduring produces character, that inner quality not to be confused with image or reputation that is who we are when no one is looking. It is from character that hope is produced. This is where the old aphorism comes from that says, “Show me what you hope for, and I will know who you are.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
God calls us to faithful service
by the proclamation of the word,
and sustains us with the sacrament
of the body and blood of Christ.
[Hear now God's word,
and] receive this holy food from the Lord’s table.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your name. Amen.
The priest shall say…
Almighty God have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As our Saviour taught us, let us pray,
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and for ever. Amen.
The gifts of God for the People of God.
Thanks be to God.
Glory to God,
whose power, working in us,
can do infinitely more
than we can ask or imagine.
Glory to God from generation to generation, in the Church and in Christ Jesus,
for ever and ever. Amen.
Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.