Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Theological Virtues: Hope

The scriptures referred to are Matthew 28:1-10.

Despair kills. We nurses know that. I have seen people in nursing homes die when their hope died: when they realized they weren't ever going home again to live or when they were moved to a distant facility, meaning future visits from family would be few and far between. Oddly enough, I have rarely seen people give up merely from getting a bad prognosis. Or a dismal diagnosis. In fact, as one guy told me, finally getting a diagnosis of what was wrong with him meant he knew what he was fighting. And if he could fight it, there was hope. I think the same was true for me. When, thanks be to God, I finally emerged from a coma and was told what damage the accident had done, I knew what I had to do to heal and to walk again. And that gave me hope.

Hopelessness is a key feature of depression. When all avenues to a better future, or a future itself, are closed off, people lose motivation and energy. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was a specialist in suicide prevention. In 1944 he and his wife were sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis. Always attuned to how the human mind works, he noticed something about his fellow inmates: those who had a reason to live survived; those who lost their reason to live died. As he put it, “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” Having a purpose in life, believing that life has meaning are absolutely vital to living. These are the things that give people hope.

Of course there are various things that people can conceive of as their purpose in life. Some people see their purpose as making money, or experiencing pleasure, or simply being the best at something: a sport, or a business, or some other field of endeavor. The problem is all of these things are uncertain or fleeting. Every athlete knows that if you have a bad day, your hope of an Olympic medal or a Superbowl ring could be gone. And even if you do set a record, someone will break it down the road. Want to make lots of money? If the economy goes south, your fortune and your business could go under with it. Want to be the smartest person in your field? All it takes is for trends in contemporary thinking to change or for someone to make a new discovery that sends research off in a different direction and your intellectual achievements will fade or become a footnote.

Choosing to simply chase pleasure is self-limiting because once your brain becomes habituated to something, you encounter the law of diminishing returns. Even addicts lose the pleasure their drug or activity of choice gave them at first, only to find it replaced by a joyless craving that is never satisfied. And in the case of drugs, horrific pain and crippling depression should you stop.

And death ends it all. Even if you become the world's greatest heart surgeon, you don't really save lives. You just postpone those deaths and perhaps your patients will die from another cause, like cancer. If your purpose in life and the meaning of your life is dependent on this life alone, they will cease when your heart does. Even if you simply want to be remembered for something after your death, take in the fact that there are 7.5 billion people on this planet now and an estimated 108 billion who have ever lived. Unless you become super-famous, not Kardashian-famous but Einstein-famous, you will be forgotten in 2 or 3 generations. It's even possible that some day in the distant future Einstein will be a necessary but quaint part of the history of a science that has gone very far past his ideas and achievements. After all, nobody knows who invented the wheel. And without googling it, you probably don't know who invented Velcro.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows if he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)

Death is the great crusher of hope. Even Paul admitted that “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) After all, Jesus followed all his precepts and it got him killed at the age of 33. Yes, the principles of following Jesus would make individuals better people and if everyone followed them it would make the world much better. Even if we did change the world and all human societies, that would take a lot of time. It's like turning an aircraft carrier around and then laying in a new course to a new destination. That means not everyone would see those benefits in their lifetime. Which, if death is the end, means some people would never experience the full benefits of following Jesus.

But as we've seen, not everyone would follow the ethics and goals of Christianity. History shows that people push back against any change, even when it would be a really good idea. And some who say they are Christians pervert the faith and use it for their own ends. If nothing follows death, they could get away with it. Christianity neither makes sense, nor does it work, when it is confined to this life.

Jesus knew this. As soon as Peter and the disciples explicitly said that Jesus was the Messiah, he started teaching them that he would suffer and die. But he always said he would rise again after 3 days. They still didn't get it. The Messiah doesn't die at the hands of those in power. He deposes those in power, sets himself up as God's King on earth and inaugurates the Messianic Age. That is when the dead are resurrected, all the dead. Not only could they not conceive of God's Anointed dying, they couldn't see a separate resurrection for just one person. The biggest problem, though, was the idea that the Messiah would die. That was anything but a message of hope.

That all changed on Easter. Not only did the disciples rethink their idea of the work of the Messiah, they had to rethink the significance of the resurrection. It vindicated what Jesus said and did. His execution was not a tragedy or a fluke; it was God's plan all along. The enemy Christ was to defeat wasn't the Romans or any political entity but the evil that oppresses us all: the sin that enslaves us, the injustices we do to others, the disloyalty to God evident in the way we choose to live. Jesus also defeated what often keeps us from doing the right thing: death. The fear of death discourages us from opposing evil perpetrated by the powerful. It can make us stay quiet. You don't even have to look in the Bible and at all the prophets who were martyred for speaking the truth to power to see this. History is full of reformers who were assassinated for standing up to those in power and reporters who were murdered for shining a light on evildoing. Such bravery in the face of likely death is rare.

Yet all of the disciples changed from hiding behind locked doors to proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus in the open. Michael Grant in his book Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels admits that, as an historian, it is hard to explain the change in the apostles and the spread of Christianity apart from the resurrection. As N.T. Wright points out, there were would-be messiahs both before and after Jesus. When they were executed, those followers who escaped death either went back to a quiet and safe private life or went after the next messiah wanna-be. They never stuck to the story that their dead leader was still the Christ, much less said he was back from the dead. Only Jesus' disciples asserted that. And not only were the authorities who executed Jesus unable to stop the story (by, say, producing the body) but they weren't able to intimidate the apostles into keeping quiet. It's like they weren't afraid of death anymore.

That is the basis of our hope. Yes, our hope is also based on the loving nature of God revealed in Jesus. But had he stayed dead, there would be little evidence of that love. It would simply be more evidence that being such an open, honest and trusting person is naive and could get you killed. A permanently dead Jesus teaches us that the meek will not inherit the earth, that those who are merciful will not receive mercy, and that those who mourn will not be comforted. Only a physically alive Jesus is the proper basis for hope. And I understand that that is a tough thing to believe in. It doesn't come naturally.

We have been speaking of virtues. And hope is one of the theological virtues. Like agape, divine love, to be a virtue hope cannot be merely an emotion. It must be an attitude we choose. And like any virtue, it is most vital at exactly the time when it is most difficult to maintain. Despair is choosing to believe that version of the future that says we will fail, that things will get worse, that the most appalling outcome will definitely take place. Hope is choosing to trust God's vision of a better future over the ultimately hopeless one the world would have us believe. Hope is, as someone put it, the future tense of faith. Faith is trusting God now; hope is trusting him to make good on his most extravagant promises: that we will be raised to eternal life, that the heavens and the earth will be resurrected to greater glory, that God will wipe away every tear, that death and pain and mourning will be no more and that love, the God who is love, will conquer all.

These last seven weeks we have been speaking of the virtues: the cardinal ones—self-control, wisdom, courage and justice; and the theological ones—faith, hope, and love. All are decisions we must make over and over: to not lose control, to stop and think of what is essential and most valuable in life, to not let fear paralyze us, to be fair despite our prejudices and self-interest, to trust God when that seems to be a stupid gamble, to not give into despair, to do the loving thing even when people are unlovely. We honor these because they are extraordinary. We don't give Olympic medals for sitting and watching TV or driving to the store or scratching an itch. We give them for physical feats that are beyond what humans normally do. In the same way we don't lionize people for getting mad at irritating folks or running from danger or giving up when facing daunting odds. Those are normal reactions to situations. Virtues are about behaving a lot better than we would expect a person to do. They are about going above and beyond.

And while having one virtue is better than having none, you really need them all to be the kind of person you should be. Wisdom is good but to put those values into practice you need to have self-control and, when you run into opposition, courage based on your conviction that what you are doing is just. And as Paul pointed out, without love even faith and hope amount to nothing. In fact, without love for God and for all people, where is the motivation to be just and courageous and exercise self-control and learn what is wise? God's love demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is what fuels our faith and hope in God.

But, as we've said, the basis for all that never would have come about if on a spring morning like this one, a bunch of women hadn't found a tomb open and empty, and been told by angels to tell the disciples, and if those disciples hadn't seen and eaten with and touched the risen Jesus, and spent 40 days learning from him how to look at the world from a new perspective, not limited by death, but expanded by the triumph of the God of life in the person of a breathing, palpable Jesus of Nazareth. As John Updike wrote in his poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter:

"Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell's dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through that door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen,
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance."

Alleluia. Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

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