| 1 Peter 1:3-9
||Sun, April 7, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Blessed be.” That is how this text begins. It is a blessing. Yet it is not the kind of blessing that we expect. We expect “God bless you”. We expect that it is we who are in need of the blessing of God. “God bless”, we say. It is a part of our vocabulary. We don’t often turn “God bless you” into “You bless God”. That is what this text does: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Bless God. Why? Because through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead the church addressed by Peter has been born into a living hope. A living hope. Not a message of hope. Not hope in words and prayers and hymns only, but hope that is the strong rhythmic heartbeat of a surging, living faith in the future.
Now, in case you hadn’t noticed, living hope is in desperately short supply these days. The problems that perplex the world become more and more troubling. We watch with horror as the children of Palestinians and Israelis are caught up in ancient struggles for land and a future. Here, our own struggles for land find us pondering what faithfulness looks like in the face of eight questions on a ballot ... and in the face of another generation of landless descendants of the First Peoples in this land. The struggle to control land reminds us of the bigger picture ... a picture of a world that cannot sustain our habits and standards ... for, if all people on the planet were to consume the resources used by the average Canadian, we would need four or five more earths right now ... never mind a planet capable of sustaining an expanded population in the future. But you don’t have to look at the big picture to know the troubles. One of our number says this week: “You know, all my friends are dying” and then proceeds to describe the deaths and terminal pain of eight close friends. In such a world it is no easy thing to sustain “living hope”.
We aren’t alone in coming to this conclusion. Two years ago Columbia Seminary in Atlanta brought together eight church leaders from around the world for a two month seminar. They gathered to discuss the global context of Christian mission. At the conclusion of their time together they produced a written document - now published as “Hope for the World” (edited by Walter Brueggemann, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) - in which they conclude: “out of this exercise ... there has emerged the consensus that the prevailing mood of humankind, globally considered must be named ‘despair’” (p .16). Despair is the bad news that threatens to overwhlem our age. The word despair literally means no (‘de’) hope (‘sperare’, fr. ‘spes’). In medieval times despair was names a deadly sin, a sin that drives toward both spiritual and suicidal death. Remember that in Dante’s “Inferno” the portals of hell are emblazoned with the words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” In Christian tradition, hell is a place of ultimate despair because in it there is no hope of being reconciled with God. Such despair is increasingly overt among the impoverished and landless of the earth. But it is also an increasingly covert - a hidden - reality in affluent contemporary societies. As one writer has said: “The story of American hope ov er the past two centuries is one of increasing narrowing ... the horizon of hope has shrunk to the ‘the scale of self-pampering.’”(84). In such a world despair is the spiritual cancer that threatens the human soul with death.
Which makes the blessing in I Peter all the more intriguing. Imagine belonging to a church that sings “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Do you hear? This is not simply a community that has decided to have hope. This is not a blessing that arises out of the power of positive thinking. This church is not a self-help gathering: “How to have hope in three easy sermons” or “The seven spiritual laws of a hopeful person”. These people have been given the pure gift of “a new birth into a living hope” . They have been mercifully blessed. That is why they bless God, singing songs like: “You are holy, you are whole. You are always ever more than we ever understand. You are always at hand. Blessed are you coming near. Blessed are you coming here to your church in wine and bread, raised from soil, raised from dead.” Peter says of them that they “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (vs. 8). They are like a congregation that - even after the awful events that have overtaken Jerusalem and Bethlehem this past week - dares to place a banner across its printed order of service today that reads: “Alleluia”. Alleluia? In this kind of world, in the face of the kind of trouble that faces us? This sounds like avoidance of the trouble ... like a community with its head in the sand ... ignoring the truth about the horror and the darkness.
The text reveals something else. It tells the truth about the troubles facing this community. This is a people who “have had to suffer various trials.” They live in the absence of Christ’s presence, they do not see him present now. They know trouble. In fact, it is the gift of a “living hope” that enables the community to name and face its “various trials.” Over the past few weeks a group of us have been meeting to consider the practices that we - as a congregation - hope to foster at the time of death. As we have been exploring scripture and sharing our experiences of being in the presence of death we have been discovering something surprising. We have begun to see that a culture that has lost hope in God’s power to overcome death finds it increasingly painful - even impossible - to look death in the face. So the shift in our culture away from caring for and being with and saying farewell to the dead body of our beloved ones reveals a growing despair in the face of death’s inevitable triumph. When we see death we have no hope. So we choose not to look anymore. Imagine then the odd scenes in those first centuries of the church’s existence when congregations of Christians made their way through the streets of the Roman Empire, singing and dancing for joy as they carried the casket and the corpse to the grave. These people were not unaware of the reality of death. In fact, they were able to look it straight in the face ... to freely wail in lament and to unashamedly weep in grief ... because through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead they had been born into a “living hope”.
Do you see? These communities that have died to despair and have been born into a “living hope” are the gift of God in a hellish era of hopelessness. These churches are an evangelical antidote to despair. They are incredibly good news because they are beacons of light, glimpses of God’s promise that - contrary to all our expectations - the future holds redemption and reconciliation in store. Such faith in God is almost unimaginable given the massive darkness that haunts the earth. Such faith in God cannot be mustered by anyone who looks at the mounting evidence of the world’s trouble. That growing evidence is cause for widespread apathy. This contagious apathy is symptomatic of a chronic disease. That disease is despair. Few actually believe that the future holds promise ... or that their own participation in that promised future is of value. Worried about the increasing apathy and indifference, we United Church preachers intuitively press even harder for action, for concern, for change. But to our consternation the apathy only increases. People are less willing to act, less able to change, less driven by hope.
Given all of this I find it interesting that Peter says that the faith of his early church is not self-generated. He says that this community is “being protected by the power of God through faith.” We are accustomed to being told that it is up to us to believe in God. Peter proclaims that even the church’s own trust in God is itself a gift from God. He says this trust is a God given protection against the huge forces of despair and disbelief that otherwise easily overtake our own puny efforts to believe. The whole thing, he says, is gift. Oh, and by the way, Easter - the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead - is not our doing. The creation of a new future for the earth and for the cosmos, is God’s mission ... God’s purpose ... God’s doing. That is the source of our living hope. Do you see? To be born into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is to be caught up in this divine activity. It is not self-generated faith or self-made hope. It is not our doing. Rather, this hope is an amazing gift that is “the salvation of our souls” (vs. 9) from apathy and despair. Blessed be God, indeed!
Let me be clear now. I am telling the truth. This is what I see happening in the church. Congregations like this very one show evidence of dying to despair and apathy. I believe that we are witnessing the birth of a new church whose heart beats with a “living hope”. Faced with financial difficulties and an uncertain future one could easily imagine that a congregation like this one would be overcome by anxiety, fear and worry. But you are not. You don’t know how the problems you face will be resolved. You don’t know where you will be meeting in the years ahead or what staff grouping you may employ. But you seem to be surprisingly unafraid. There seems to be a tangibly hopeful faith that really is protecting you from despair. I dare to believe that this living hope is growing in the church here and beyond. Through God’s great mercy, we are becoming unafraid to look death in the face ... to face the world’s horrible troubles ... and, in the face of this stark reality, to risk living a new way of life together ... to risk a new life in Christ that is our living testimony to the redeemed and reconciled future that is God’s promise ... and our living hope. Amen? Amen!