By Ted Brackman
I want to thank you all for this opportunity to be with you and to share Christian hope. Hope, for me, is at once a theological, social, and personal topic.
Over the last 2 ½ years, your supportive messages, prayers, and even financial gifts have been a true asset in my struggle with pancreatic cancer. Other people in this congregation know about health adversity and there are examples here of folks who have suffered far more than I have. I’m humbled to speak with you about the hope that keeps us going.
Three years ago, I was a healthy and fit person. I ate well, exercised, engaged in some quality relationships, was blessed with stimulating work and ministry, and all of a sudden, I found out a relentless evil invader was growing in my body. A deathdealing adversary that I’ve had to live with and may soon take my life.
The shock of having a serious cancer, the trauma of a major surgery, medical predictions that I would have 12 to 18 months of life no matter what I did, possibly losing a 25-year-old clinical ministry, an insurance company that would not support the treatment plan I came to, and varieties of conflicting and contradictory advice that I was given by well-meaning people was altogether challenging. With great help from Deb, family, friends, and colleagues, I have endured five long term chemotherapy regimens, and radiation treatment. Given the challenges, some kind people even say I don’t look too bad!
So how do I go forward and cultivate life today? How do I hope? How do we hope? With what kind of hope do we hope?
We worship here today, in part, because we want to hope. We instinctively feel the contingency of life, knowing that the present is incomplete, never entirely fulfilled. There’s always more to ask about every situation. Of all the creatures on this planet, humans are the ones who look longingly to the future to complete what the present denies. We inherently hope beyond death because life simply must be bigger than death if it’s going to have satisfying meaning.
Our deepest desire, never totally experienced in this life, the total fulfillment of our very being, is possible only in God’s heaven. Heaven is never less than the good life we have here; it is all this and more. As Calvin said, God lets us taste the sweetness of the earth in order to win our hopes for heaven. Just as we wish for a deep and lasting love because love is real, or wish for a good friend because friendship is real, we wish for heaven because heaven is real, we wish for eternal life because it is our destiny to live forever.
How many of you want to go to heaven? Almost everyone. How many of us would go there today if we had our choice? Most people defer the pleasure. I might as well. Why? Perhaps it’s because we have lesser hopes, more immediate, familiar, rewarding hopes. Most of us have more hopes than we realize. We invest something of our happiness in every hope we have. Recognizing our many hopes can be profitable because we tend to become what we most hope for. Often our hopes build on each other. Walking with hope can be likened to climbing a mountain. Along the climb, we may face many obstacles, sometimes unforseen hills, meanderings, even false summits. Our map or compass doesn’t provide every detail. Only when we reach the top, and look back, do we see the entire route – a route only partially visible on the way up. Accomplishing lesser goals or hopes is necessary for a successful climb.
Sometimes unforeseen things happen that not only curtail prior hopes but challenge us beyond what we were expecting. And sometimes we are literally faced with the tragic dimensions of life. In those situations, we need a durable, muscular hope, a sustaining courage, to take the next step though we can’t see through the complexity or obstacles facing us. If we don’t find hope, we can end up in despair or hopelessness.
People who are hopeless almost always feel stuck, powerless to change the circumstance. When they look forward they typically see more of the same. They come to believe in the futility of stepping forward. Their gloomy images of future are sometimes overwhelmingly catastrophic. Suicide thoughts typically occur with that sense of hopelessness about the future. Why try? Who cares? What difference does it make? Despondency infects everything living with the germs of decay. Ever since the Middle Ages, the list of seven deadly sins has always begun with despondency.
Plato called hope a dubious and dangerous gift. That is connected with the fact that Greeks asked about the immortality of the soul and what lasts, not about the new. Nowhere in the world of the religions is God associated with human hope for the future. Only the biblical promises have made what’s coming from the future significant on one hand and, on the other hand, reliable.
Christian hope starts from a particular historical reality and announces the future of that reality, its power over the present, and its consummation. This hope, in the midst of the adversities of our lives, creates courage for a future that is not yet visible. Instead of building from the present forward, this hope begins with God’s future and then informs our smaller daily hopes so that there can be a trajectory and coherence to all of our hopes, large or small. We live God’s future into being.
Hope is not easy and it often requires struggle and despair in order for it to reach its full potential. The Old Testament voice is the oldest, deepest, and most resilient grounding of hope in all of human history. It can be said that the people of the Old Testament were the most elemental hopers in the world and that, in decisive ways, Christians have learned about hope from the Jews.
It was the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC at the hands of the Babylonians, and the exile that followed, that became defining realities for ancient Israel in its struggle to hope. Jerusalem had been the beloved city that kept all threats and chaos at bay. The Psalmist, after all, had said that, even if the earth should change, the mountain shook, God is in the midst of the city and it shall not be moved. (Psalm 46:2) Well, it was moved and largely destroyed.
The Jews were displaced, leading members of the community deported, the people lost intellectual certitude, economic viability, and the centered presence of God. It is impossible to overstate the social, psychological, emotional, and theological emergency of the exile for the community. The deportation was a major matrix ripe for despair. Coming to terms with the double loss of God’s presence and a home base was the overriding intellectual and religious agenda of ancient Israel.
Israel’s hope was reborn with three significant phenomena. First, a third of the entire book of Psalms erupts in grievance speech, hyperbolic regressive language that comes from people deeply troubled as they encounter the power of death that mobilizes against them and savages the community. There is a deep outrage and outcry from overwhelmed people who demand that it be different. In their lament, the people protested against God because they still wanted to believe. They still wanted to hope. If there was no God, there would be no reason to cry out. Paradoxically, then, we protest with God against God because it is God who makes possible our protest of an evil and wrong that must change.
When I left treatment last Thursday, I was forced to face the likely cruel reality that my cancer is rapidly growing and the chemos I have been on aren’t working. I didn’t ask “Why me?” Instead, with the lamenting psalmist I cried out “God damn this cancer!”
Second, rather than forgetting about their past relationship with God, many Jews engaged in a transforming reconstitution of memory. The liturgical chants of our Psalm 136 recite everything that God has done from creation to the establishment of a covenantal community. The Lamentations poet declares, this I call to mind, and therefore I will hope in him. (3:22.)
It does me great benefit to find gratitude for so many wonderful memories and the wisdom that I’ve gained. Looking for God throughout my history helps me bear up during the arduous weekly grind with chemo and all of its side effects.
Third, a miracle of God occurs in which Israel’s prophets deliver a series of stunning affirmations about the future. In times of barbaric imperialism, Ezekiel envisions a valley of dry bones coming to life, a restored Temple in Jerusalem. Jeremiah envisions a new covenant between God and God’s people written on the heart. Isaiah envisions a wondrous triumphal homecoming led by God who defeats Babylon. This massive theological genesis had little to do with optimism about what was going on. Rather it was a statement about hope in the fidelity of God, who is the key player in the past and in the future. Isaiah says, “here is your God, your God reigns.” (40:9. 52:7.)
The calamity of 587 BC has its successor in the New Testament. Jesus’ execution was catastrophic for his followers and multitudes of Palestinians who had believed that he was the promised Messiah King. He was going to bring in the kingdom of God and be its Lord. He was going to liberate the 99% in a colonialized classist agrarian society. Instead of being Israel’s royal liberator, Jesus dies godforsaken and alone. Hope was crucified at Golgotha. Jesus’ followers betrayed, denied, and abandoned him because they felt betrayed and denied of their davidic messianic expectations – a false hope.
Often false hopes must die before true hope is born. Christian hope began with the earliest oral proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, formed before any sophisticated biblical reflection or ideas of future consummation, from, what was, at the time, the embarrassing and incredible witness of women.
Though early Christians debated many aspects of their emerging theology, they were virtually unanimous in claiming their hope was generated by Jesus’ bodily resurrection. This resurrected Jesus, a transformed physicality, is about the creator God remaking the creation, not abandoning it as the Platonists had believed. Jesus didn’t “pass away” as Platonists may have described. He died, was buried, his body was raised and recognized as any gardener or fellow traveler.
The resurrection ruptured the disciples’ pre-existing classifications of what is ultimately real and brought a new discourse and hope based disposition. The emergence of the unprecedented opened up a new epic, a radical novelty, a faithful disbelief in the present, as well as a new collaborative militancy advancing Jesus’ good news. Humanity is now confronted with a public event that must be rejected outright, or if accepted, will demand the remaking of its worldview. Though Jesus’ death on the cross was solitary, and exclusively his death, his rising from the dead is inclusive, open to the world, embracing the universe, and beginning the new creation of all things.
God’s divine intervention allowed a different worldview in which the rich, the powerful, the violent, and the unscrupulous do not have the last word. With elemental force, the resurrection message confronted the powers who ruled with threats of violence, and didn’t want a resurrection. It was the people who robustly experienced this illegal resurrected Jesus who stood up to Caesar and his empire. Disciples, armed with Christian hope, confounded the power of evil, the inevitability of death, the hell of godlessness.
Yes the resurrection even destroys hell. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the gateway to hell states “abandon hope all ye who enter here”. In his suffering and dying, Jesus experienced godforsakenness, eternal damnation, and eternal death. When the Apostle’s Creed says he descended into hell, it means that Jesus annihilated every death, every separation from God, and takes the dead into his fellowship. Christ takes the side of all those living in hopelessness and death so that the new humanity that emerges is a fellowship of the living with the dead and the dead with the living. The catastrophe of Golgotha is transformed so that God can be all in all. (I Cor. 15:28.)
Because Jesus was the end of history appearing in person, God’s future has begun. Heavenly minded Christians become God’s transformational agents. To pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, Christians commit to a resurrection activism in the power of the spirit. Destiny congruent behavior entails radical commitment to God’s coming regime change, to protection of God’s earth, careful consideration of the well-being of others, the transformation of economic, political, and social institutions in the direction of a more decentralized and relational model, the eradication of injustice, the promotion of nonviolent resolution of disputes and social change.
The coming kingdom punctuates the presence of the leper, the disabled beggar, the neighbor, the enemy, the destitute, children, the aged, and all victims of violence and injustice. Though our work seems so small at times, it is this resurrection power that keeps us planting trees, caring for the sick, confronting the Pentagon, housing the homeless, lessening our carbon footprint, simplifying our lives, sharing in community.
When Jesus appears, all the good that we have done in line with Jesus’ teaching will be enhanced and transformed. St. Paul completes his discussion of resurrection in I Corinthians 15 with this: “therefore, my beloved ones, be steadfast, immovable. Always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that, in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”
So what are our images of heaven? The focus of some 675 references to “heaven” or “the heavens” in the Bible remind us that God’s kingdom is coming to us from a heaven where God’s presence infuses all things. The focus of all heaven’s dealings is Earth. Rather than us going to be where Jesus is, the New Testament focuses on his coming to be where we are. As he ascended, so he shall return. The real world is the beginning of heaven in the midst of earth. Heaven is an unprecedented and incalculable forthcoming that is revealed not by what is already in place and passing away, but by what is taking place and newly coming to pass.
We can look forward to the day when Jesus returns. Heaven and earth will be joined in a new way, open and visible to each other, married together forever. Divinity and humanity will inter-penetrate each other mutually just as they did in Jesus’ incarnation. The world will be glorified by God’s presence and God will be glorified by the perfection of creation. We all will experience a lively love and a loving liveliness. Nothing that God has created will be lost. Nature and history are joined in God’s kingdom as God dwells in the world in a divine way and the world dwells in God in a worldly way. Jesus is not done until all that is dead has been brought to life and the new creation has been completed.
People who live life in light of Jesus resurrection hope become capable of joy. All the senses are awakened as though we are awake for the first time. We watch and we pray. There is understanding and openness for the beauty of this life. We have a taste of God’s unrestricted livingness and God’s inexhaustible creative fullness. We delight in our joy in God and know that God is altogether delighted with his people.
It is this hope, the hope that makes all reality hopeful and hope altogether realistic, that accompanied me in a state of surrender when I was lying motionless on the radiation table. It is this unrelenting hope in a crucified God that allows me to picture the one who has suffered it all on the cross, sitting with me in the chemo chair, taking the chemo into himself in solidarity with me. It is this resurrection hope that makes God’s presence more real than the cancer. This hope reminds me that God’s desire for me to be healed is greater than my own, just as God hates cancer more than I do.
It is this hopeful reality that wants all of us whole and well because it’s part of God’s own life giving nature. It is this amazing hope that provides sufficiency in death as in life. It is this hope that tells me I’m prepared to die. And why not me? It is this abiding hope that takes death and turns it into a divine victory. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was about to be led to the Nazi gallows, he said to a fellow prisoner, “This is the end…for me the beginning of life.”
When I face my death, there is an active interplay of grief and hope. Because of Jesus’ crucifixion, I can face real loss directly. Letting go of all that I’ve known and cared about, everyone and everything I’ve invested in, is a truly scary and profound grief. Death can be ugly because it contradicts every good thing God has made. At the same time, because of resurrection hope, there is God’s coming heaven that moves me forward through the loss, that encourages investment in life even as death proceeds. As my personal world becomes more focused, time becomes more immediate; the now, today, more vital. At the same time, the more I benefit from vivid and expansive images of God’s coming celebration and eternal feast. The more my body fails, the more I treasure my physical self. The more I value my body, the more I realize it is God’s body. God created it and died for it.
When I pray for healing, I must pray and act for the eradication of thousands of cancer-causing pollutants in our environment. The more I am tempted to despair, the more God helps me in my unbelief. The more I share suffering in Christ, the more I know that my healing is coming. The more death grows, the more I know the battle is the Lord’s.
Shane Claiborne tells of asking a wise old activist Catholic priest how he kept rejuvenated after many years of organizing, being jailed, building community, and enduring many hardships. The priest said, “every morning, before I get out of bed, I curl up in a little ball and picture myself in Jesus’ lap. I listen to him tell me how much he loves me.”
The more I let go, the more profoundly I can experience the Lord. The more I surrender my life, the more I hope others will invest in God’s life.
For me, this is the hope worth dying for and worth living for. Thanks be to God!
“May the God of hope fill you loved ones with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Rm. 15:13)
I’m indebted, for the above reflections, to many teachers including Jurgen Moltmann, Tom Wright, Richard Baukham, Lewis Smedes, etc.