Jonathan Andrew's Sermon, 23 April 2017

23 APRIL 2017 

Acts 2:14, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31  

From the earliest times, Christians have recognised that there are three fundamental God-given pillars to our religion – the so-called ‘Theological Virtues’ of faith, hope and love.  They first appear as a list, of course, in that passage oh-so-popular at weddings and funerals, 1 Corinthians chapter 13, and that passage naturally leads into a sermon on the wonders of love, both human and divine.  At other times, of course, we preach on faith (for obvious reasons) – what faith is (and what it isn’t) and how we can strengthen it.  But for some reason ‘hope’ seems to be the poor relation.  So, as all three of these virtues seem to me absolutely central to our Easter experience, let’s explore ‘Christian hope’ this morning.  

There are lots of lists of virtues in the Bible, and in secular literature for that matter going right back to the ancient Greeks (fortitude, moderation, gentleness and the rest), but our three ‘theological’ virtues (faith, hope and love) are rather different from the others.  In a sense, if we want to, we can train ourselves to be moderate, gentle or whatever; but the theological virtues (as their name suggests) originate not in us, but in God, and they lead us back to God.  We can nurture those traits, but we cannot argue ourselves into being faith-filled, hope-filled or loving - God through his Word and Holy Spirit must light the spark.  

But, as I say, Easter powerfully strengthens those virtues in us:  

  • Our retelling of the events of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, and our making them vividly present in witness and in worship will, pray God, have strengthened our faith.  
  • Our understanding of the cost and glory of love is fundamental to any appreciation of why Jesus let all that happen to him – his ‘loving to the end’ and his commandment to us to do likewise are at the heart of the Easter message.  
  • But, as Peter said in his address to the crowd in our reading from Acts, the resurrection also means that our “flesh will live in hope” and not just any old hope but, as Peter spells out in our second reading from one of his letters, we have “a new birth into a living hope”.  

But what is Christian hope?  Is it a mindless optimism that nothing bad will ever happen to me, because God loves me?  The saints and martyrs, and all of us in our everyday lives know that just isn’t true.  Is Christian hope comfort that “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds”?  Well, Voltaire in his brilliant parody Candide, written in the 18th century in the aftermath of the dreadful Lisbon earthquake and the horrors of the 7-Years War, nailed that one for all time.  No, Christian hope, if it means anything, is not a denial of reality, but rather a recognition that ghastly things do happen, even to the best of people, but that that suffering, unwarranted, random and chaotic as it may seem, does not mean that life is meaningless.  Christian hope is a conviction that evil and death will not have the last word.   

The opposite of hope is, of course, despair – a sense of ultimate meaninglessness, a nihilism that lies at the heart of any true atheism.  To me the most hair-raising passage in Shakespeare isn’t one of the gory bits, but Macbeth’s terrible summing up of his life in the Scottish Play:   

“Out, out, brief candle!  Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."  
Can anything be more scary than that? - at the end of one’s life, to sum it up as “a tale told by an idiot … signifying nothing".  

This has been a good week in my ministry.  Much of it, of course, has been taken up in trying to deal with loose ends before I disappear on sabbatical or, if things can’t be dealt with, at least to wrap them up in a form that I can with a clear conscience drop in Martin or Sue’s lap and then run away.  But I have done some ‘real ministry’ as well – including presiding at a funeral and praying with an elderly lady who is probably reaching the end of her life.  I tried to set both of these events in the context of Easter, and both were, in a sense, joyful and hope-filled occasions.  It struck me, perhaps for the first time, how many of the words in our liturgies around the time of death are forward-looking.  Of course, we give thanks for what is good in the past and provide an opportunity for repentance for past failures, but the focus is one of hope - hope for the future.  Let me share with you the prayer that I read as I sat at that old lady’s bed-side supported by her wonderful Polish carer:  

Holy Lord, almighty and eternal God,
hear our prayers as we entrust to you your servant,
as you summon her out of this world.
Forgive her sins and failings
and grant her a haven of light, and peace.
Let her pass unharmed through the gates of death
to dwell with the blessed in light,
as you promised to Abraham and his children for ever. 
Accept her into your safe keeping
and on the great day of judgement
raise her up with all the saints
to inherit your eternal kingdom. 
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

That is our Christian hope.