Sermon - 25th May 2014
A True and Living Hope
Scripture - 1 Peter 3:13-22
[An audio version (mp3) of this sermon is available via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Peter’s first letter was addressed to early Christians scattered throughout the northern part of Asia Minor. It was a message of encouragement and hope to a people who were facing persecution and suffering for their faith. Assertion of that living hope appears at the heart of today’s reading (3:15) “the hope that you have in you” indicating how important a theme it is for the whole of 1 Peter. Resurrection – here associated with new life in baptism - and hope belong together. And then Peter challenges his readers to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason” or to “give a defence,” as some translations have it, to testify that this hope really does dwell in them.
But, as theologian Henri Nouwen says,
“How can someone ever trust in the existence of an unconditional divine love when most, if not all, of what he or she has experienced is the opposite of love---fear, hatred, violence, and abuse?”
I think that will resonate with many of the congregation here. If God has raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus Christ is Lord, then why, in the season of Easter, do we keep suffering, and especially even when we are “doing what is right.” How can this be justice? Where is the hope in that?
Many people think that hope is optimism, always seeing the positive side. I remember the England cricket team, after a humiliating 5-0 whitewash by the Australians, talking about ‘taking the positives from this’! The only positive I could see was that there were no more games left to lose! But Jesus is no optimist. When Jesus talks about the future or the end of the world, he doesn’t say “One day it will all be wonderful.” He says things like, "The poor will be with you always," and then he continues to fight the systems that oppress the poor all the way to his death. But Jesus’ passion did not end at the cross. After the cross Jesus entered the tomb, the place of disintegration, where the body rots, falls apart, and vanishes into dust. Jesus chose not only to die for us and with us, but also to enter this place of ultimate despair.
Cheryl Lawrie, a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia who works as a prison chaplain, writes in an Easter Saturday liturgy:
“We wanted a God who would take away hell and banish it forever. Instead we have a God who enters it.”
Verse 19 in the passage alludes to Jesus descending to Hell and proclaiming the good news to the imprisoned spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah, and later in Chapter 4 he says “The gospel was proclaimed even to the dead," he says, "that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God”. The Apostles’ Creed puts it more bluntly - "He was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell."
“The Harrowing of Hell” is an early Christian tradition, often found depicted in the Orthodox Church icons. Christ makes his way to Hell, shatters the Gates, tramples Satan underfoot, and triumphantly leads out the souls of the patriarchs and others who lay in the deceiver's grasp since the dawn of creation. Imagine the Light of the World making his way through the terrible dark to save whoever he can. But of course that is where he would have gone. Of course that is what he would have done. Christ is always descending and re-descending into hell. But it can be one of the hardest parts of our faith to believe that Jesus descends into this place of ultimate despair and emerges to accompany us as we journey, speaking about a hope that is built upon the promise that, whatever happens, God will stay with us at all times, in all places.
Now I can think of no greater hell than having to endure the death of a child, particularly if that death was violent. Barry and Madeleine Mizen’s son, Jimmy, was murdered trying to protect his brother. Jimmy’s killer tried to get Jimmy to go outside to fight – Jimmy was 6 feet 4 and weighed 14 stone but he was a young man who always tried to do the right thing and he refused to fight and was killed.
How many of us could even contemplate the future and gather such strength hours after horrific heartbreak? Jimmy’s father Barry explains:
“For us, we thank God. We thank God. Margaret had such a sense on the day that Jimmy died that God was saying to her: ‘Margaret don’t worry, Jimmy’s safe with me.’ Our faith is what makes the difference (the Mizens are devout Catholics) If we didn’t believe I’m sure we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. A lot of the times we speak and we say to each other: ‘Where did those words come from?’… Madeleine, it can only be God.”
He speaks of the actions of neighbours and the community – the curry house that sent round curries and bakery which sent cheesecakes, the neighbours who did housework or made endless cups of tea. All life events, happy or sad, seem to revolve around endless cups of tea, don’t they? The Muslim neighbour who just opened the door and hugged him. And the parish priest who simply stood and cried with him “No pious words. He just stood there and cried with me. Marvellous”.
As Barry puts it:
“That’s the love we are all capable of showing each other, giving each other the opportunities to allow our love for each other to shine, our common humanity.”
That’s the answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope in you. Sometimes our actions can feel so small and inadequate in the face of the pain and injustice in this world but whenever we sign petitions, donate to food banks or sometimes simply cry with someone who is in pain, we embrace and acknowledge one another’s brokenness and give. It’s having the courage and faith it takes to wait with those who are living in hell, even if there is no certainty that they or we will survive. It’s opening ourselves up to let God work in us in ways that transcend our imagination. Those who choose, even on a small scale, to love in the midst of hatred and fear are the people who offer true hope to our world.
"Hope begins in the dark," says author Anne Lamott. That's the miracle that Christians believe was made real through the resurrection, and a truth that has been proven through history. We can't talk ourselves or anyone else into having hope. We get there only by turning up in the darkness and doing the right thing.
By choosing and honouring justice and love every time, hope has a chance to be born. When we choose love we become witnesses not only to human resiliency but also to the divine love that transcends all human loves.