1Thess 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7,13 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.
Colossians 1We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [This love is yours ] 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
For the past several years, summer preaching hasn’t followed a prescribed set of readings. There are suggestions from the Narrative Lectionary, and over the years we’ve done most of them, but I’ve also included books of the Bible we don’t usually hear from – like Esther and Ruth, or books we don’t hear enough from, like Jonah. We spent last summer among the stories of biblical women. We read through the gospel of Mark from October to May this year, and have just finished Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. I wasn’t sure where to go from there.
News from the world is dismal, as you know: the war in Ukraine; the unimaginable gun violence in this country with no political will to change access to, or (God forbid) manufacture of, guns. We are the military-industrial-congressional complex President Eisenhower warned of in his farewell address in January 1961. The perennial rhetoric of fear has created a militarized citizenry with seemingly no chance of turning back. The climate is suffering, habitats collapsing, the economy isn’t great, and the corona virus isn’t done with us yet, making us hesitant to socialize in close quarters – which is probably what we need most of all: Hugs, visible smiles, hand shakes, intimacy of the friendly variety.
Sunshine and warm weather have helped dispel some of the gloom, but I don’t know how to preach sunshine. In most of his letters to the fledgling churches, Paul uses the trinity of faith, hope and love, and that might be the closest we can come to sunshine and warm weather in words. In Pauline literature, faith, love, and hope are the chief ways our lives are oriented in Christ. In 1 Corinthians, he offers a description of Love as a collection of intentional actions. Most English translations list them as adjectives, but in Greek they are verbs, something along the lines of, “Love waiting patiently; love acting kindly”. Paul is describing action; not a passive feelings toward another.
In recollecting the history of the Colossian Christians, Paul writes them into the story of a cosmos transformed by God’s good news in Christ. This wouldn’t be the only way to tell their story. To most of their neighbors in Colossae, the little cluster of Christ’s followers would probably have looked pathetic: no temple, no priests, not even a proper meeting place—just a rag-tag group of misfits caught up in a Jewish superstition they had learned second-hand. But Paul gives them a new vision – they are invited to imagine their place in the world as the local vanguard of a movement that is cosmic in its scope. And the Colossian believers are in on it.
Love, hope, and faith are what we need to hear and be oriented to, also, and is the course we’re setting out on. I want to begin with hope. I think it comes first.
I love the phrase, “a sure and certain hope” and thought it came from Paul, but I can’t find the quote in scripture. I know it from the graveside liturgy. “In the sure and certain hope of resurrection, we commend our loved ones to almighty God.” We commit their bodies to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust and pray for the Lord to bless and keep them.
‘Sure and certain hope’ is such an interesting phrase. Sure and certain is one thing – it is assurance, a guarantee – solid – a fact. But hope strikes us as something entirely different. Hope is ‘iffy’. ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’ according to poet Emily Dickinson. We say we hope it will (or won’t) rain depending on our needs of the day, but say it realizing that our wish won’t actually influence the weather one way or the other. Our daughter-in-law hopes her baby will be born very soon – and while birth is sure and certain – her hope for today or tomorrow holds no guarantee.
Sure and certain hope is a radical expression of faith. When it’s said at a gravesite, into the chasm of death, it is a powerful statement of trust that God is still working, that God has a ‘beyond this life’ ability, beyond our sight, beyond our knowing, and the phrase brings comfort, I think. We give our grief away, laying it there in the ground with our loved one, believing that the pain we feel will be redeemed in time.
But when we claim sure and certain hope in our daily lives it has a different feel – more risky, maybe. Because, applied to your daily life, it isn’t about the end time, eternity question, but becomes a ‘how are you going to live this day’ question. If you are to live out of hope that isn’t all marshmallows and fairy lights, but is based on the same reality that the evening news or CNN reports, then how does that work? What does it ask of you? How will you behave that is different than if you gave in to cynicism and discontent?
When the apostle Paul writes about wearing hope as a helmet I think he’s onto something. Suffering ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (to borrow from another poet) is our daily task. Being armed with faith and love as breastplates and a hope helmet seems an appropriate way to greet the daily news and our daily lives. It speaks of resiliency, it helps to keep faith’s foot in the door so more possibilities might squeeze through. Yes, this awful thing is true, but there’s a sure and certain hope that the awful thing isn’t the only truth, or the only option, or the only way to experience the world. There is also the option of love, the wildcard that can change our own perspective if nothing else.
Circling back to Emily Dickinson – she did say hope is the thing with feathers, but it’s no wimpy, willow-the-wisp.
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all -” If you are an early riser or a light sleeper, you know about the bird song of June. It begins in the dark – at about ten minutes after 4 – and doesn’t stop at all until the sun is up. It can be kind of annoying, and spectacularly beautiful, both together; dissimilar blending realities. And persistent. An outlook of hope or optimism might seem unrealistic, but it’s our only chance for change.
Jesus told parables of farmers planting seed to get at this dynamic. Even though past experience has brought years of drought and flooded fields, still seed is purchased and sown. There is an expectation that things will go reasonably well based on the predictable nature of nature. There is risk of disappointment and failure, but hope for the harvest is stronger. It’s living hope, not ‘after-death, heavenly-hope’. The farmers bring in a harvest and then buy more seed for the next year. Expectant waiting and anticipatory action defines many people’s lives and is the template of the Christian life. Most often, we hear of the expectant waiting part and equate that with faith – faith in what will come next, trust in God’s love for us in death. But we shouldn’t ignore the other, hard bit – the living, the acting out of resilient optimism. Not everything is going to be fine. But comfort, courage, growth are the context of Christian community. That’s what I’ve heard in reading Paul’s letters. More than dogma or instructions in faith, he encourages them to live together in fellowship and love, to enact the love shown them by the Spirit of God.
I’m hoping to hear about that from you. I’ll send out an email with a few questions or story starters about the way that hope, faith or love has changed the expected outcome of a situation, or how hope has helped you in concrete ways in some difficult experience. I hope you’ll respond.