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Sermon for Matins: Hope

The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster

Sunday, 12th August 2007

This morning I come to the second of the brief series of addresses I am giving at matins this month, looking at those cardinal Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, and so this morning we come to hope.

Now I think there can be little doubt that a dose of realistic hope is what our world may need from time to time. But the essential element in such hope is that it does have to be realistic. A simple naive optimism will not do. Whether it be natural disasters like the tsunami, human created disasters like the holocaust, or mixtures of the two like the devastating consequences of Aids in various parts of the world, there are more than enough events to silence any simplistic and naive optimism. If Christian hope is to mean anything it must be able to look at events like that squarely in the face and acknowledge the difficulty.

But, on the other hand, hope is intrinsic in much Christian activity. Take such a basic thing as the Lord’s Prayer. In that there are contained at least two clear expressions of hope; ‘give us this day our daily bread’ contains a hope that our purely physical needs may be met, easy to believe for those of us who have the good fortune to live in the developed world, far more difficult for those who live in parts of the world afflicted by drought and famine. Or there is also that hope expressed in the phrase ‘your kingdom come’, which clearly has a spiritual as well as a political dimension. Hope in a very wide sense is intrinsic to Christian living.

One theologian, Nicholas Adams, has defined hope in the Christian understanding as ‘a learning to look forward, confident in the memory of what God has already achieved in Jesus Christ, to the fulfilment of God’s creation.’ The key phrase there, I think, is ‘the memory of what God has already achieved in Jesus Christ’. After all not everything that happened to Jesus was good. His history contains the awful facts of his arrest, trial, mocking, scourging and crucifixion, and the deadening effect they had on his followers that led them to despondency and even despair. But something happened to change his followers to those whose lives resulted in Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire within about three hundred years. It was a remarkable transformation, and it is that experience of resurrection that provides the basis for Christian hope. It is, of course, difficult at this distance to know exactly what it was that caused that belief, and historians and theologians rightly debate that issue, but the fact that there was an extraordinary transformation in the disciples is undeniable.

And that provides the basis for much Christian hope, the hope that good can come out of even the most dreadful of events. And that hope is there not just in activity that is clearly done in response to religious faith, but in all sorts of other ways, wherever human beings responds to some disaster not with despondency but with a determined drive to ensure the cause of the disaster can be overcome. In is there in doctors and medical scientists searching for the cure to a disease, it is there in environmentalists and others in searching to avoid the worse consequences of future disasters like floods or tsunamis, or indeed it is there in politicians seeking to resolve what might otherwise seem to be intransigent conflicts whether in Northern Ireland or the Middle East. Realistic hope is essential in those situations, and indeed is at least implicitly there in those who strive to find a better way. For all the gloom and despondency of our world men and women are expressing hope when they strive to overcome some evil. And it is not a naive or unthinking optimism, but a deeply grounded hope that there can be a resolution to conflicts and that future disasters can be avoided or at least mitigated. Hope is critical in all sorts of contexts.

But that is not to say that hope will always be fulfilled. No less a theologian than St Thomas Aquinas recognised that experience can sometimes discourage hope. That good should come out of evil is not inevitable. Hope is not always fulfilled. But that fact of experience should not destroy hope itself. Because in almost every situation there is at least the possibility of a hopeful outcome even if it is far from assured, and the Christian response is to strive always for what is hoped for. Of course sometimes it is only wise to accept a particular battle is lost, even in the battle of good and evil if a battle is ever quite as simple as that, but there is a difference between loosing a battle and loosing a war. And in that most fundamental conflict between hope and despair, a conflict that happens not just in communities but in the individual soul as well, a commitment to retain hope at least in the bigger picture is, I believe, part of a genuinely Christian response to the world. And there are grounds for that hope. Diseases are conquered, evil political systems do not last for ever, as changes in South Africa, Germany and the former Soviet Union illustrate, and individual human beings do pull through some quite terrible difficulties and traumas. Hope is demanding, challenging and difficult, no one can deny that, but it is not always misplaced, good can and does sometime have the last word. The transformation of the disciples through the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not the only transformation that has ever occurred in our world, but it is symbolic of something that can be seen in all sorts of different contexts. Therein lies the essence of Christian hope.

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