Having Hope

Hope(Creative Commons Image by David Melchor Diaz on Flickr)

Dear Working Preachers,

We know well the triad, “faith, hope, and love” that gloriously rounds out Paul’s chapter on Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13.

We may not know as well, or perhaps never noticed, that Paul summons the same triad in his first letter to the Thessalonians, yet with a significant difference. Of course, since 1 Thessalonians was written earlier than Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, it is the Corinthian version that is modified from the original. Notice the order in 1 Thessalonians — faith, love, and hope. The Corinthians need some lovin’. All those divisions and conflicts about all kinds of things. But the Thessalonians? Their loved ones are dying and Paul said, Paul said, that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Now what? What happens to those who have died? The Thessalonians need hope. Big time.

I wonder if this may be a lens through which to hear the exchange between Jesus and the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians.

That is, when you choose your loyalties, you are also choosing in what and in whom you will place your hope.

This past week was the Celebration of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary. Not on the same scale as the Festival of Homiletics, but it is not meant to be. It’s a more intimate gathering of preachers, from all over the country, all different denominations, to listen to some great plenaries, some great preaching, and some related workshops. One of the presenters this year was Frank Thomas. Now, if you do not know Frank Thomas, you should. He is Elisha to Henri Mitchell’s Elijah when it comes to carrying on the African American homiletic. His book, They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching, is considered a classic.

Here’s what he did — he managed to weave together Ferguson, Jay-Z, and a homiletic of reality. “Keep it real, people.”

Why bring this up? Because for hope to be hope it has to be grounded in something real. At the end of the day, hope is not utopia. It is no “pie in the sky” optimism. For hope to be hope it needs to be something that has already been seen, witnessed, and experienced. Otherwise, hope is merely just fantasy.

How can Paul talk about hope? Because he experienced the resurrected Christ. It was an apocalypse, “but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ (apocalypsis in Greek). He does not say to the Thessalonians, “There, there, just have hope.” As if some general exhortation to hope can really offer hope. No, you can have hope for your loved ones who have died because Christ died and was raised.

I think the passage from Matthew is also about hope because where you lodge your loyalties will manifest the nature of your hope. Is your loyalty based on something real? Has the one in whom you hope established behavior that justifies your hope? That deserves your hope? That is worthy of your hope?

Jesus is not just talking about where to locate loyalty. He is also suggesting that loyalty tends to be accompanied by hope. Our loyalties to things in our lives — whether political figures, teachers, spouses, or friends — are deeply intertwined with hope. We are loyal to a political party because we hope it can make certain changes. We are loyal to certain authoritative figures such as teachers because we hope we will learn something. We are loyal to friends because we hope, in part, there is a reciprocity in relationship. We are loyal to spouses because we have hopes for companionship and future partnership.

We are able to have hope not because of a blind naïveté, but because we have experienced something that makes that hope possible.

And maybe, because our hopes have indeed been shattered, perhaps time and time again, all we can say in a day is “I hope to be hopeful.”

Hope is not an uncontextual, dislodged claim. It is deeply existential and experiential. That is, hope demands demonstrated behavior to justify hope. Hope needs observable acts that concretize the promise. Hope relies on relational reality and correlate expectations.

In this sense, Isaiah’s witness, “I am the Lord, and there is no other” is not simply a triumphal claim. God can say that because really, who else has shown anything worthy of our hope? When God says, “I am the Lord, and there is no other,” God is saying, “Yes, you can hope in me, have hope in me.” Why? Because look at what I have done. For you. Because you are my people. Because I love you. Because I want to be in a relationship with you. Because you can trust me.

In what, in whom, do you have hope? Why? Is it misplaced? Unjustified? Is it real? Founded? Defensible? The truth is, much disappointment in life is both misdirected hope and destroyed hope. Or, we place hope in people, institutions, governances, organizations that are merely temporary alternatives to that which has shattered our hopes.

This might be the week to unpack hope for all it’s worth. Have hope in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will most certainly accompany you in the places where you realize your own dashed hopes. Because in the Spirit, real, true, trustworthy, there is indeed hope.

In faith, love, and hope,