Hope: Doubt Is Not a Sign of Weakness in Faith

Transcribed from the sermon preached April 27, 2014

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Hebrews I Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31


The author of I Peter is writing for a few churches in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey, likely in the last decade of the first century, to Christians who are either exiles from Israel after the war with Rome in 70, or “resident aliens,” as Peter calls them: that is they may have been born in the land, the land is occupied, and they do not hold citizenship authorized by Rome. Their Christian faith has further separated and distinguished them from the dominant culture, and they are under pressure to give in or give up. There is prejudice and sporadic persecution of Christians.

Land and livelihood were insecure and title precarious, as one new appointed official or wealthy land owner with Roman citizenship could pay someone off or simply take land. Taxes in the form of money, exchange or interest rates might be levied at such a rate that peasants were likely to lose land as they fell deeper into dept. That is if they had a piece of land. Otherwise they were landless peasants or slaves, just trying to do the best they could in a world where life was perishable, and relations and alliances corrupt and shifting. Inheritance could easily vanish. Life was short, and one’s life could be taken by a variety of things: disease, childbirth, bandits, mercenaries of the wealthy, by war or hunger, by accidents or old age.

Last week I mentioned the options for those under crisis or oppression: fight, flight, or resignation. The author who writes in Peter’s name knew that his audience would know that Peter was one who during the last days of Christ, fought, denied and fled. And yet he had met the forgiveness and love of Christ resurrected, and was freed from his sins and had moved onto new life. Peter’s audience knew that those who had fought Rome already lost, and they had already fled. Where else were they to go? So the last option was what was left open: resignation or hopelessness…that is unless they could tap into imperishable hope.

Christ didn’t fight, didn’t run, and didn’t give in. He took the fourth option; He remained hopeful and faithful. Christian hope talks of something more basic and fundamental to life, something that cannot be erased or covered up or killed. The resurrection of Jesus speaks to a hope that survives this precarious life. It is no wonder that the Gospel became popular with those searching for hope and agency. So too today, for we who are behind the locked doors of anger, fear, anxiety or despair, Christ walks right through to bring hope and agency.

“3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

While the material things people needed were hard to get and hold, and might be taken at any moment, and relations ebbed and flowed on the anxiety, fear or greed of whoever, Christ was solid rock, a vault of hope. Christ demonstrated that there is something better to be right now, that we need not react out of anger, fear or despair. We are forgiven and called to live in new hope, new life, to be a part of the family of God. The term resident alien takes on new meaning as Christians live in the world, in culture, but are not of it, our actions no longer enslaved by the greed, lust, anger, fear, or despair that causes so much hurt and keeps us stuck in a vicious circle.

With hope our present changes. If our inheritance is insured by the grace of Christ and secured in the bank of heaven, if by grace there is some fundamental value and meaning in life that cannot be erased, covered up or killed, an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept for us by God, then we can live today in a whole different way, a gracious and joyous and faithful way.

Now the strange thing about hope is that it is not certain. If we are certain of something then we know it; we don’t hope for it. We only hope when there is some measure of doubt.

Hope, faith and trust are similar words, for they only exist when the outcome is less than certain. From a young age I have prayed for certainty of faith. I never liked the story of Thomas, because it makes me jealous. He gets his wish to see and feel, and I don’t. This story doesn’t help me be faithful with doubt, it makes me angry that God will not or cannot show himself in a way that would erase my doubt.

I suppose there is a consolation prize for those of us who have faith, despite doubt, or with doubt. And the Gospel story itself, even with the eye witnesses of Thomas and the others to the resurrection, doesn’t exactly erase all doubt about the outcome of life and history. The erasing of doubt story would be the son of God coming to reign as King, using his Godly super human powers to vanquish all the super bad or evil people and empires, forgive the rest of us, establish justice, peace and prosperity, and everyone lives happily ever after. Even with the risen Jesus, all we get is hope for that, all we get is the agency or faith, the will power to live as if there is another way the world and our lives in it should and could be. With Jesus rejecting this no-doubt version of history while conversing in the wilderness with the devil, we get the consolation prize: Jesus, son of God in the flesh, demonstrates that even a peasant in dinky country squeezed economically and militarily by empire, without friends in high places, no generals or judges or priests granting him authority, under temptation and pressure of relationship and survival like most every human, acts with free will and the power to live as if there is an eternal Spirit of life, love and grace that cannot be concurred, not in this life or the next.

Hope is not just about the future but empowerment of the present. Yet we get living hope: in the person of Christ, in our person, in the present, free will is exercised with joy and thanksgiving. It is a hope for the future so powerful, for a world so beautiful that it breaks into the present as faith. Faith is hope embodied and lived now. It may be merely in one who lives a brief moment, yet it breaks beyond the single body and time and touches and empowers us all. Hope in the reign of love empowers us with vision to live faithfully, to love now even when it appears costly. In turn faith lived boasts our vision of hope. It creates a virtuous circle.

It appears the Gospel of Jesus Christ is based on faith and hope rather than certainty by design. The Gospel gives us free will rather than forcing us to accept fate. It teaches humility. We see those whose faith seems certain act with arrogance. Certain grasp of God or the truth enables us to not listen to others, to seek all power for ourselves so that we can administer and force the “will of God”, thus distorting the will of God and ourselves in the process. Certainty grants us authority to force others to accept our truth. Worse, it tempts us to make God in our own image. Hope keeps us searching and working for an ever closer relationship with God and other, for ever more truth. When we take a wrong path in weakness, arrogance or ignorance, and we find ourselves in trouble, hope challenges us to grow. Hope calls us back to faithfulness. It redeems us. The disciples are hunkered down behind locked doors, feeling fear, powerlessness and despair, yet hope passes right through those barriers and says to us, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”