First Lutheran Church
May 10, 2015
WHAT GIVES YOU HOPE?
What gives you hope? I would imagine that every one here would answer that question differently, because hope is highly personal and subjective. One definition I ran across in my studies comes from Cheryl Lawrie of the Uniting Church in Australia. She says Hope is an encounter that captivates our imagination so we can’t help but become more than who we thought we were, and find ourselves living for something that is all at once preposterous and impossible. I like that—hope is preposterous and impossible. It is looking toward a future that is yet to be realized and filled with possibilities. Hope can come from some very unexpected places. Paul tells us that hope comes from suffering, that suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us. These are not the connections that I make off the top of my head when I am looking for hope. And we live in the real world, where suffering is ever present. How many times, when we are suffering, does it feel like we are building endurance and character?
We know that it is possible to suffer and still have hope, and sometimes it is not. As Christians, our hope is finally grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The truth is, we can’t truly understand how amazing Easter is until we know what despair is.
For Christians, hope is ultimately hope in Christ. It is the preposterous and impossible hope that Jesus really is what for centuries we have been claiming he is. It is the preposterous and impossible hope that despite the fact that sin and death still rule the world, he somehow conquered them. It is the preposterous and impossible hope that in him and through him all of us stand a chance of somehow conquering them too. It is the preposterous and impossible hope hope that at some unforeseeable time and in some unimaginable way he will return with healing in his wings.
No one in the New Testament calls a spade a spade as unflinchingly as t Paul. In I Corinthians 15 Paul writes, If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futil, and If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Our hope of salvation comes through Christ’s death and resurrection which justifies us through grace by faith. In printers’ language, to justify means to set type in such a way that all full lines are of equal length and flush both left and right. It is about putting the printed lines in the right relationship with the page on which they are printed. The sacred sense of the word is very similar. Being justified means being brought into right relation with God through Christ. Paul’s eloquence really shines here. He says simply that being justified means having peace with God. Justification is the first step in the process of salvation.
Two weeks ago I preached on Paul’s conversion. He was on his way to Damascus to hunt down and arrest some Christians because he regarded their teachings about Jesus as blasphemous. The voice of the Risen Christ literally knocked him off his horse. Perhaps he expected the Voice to condemn him, but it didn’t. Jesus wanted Paul on his side, not against him. As far as Paul was concerned, he was the last man in the world for God to have called this way. Yet our preposterous and impossible God revealing that people who do horrendous and dispicable things, as Saul of Taursus had down, are just as welcome to come into right relationship as pious and religious folks. Paul discovered along the way that all the brownie points he had been trying to rack up as a super-Pharisee had been pointless. God relates to us not because of who we are, but because of who God is. The Voice asked Paul to believe that Jesus meant what he said and to obey. Paul did both.
At a moment in his life when he had least reason to expect it, Paul was staggered by the idea that no matter who you are or what you have done, God wants you on God’s side. There is nothing you have to do or be. God has justified you, lined you up, made you righteous by God’s grace. You don’t have to hear a Voice on the road to Damascus to know that this is where your hope lies because all people are loved and welcomed by God, not just the favored few.
Access is a key phrase in our technological age. I need an access code to arm or disarm the alarm system here. I need one to bank online or shop on Amazon or use my credit card at the gas station. Without the proper code, we get that dreaded message of access denied.
Paul wrote for a world in which people were desperately trying to find the passwords that would give them access to God. Some thought that careful obedience to the law of Moses was the key. Others thought that civic virtue was the key. Still others tried to placate God by the breadth of their philosophical knowledge. Paul makes the astonishing claim that there is only one password we need to remember, and that is Jesus Christ. In Jesus everyone has access to grace. Jesus turned the world upside down with his preposterous and impossible love. It is not that we use Jesus to attain God’s mercy, it is that God sends Jesus to enact the mercy that God has intended for us from the beginning of time. Grace is our dwelling place in which we stand. God’s goodness surrounds and upholds us and defines who we are. We are shaped by the gift we can never achieve but can only receive.
Life that is grounded in grace is not usually marked by earthly success or blessed by earthly prosperity. Far more often it is marked by suffering. But bears fruit through the suffering. The litany of the gifts of grace is a sketch of the moral and spiritual development that happens in the life which is grounded in the grace of God. It begins with suffering, moves to endurance; then character and finally hope. From there, hope becomes the instrument through which the grace and love of God flourishes. The love to which Paul points is not simply human love. It is God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. The verse about dying for a righteous person and dying for a good person in vs. 7 has puzzled many scholars with good reason. But it all comes down to the main point, that Christ has died not for the righteous and not for the good, but for the ungodly. That is good news because all of us are ungodly and in need of grace and love.
So what counts is not so much our access to God as God’s access to us. It is not that we reach longingly toward heaven but that heaven reaches out longingly to us. It is not that we are good enough or wise enough or obedient enough to gain God; it is that God has gained us for Godself.
We struggle to come up with a doctrine of the atonement, and all the classical solutions seem fall short. Paul was blessed by a richly unsystematic mind. His language about what Jesus does shifts from verb to verb: Christ saves; Christ justifies; Christ reconciles. His description of what Christ does shifts from metaphor to metaphor: an obedient second Adam undoes the disobedience of the first. A sinless man is made to be sin. A godly Messiah dies for ungodly people.
The claim outreaches all our metaphors. The name embraces all our weaknesses: Jesus Christ, access to God’s grace; where we stand.