Have you ever noticed that there’s something in the human spirit that keeps us looking beyond today, that plans for the future, that inspires us to live more fully and generously than self-interest would dictate? Even as we remember a year marked with terrorism and violence, we light our Christmas trees. Even as we mourn loved ones who have died over the past year, we anticipate the joy of Christmas and the promise of a New Year. There’s something that keeps us pressing forward to be better than we are now, to make the world better than it is now. It’s called hope. We can’t see hope, but we know it’s there because without it life doesn’t make sense. Hope is embedded in the human spirit. It’s like quarks.
Quarks are subatomic bits of matter that hold the universe together. The physicists who discovered them received a Nobel prize, but they never laid eyes on them. A number of years ago scientists were studying the structure of matter and recognized that particles could be arranged in simple patterns. Those patterns could be interpreted as showing that the objects they observed were made out of combinations of things they could not observe, things they called quarks. The scientists set up experiments where they fired very fast projectiles at the particles they knew about. Those subatomic missiles bounced back, as if they were hitting something inside the targets. When they analyzed the data, the properties of those little bits of unseen matter were just like those of the theoretical things they called quarks. Even though they never laid eyes on a quark, they proved that quarks had to be there. Without the existence of those unseen bits of matter, the things they could see made no sense.
Hope is just as real as quarks, just as integral to the human spirit as quarks are to matter. It is grounded in something about which we can be certain, but we cannot see.
Hope is essential to the human spirit, but how do we know there are grounds for our hope? How do we know hope is real and not just wishful thinking? Jesus shows us the basis for the hope that keeps us going. He shows us what is to come, where creation is headed. When he healed the sick, he showed what it’s going to be like when there is no sickness. When he fed the hungry, he showed what it’s going to be like when there is no hunger. When he blessed the peacemakers, he pointed to that time when there will be no war. When he rose from the tomb, he guaranteed that time when there will be no death.
But you know, to see what the future holds is at the same time to see how far we are from it and to know just how much we have to do to prepare. Marjorie Suchocki tells of a young person ready to graduate from high school who meets an impressive person who is an architect. This girl always appreciated buildings. She loves to stroll through downtown and look at the structure of the various buildings. She likes to imagine what the floor plans are of those buildings, and she wonders how you put one together. She tells the architect about those interests, and the architect says to her, “Why don’t you become an architect?”
The girl is thrilled with the idea – not only to admire buildings, but to design them, to know how they work inside and out! But then reality crashes in. She’s just about ready to graduate from high school, and without any goal, she’s not paid much attention to her studies. The architect sees her despair and says, “There’s always summer school, and you know you can make up for the studies you’ve neglected – and you can go to community college and do well enough to get into a four-year school and take what you need to prepare for the profession.” That encouragement strengthens the girl to prepare for the future. The hope of becoming an architect awakens in her a vision of what she can be while at the same time showing her just how far she has to go.
Jesus shows us our goal, our purpose in being here. He shows us who God has created us to be. “I am confident of this,” says Paul to those Christians in Philippi, “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” The hope of what Christ has in store sustains us when hope seems a foolish delusion.
And there is a powerful force that discourages hope. Death lies between us and the hope we have in Christ. Whatever we do will come to an end one day. Whatever we acquire we’ll have to leave behind. Some people downplay the power of death by spiritualizing it. A widespread conception of death, based more in Greek philosophy than in scripture, is that it is the soul’s release from the body. This view sees death as the moment when the essence of who we are is transferred into another realm while what we leave behind is forgotten and left to continue toward decay. In that way of looking at things, our hope lies in a quick escape from this world.
The hope Jesus brings is different. Jesus doesn’t dismiss our bodies or anything in all creation as if they don’t matter. He gives hope for the whole creation, physical and spiritual. And each of those aspects of us is intertwined. The way you feel physically affects your spiritual well-being, and your spiritual health is connected with your physical health. From the time Jesus healed the sick, churches have been about the business of physical healing. Some of the best hospitals in the world bear the name of churches. Just down the street from my house in Pittsburgh was Presbyterian Hospital, now part of UPMC. Many congregations employ a parish nurse, someone to care for the physical needs of the community while the church supports their spiritual needs. Why would churches do that unless we believed that the body is not just a worthless shell that will be tossed away one day?
John Polkinghorne explains that what truly makes us who we are is the complex pattern in which we’re put together, body, mind and spirit. Our bodies deteriorate. Our minds wear out. We don’t function at age 80 the way we did when we were 20. But regardless of how well the parts are working, the pattern that makes each of us unique is there. It all stops at death, but God does not forget who we are. God holds us in God’s memory until that day when Christ comes again at the close of history and God resurrects us, body, mind and spirit. That is what happened to Jesus at the resurrection, why he is called the first fruits of the dead. What God did to Jesus, who died and was raised, is what God will do for us. Our hope in Jesus is stronger even than death. The good work God has begun in us will be completed by the day of Jesus Christ, the day he raises us from death, reunites us with those we love and restores the whole creation to perfection.
One of the images the Bible uses for that day is the image of a heavenly banquet. When Christ comes, not only will he reconstitute each of us, he’ll make right the whole human race and the entire creation. We’ll delight in each other’s company. We’ll share freely with all. We’ll encourage one another. The differences that now divide us will be sources of pleasure and affirmation.
Hope like that needs encouragement. The power of death is so great that it continually works against the hope we have. Death permeates life. It is served by hatred, greed, warfare, dishonesty, lust. All those things that keep us from living in God’s ways serve death and discourage us from hope that the day of Christ will come.
The church exists as the place where we practice hope. God put us here so all can see what it’s going to look like around that heavenly banquet. No, that doesn’t mean the church is a perfect place. It doesn’t mean that people don’t hurt each other or disappoint each other. It doesn’t mean there’s no greed or dishonesty or selfish motive in the church. There are. But God put the church here to live in hope. That’s why we gather here every Sunday – because we believe Christ is alive and will come again. That’s why we study the scriptures together in circles or Sunday school – to learn how God is working to bring that hope about. We trust that the good news of this hope we have to share is contagious and that people will continue to be drawn to it. That’s why Eastminster’s mission committee is hosting a representative from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s World Mission Division to help us see how God wants us to be involve in the world. Through the PCUSA, we support missionaries in some of the world’s most challenging places like South Sudan and Pakistan – God sends us out into the world to show this hope.
You can’t see hope, but when we live in hope, life works. As we let our love overflow and gain knowledge and insight into what Christ has in store, our lives make sense. Christ has shown us what is to come. It’s a work in progress.