“(H)ope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:1-5
We’ve heard much in recent years about the enduring power of hope. Studying Romans this morning a passage from Romans 5 struck me as particularly revealing. In these early chapters Paul is writing about the supremacy of faith over works under the law. “Justification” in Paul’s view has nothing to do with how good we are or how many laws we follow; it can never be earned by works. Faith in the price paid by Jesus on the cross overrides any work or action we can ever take before the eyes of God. This is where true hope lies.
This passage takes the argument further. Our faith in God and the justification we have through the blood of Christ is the only authentic grounding of our hope. Yet this hope is not costless or without pain. Instead, we stand on faith to celebrate and glory in our own suffering. Paul contends that suffering and the endurance of hardship teaches discipline and perseverance. In time perseverance in face of pain and hardship builds character as we await God’s timing and receive His blessings based on His will. With character comes the power to hope and trust that God is indeed, in control of our lives. In this way God’s love can flow into and through our hearts as an outward display of the Holy Spirit connecting each of us to our neighbors and to God.
The lesson doesn’t end there. Today’s society is built on an entirely different vision of hope. More empty and rhetorical than Paul’s description, hope in the secular world is not something we develop through quiet obedience to God’s will but rather more like a tired punch line. It comes with no cost, no effort, and is rewarded by the only god of this world – man!
John Kekes, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at University Albany and a well-known atheist writes in chapter 10 of his 2010 book “The Human Condition” how humans can find hope in a secular world through modest control over our lives. That is, by exerting our own will we can create hope – or at least the illusion of hope – in an otherwise hopeless world. This seems rather shallow to me, much like a parrot miming the words of its master with no real understanding of the depth or meaning behind the words.
Psalm 39:7 proclaims: “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” Hope is only authentic when placed solely in God’s saving grace. Anything less is little more than a cheap imitation masquerading as something it can never be.
While sharing dinner recently with a colleague in San Francisco, the conversation inevitably turned to America the aftermath of the 2016 election. I say inevitably because being from Texas, I’m regularly asked by friends in California and New York to discuss my opinions on matters of current interest. I suppose I’m an easy target!
Nevertheless, into the conversation we plunged – my companion holding views which, on the surface, appeared as diametrically opposed to mine as possible. The topics were wide ranging: from abortion to gun control, climate change to institutionalized racism, unemployment to tax relief. I came away from the table with considerable food for thought and will share some of that in later posts.
What struck me most about this 3-hour dinner was not our differences, but rather how much alike we were in our compassion for others and our love of honest discussion where each side sought first to understand the other before replying. I imagined at one point how different this same conversation might have been over social media with someone I seldom if ever see face-to-face, comfortably safe behind the protection of a digital veil. As many of you can attest, those discussions often to confrontational and devolve into acrimony and name-calling.
Ultimately, we determined that our end-state goals and desires were not that far apart though perhaps our means to those ends differed. And that got me thinking about church. Yes, church. Specifically, the current trend of many so-called “revolutionaries” to withdraw from traditional congregation-based church formats in favor of individual faith journeys.
One of these individuals, Kelly Bean, Associate Dean at UCLA School of Management and author of How to Be a Christian without Going to Church writes: “The great news is that it is possible to be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ … If you want to start a church, just have a party in your house and see who shows up.”
Kelly is right about this – as Jesus himself proclaimed in Matthew 18:19-20, if we get together in his name, he shows up. The specific text is “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Jesus is all around us, even when we don’t perceive his presence.
Yet there is something uniquely missing when we withdraw from the church because it doesn’t “speak our language,” or – more specific to this post – avoid people in our daily lives who disagree with us because they don’t speak our language. To paraphrase Donald Carson, a Canadian-born, Reformed Evangelical theologian and professor of the New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, life should not made up of “friends,” but rather of those who disagree with our points of view.
Why? Don’t we have enough debate and argument in our lives? The point here is that there is indeed a key difference between tolerance and relationship. Tolerating someone else’s opinion merely means putting up with them, not understanding or relating to them. While noble in its stated intent, it deftly sidesteps the messiness and inconvenience that comes from loving and knowing someone else, even if they disagree with you. And the ultimate danger in empty tolerance is that it can end in rejection of the other person if their opinions don’t fit your world-view.
What I was reminded of during my dinner is that two adults with well-formed if differing thoughts about the world can engage in constructive, probing conversation and walk away closer than they started. This is in the best tradition of Jesus’ core message about community as stated in Luke 6:32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.”
Listen. Learn. Relate. You might find more in common that you ever imagined.