The Revd Brutus Green
When I was in my final year of study I lived with three other students - Luke who studied English, and two physicists. For scientists, doctorates are like jobs but badly paid - they work long working days in labs with other people. Arts PhDs, however, are usually unstructured. I often worked by night and napped in the afternoon, while Luke rarely emerged until midday when he smelled my spicy pasta ready to be served with increasingly strong coffee. At Christmas, since we worked at home, Luke and I had an office party at Cafe Rouge where we had a rare treat of steaks and wine, happy in the thought that even if our gathering was rather select at least we didn’t have to make conversation with a room full of scientists.
During this year Luke and I invented a game whereby in the evening when the physicists came home we would stage an elaborate debate over whether glass was a solid or a liquid, based mostly on false and fabricated facts such as that glass is actually a very slow moving liquid, demonstrated by the thickness of glass at the base of old windows (not true). The argument, often repeated and highly honed, would only conclude when either Luke or I had successfully proven to the other that glass was in fact a highly condensed gas.
At this point one of physicists - whom we had nicknamed ‘Tiger’ for his great enthusiasm - would be able to hold himself back no longer and, regardless of the number of times he had done this, give a ten minute lecture on how glass was in fact a crystal, with various properties some of which conformed to how liquids normally behave. Luke and I would hide our smiles, countering his arguments deadpan with appeals to medieval science and divine intervention, which only further aggravated him.
The basis of our scientist-baiting though was that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. Most of what we learn as non-specialists relies heavily on broad sweeping generalisations. The matter at hand is always more complicated than the simple divisions of solid, liquid, gas.
Unsurprisingly, such simplifications also occur in theology, and the punishments for bad theology have traditionally been much worse than those for bad science. So when we talk about God as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it’s common to think that these are modes of God, the Old Testament Father, Jesus the Son for thirty years, followed by the Holy Spirit who remains with us in the Church. Since the third century, though, you would have been thrown out of the Church for such views, probably with a hail storm of rocks to aid you on your way.
I’ve been thinking about this because of that other theological trilogy from 1 Corinthians and innumerable weddings, Faith, Hope and Charity. And wouldn’t it make a nice easy-to-remember sermon to talk about Faith, Charity and Hope as being about past, present and future. Faith is about everything that has gone before. Hope is obviously about the future; and Charity is about doing the right thing in the moment. It kind of sounds nice. It’s simple and memorable. It has a broad-brush quality that immediately strikes a true note; but actually it doesn’t quite fit with how much faith, hope and charity overlap.
Hope, I want to suggest to you, is not primarily concerned with the future at all.
The English language is an odd thing. Just yesterday I was at a wedding in Hatch Beauchamp. Guess how [Beecham] is spelled. And you may have read in the papers this week that some time ago the word ‘literally’ acquired a second meaning. Meaning in language is determined by use and it seems that we so often literally gnash our teeth, or literally pull out our hair, literally go mad, or literally get away with murder that those busy people at Oxford Dictionaries have included ‘metaphorically’ as a secondary meaning of literally. I’m literally going out on a limb here but to my knowledge this is the only word in English that also means its opposite.
Strange things happen with words though, and I was reading a study the other day which found an odd case of related words with quite different meanings. The words ‘hope’ and ‘hopeful’ you would expect to be more or less interchangeable. The statements “I hope that…” and “I am hopeful that…” seem very alike. But the study showed that hoping is an activity based largely on how we feel, an attitude. Being hopeful on the other hand is based on more rational principles as to what is likely to be the case. So if you were receiving your A-level results this week, over the last three months since the exams your hope - that you got the grades you need - would not have substantially altered at all in form or degree. Your hopefulness on the other hand would have gone up and down - before the exams, after the exams, after you talked with friends about the exams, the nervous week before results, literally a rollercoaster of hopefulness. Hopefulness in this sense is linked with optimism - it’s about probability. But as Christians we are not called to be optimistic, to be hopeful; we are called to have hope. And if we are constantly engaged in wondering about the likelihood of matters of faith being true we will actually never get anywhere near the Christian gift of hope.
Hope is assurance - it doesn’t blind us to difficulty, but it is a solid bedrock. It is not continually weighing up different possibilities, ready to jump ship for an easier ride. As one priest put it: “Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them”.
My summer reading this year has mostly been military history and in order to mark Victory in the Pacific Day on Thursday evening a few of us from the office had an excellent game of Risk, which lasted until the wee hours when finally the organist led a Blitz-Krieg across Asia that devastated my Red Army and brought him victory. Robin fought gamely but was exhausted by a war of attrition in Australasia and could never hold on to Europe.
In my reading though I came across a very moving story of Lieutenant Philip Curtis in the Korean War. On St George’s Day 1951 the British army was facing a severe counter attack by the Chinese and Koreans and were being pushed further and further back through the night. Philip had been radioed that unless his platoon was able to take the higher ground, called Castle Site, they would not be able to hold on. With many already dead Philip led a small group of men out towards the hill, but they were almost immediately pinned back by a machine gun. Philip was shot and had to be pulled back under cover, where he was told the medical corporal was on his way. However, the lieutenant was already back on his feet. An eyewitness described what followed:
Phil has gone: gone to the wire, gone through the wire, gone towards the bunker. The others come out behind him their eyes all on him. And suddenly it seems as if, for a few breathless moments, the whole of the remainder of that field of battle is still and silent, watching amazed, the lone figure that runs so painfully forward to the bunker holding the approach to Castle Site: one tiny figure, throwing grenades, firing a pistol, set to take Castle Hill. Perhaps he will make it - in spite of his wounds, in spite of the odds - perhaps this act of supreme gallantry may, by its sheer audacity, succeed. But the machine-gun in the bunker fires into him: he staggers, falls, and is dead instantly; the grenade he threw a second before his death explodes in the mouth of the bunker. The machine-gun does not fire on three of Phil’s platoon who run forward to pick him up; it does not fire again through the battle: it is destroyed; the muzzle blown away, the crew dead.
This is the nature of hope. Not a calculation of odds of personal gain. But a confidence that regardless of the consequences you are serving a higher cause. Not then an insurance policy in case the God stuff turns out to be true. But a belief; a trust; an assurance; that there is something more important than your life measured out in coffee spoons of day-to-day happiness.
In this sense Hope is an attitude we take in the present moment.
For most of us, most of the time, we are not called upon to put our lives on the line for our principles, our commitments or our faith. But we should remember that this week the Anglican church in Suez was attacked with Molotov cocktails, and thirty Egyptian churches were partially or completely destroyed. Today’s epistle points to the experience of persecution suffered by the Hebrews and the Early Church, and while the first list gives us miracles of God’s intervention, the second part lists the sufferings of the present without miracles in order to obtain that ‘better resurrection’. Those of whom ‘the world was not worthy’. This is that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that we remember each week, from those known to us personally to the great saints of old.
It is in this light that we are to understand Jesus bringing ‘fire to the earth’, not peace ‘but rather division’. The history of God’s people is not simply one of blessing, peace and an easy life. Nor is it one where they shut their eyes and wait passively for some imagined future. It is one in which the people of God are forged again and again in the crucible of suffering and striving for the kingdom of God, wherever the church is to be found. Hope is the assurance of God being with us, not as a future reward but as the guarantee that if we do not stop seeking him then we are becoming the people we were created to be, and doing his work.
We cannot always be certain of the right thing to do, or the right path to choose, since life does not fit simple categories like solid, liquid, gas. We must continue to try and discern what God wants for us here while praying for those who are caught in the valley of the shadow of death. Probably the most successful presidential campaign of all time in 2008 was immortalised by the single word ‘Hope’. His most impressive speech was given shortly after in Cairo where he spoke of God’s vision for the people of the world to live together in peace. It is also the speech in which he prohibited the use of torture and promised that Guantanamo would be shut within a year. To live with hope is also to live with disappointment.
But as I quoted earlier “Hope is [an] extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them”. Our hope should be built on the faith of the saints, looking to the future, not with optimism but with confidence, and lived in the present with courage. Whatever our situation, whether we find ourselves tested by the company of scientists, beaten in risk, or in hot water, literally flying by the seat of our pants, our hope should remind us that God is with us and that we can take confidence in that.