In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. (1 Peter 1.3-4)
Keep Hope Alive
Reverend Jesse Jackson and I go back a ways—not as personal friends, but as fellow travelers in the gospel corridors of Chicago’s South Side. I was fortunate to discover this amazing universe not long after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when African-American leaders and pastors scrambled to fill the vacuum he left. Rev. Jackson was the obvious heir apparent. His national profile was high, though not nearly as intense as it was locally. Passion and florid rhetoric had been his stock in trade from the start, as he ventured from the Chicago Theological Seminary to make his way through pulpits around town. While the public knew him as a civil rights activist and orator, we relished his prodigy as a preacher. Few equaled his depth and agility. He rarely spoke from prepared text. Even when he did, as his topic coalesced and the congregation’s response escalated, he usually left the page so the sermon could lead him. That’s when his gifts were most wondrous, for he seemed to pluck perfect verses out of thin air: a spot of Job followed by something from Paul matched with an ingot from Isaiah topped off with a bit of Mark.
Having witnessed this so often, to this day, listening to Rev. Jackson’s speeches and comments, I see his mind flash on this and that scripture, which he molds into secular syntax. This is certainly true with his trademark phrase, “Keep Hope Alive!” The evocation of Dr. King’s legacy is apparent to every listener. But those of us who know Rev. Jackson's dexterity with Scripture place its origins further back than the Civil Rights Movement. We hear 1 Peter 1.3-4 and its celebration of renewal and inheritance made possible by divine mercy. “Keep Hope Alive!” transcends Dr. King’s dream. It’s a cry for certainty, immutable trust that hope will be rewarded and justice will prevail.
A Life of Its Own
This “hope” business can be tricky, though. Without a fixed objective—a thing hoped for—it can easily get away from us, like a lovely kite that breaks free of its tether. And that’s typically how we lose hope. Rough winds and invisible currents snatch it out of our hands, leaving us with only the slender thread that connected it to us; we watch helplessly as it flies into the clouds, assuming a life of its own. Yet that’s Peter’s point when he writes, “[God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Hope has a life of its own. It’s a force that won’t be tethered to one outcome, or predictably respond to strings we attach to it.
A swift lope through the Old and New Testaments suggests our modern concept of hope as a thing we can have and cling to actually reverts to pre-Christian thinking. In hope-heavy books like Job, Psalms, and Proverbs, it’s generally referred to “my hope.” But the apostles write of hope in a much larger sense. Basically, hope has us. It’s very close to an entity we plunge into, a medium that surrounds and infiltrates our lives. This is what Peter means by “new birth into a living hope.” First-century believers closely associated hope with the imminent return of Christ. Yet their perspective on the Second Coming differed in many ways from ours. They preferred the term “parousia,” which literally means “transcending substance” or “divine presence.” Thus, parousia amounted to reunion with the Risen Redeemer and they firmly expected it would happen soon.
So great was this hope it encompassed every aspect of life to become something far more essential than a commonly held desire. It defined the Church’s mindset and behavior in every respect, as believers practiced hope in preparation for parousia. Thus, we hear Paul say “we rejoice in hope” (Romans 5.2) and the Hebrews writer refer to hope as “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (6.19) and Peter admonish us to “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1.13) We’re instructed to abide in hope, to allow it to breathe and move through us. To keep hope alive and in operation as the precursor to parousia. To govern our lives as though the Risen Christ were present now in anticipation of His presence to come. This sensibility forcefully emerges with the incomparably brilliant explanation of faith in Hebrews 11.1 as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
More Than a Feeling
Hope is more than a feeling of optimism we harbor about possibilities. It’s our guiding principle, and since I’ve already invoked one 70’s single, I’ll add another that captures the nature of hope. It’s a living thing. And we live in hope exactly as fish live in water. Its certainty surrounds us, supports us, propels us, nurtures us, and sustains us. We keep hope alive because hope keeps us alive. It’s a powerful, interdependent relationship that must be protected so both can thrive. Doubt, logic, and fear poison hope. Consequently, they poison us. They steal our breath, weaken our systems, and cripple our will to live in hope. When we entertain unhealthy opinions and indulge in harmful behaviors, their pollutants destroy hope.
Hebrews 6.11-12 urges us to maintain “diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” Again, there’s the same connection Peter makes by connecting living hope to “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” On the heels of last week’s Earth Day observances and the resurgence of ecological values, we should remind ourselves that our spiritual health, survival, and inheritance are predicated by healthy hope the same way the prospects of marine life rely on healthy seas. We have been born into a living hope. But if we don’t keep hope alive, we’ll be washed up on shore, saturated with poisons, lifeless, and without our rightful inheritance.
We plunge into hope. It encompasses and moves through us, much like the sea surrounds and filters through fish. We keep hope alive because it keeps us alive.
Postscript: Impossible to Resist
It’s a living thing… I’m taking a dive! (And anyone who says "Don't you do it!” simply doesn't know what he's talking about.)