Monday, April 27, 2015

Christian Ethics and the Virtues of faith: part 2, Hope"

Genesis 7:17-8:1
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
Luke 18:35-43

“Little progress can be made by merely attempting to repress what is evil.  Our great hope lies in developing what is good.”  Calvin Coolidge

As Sir Isaac Newton expressed that for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction; there is good and evil, right and wrong, there is also virtue and vice.  It is a shame that it seems more people are aware of the Seven Deadly Sins and not so familiar with the Seven Virtues – both lists coming from the same source (Pope Gregory in the 6th century).  As has also been pointed out, too, the mere absence of vice does not constitute virtue.  Yet we also live in a world that is determined to blur the line between the two – and has been doing so for decades – so that what was once considered vice is now demanding a spot on the virtue list.  And it is admittedly getting harder to tell the difference.

As a matter of Christian ethics and expressing our faith by our virtue, it is important to understand and acknowledge that while our eternal hope rests in The Lord alone, we are nevertheless compelled by our faith to right thinking and acts of mercy and justice.  We must not be at war within ourselves or with one another between the merits of “faith” and “works” as a matter of personal salvation.  After all, if all we care about is “personal” salvation, we’ve already missed the point and have a long way to go toward sanctification. 

Rather we function as a people at peace with The Lord through faith and at peace with our neighbors through our works of justice, mercy, and charity.  We find that peace only through enduring hope.  And we have that hope only in the assurance of our faith.

Hope, however, is not simply some internal feeling we have from time to time when we become aware of something we desire for ourselves.  Much like faith, hope itself cannot be left to sit idle as strictly a “personal” component of our relationship to The Lord only.  We also are connected through Him to one as we become His Church, His very Body, Christ in the world today. 

So if hope is indeed a virtue, an equal and opposite reaction to envy, a component of our being that informs our actions in an ethical way, it requires much more than a simple intellectual acknowledgement.  Hope must be embraced, actively engaged, and made manifest in the Christian life through the Church.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding a sense of hope we have at the End of Days when that which was corruptible – flesh and blood – will be raised incorruptible.  Before this time, however, St. Paul offers what is necessary to reach that point at which our mortality will be changed to immortality: “Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of The Lord, because you know your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).  That is, The Lord’s “work” is not for nothing.  It serves a purpose – but not always a personal one.

Like all the other virtues, hope has to be more than a philosophical or religious concept that can only be answered with another concept.  It is actually a lot like the rules of algebra; none of the rules make any sense if they are not learned and then applied.  And if the application of these rules does not become a faithful practice, the rules will soon be forgotten. 

They never really become a part of who we are; they are only something we do once in a while – and we struggle then because the rule or the virtue is an external thing we employ when it suits us rather than to be an internal attribute of the soul … the essence of sanctification, striving to become more Christ-like with every passing day!

Our Bible discussion last Sunday night was an especially lively and challenging one.  We chased a lot of rabbits (!) and didn’t really touch on the chapters we were to be prepared for.  However, it was a good thing because what we are studying are words written on pages in a book.  There is some history and a lot of theology in how Israel’s actions defined their relationship to The Lord on these pages; but because what we are reading took place so long ago in a world completely alien from our own, we struggle with how these words, these concepts can be real to us today.  We struggle to get past the “stories”.

The discussion turned (and I’m still not sure how) to self-defense and personal weapons.  As we went back and forth with ideas about what is acceptable in the sight of The Lord and what we feel is necessary for survival, it occurred to me that we may all be “hope challenged”.  Even though I played the role of “devil’s advocate” in asking whether we will kill for personal protection or die for our faith, we are all painfully aware that we live in a dangerous world.  There are bad people willing to do bad things to get what they want.  This is the harsh and present reality.

Or is it?  While there are certain things we cannot help but to be aware of, I wonder if the reason we are so aware of bad things is because we do not actively engage in good things.  That is, we are set in a simple survival mode against evil forces.  Thus our hope – or whatever there is of it – is misplaced.  We are counting on our marksmanship skills and enough ammo to keep ourselves and our families alive and safe.  BUT at what cost?  And to what end?  We are willing to kill now so we can die on our own terms later? 

Now I am not trying to convince anyone of the blessings or curses of carrying or owning a weapon for personal protection; that is not the point.  The point is a serious evaluation of where our hope truly rests.  Like every other virtue, hope cannot simply be turned on or off on a whim to suit personal desires – AND there can be no faith without hope! 

I think of Noah and his hope.  He had received an assurance that if he would build this massive ark, he and his family would survive the coming flood along with all the animals aboard.  And although he found favor in The Lord’s sight, his survival was not about Noah – it was about The Covenant and the greater world.

Did Noah know how long this deluge would last?  He was told to pack enough food, but what is written at the end of Genesis 6 does not indicate how much food or for how long.  The Lord did tell Noah it would rain for 40 days and nights, but there is no indication Noah was aware that the “waters would swell on the earth for 150 days” (Gen 7:24).  Well beyond the 40 days of rain Noah had been told about.

Then chapter 8 opens with our being told The Lord “remembered” Noah.  Then came the wind and the receding waters.  Do we take from this that The Lord had somehow “forgotten” Noah?  Or do we read more carefully into this that Noah endured for as long as it would be necessary in order to live on The Lord’s terms?  What could he have done about it anyway?  He presumably could not steer the ark.  His only indication of receding waters was the dove that returned with an olive branch. 

We cannot always know exactly how things will turn out nor can we know exactly how long we may have to endure a particularly challenging “season”.  Even as we express our hope in The Lord’s provision for His faithful at the End, we cannot know exactly how things will turn out tomorrow.  Often we “hope” it will be for our personal good or personal comfort, but we are often more disappointed than pleased because we fail to realize our personal desires will never match Divine Will – and the reason is our God and Father is not a “wish granter”.  He shows no partiality.  His purposes, His thoughts, His ways are beyond ours.

Do we abandon hope, then, when we pray diligently for a particular thing but do not get what we prayed for?  Of course not!  Not getting personal wishes granted is a great blessing to our sanctification, our spiritual growth and nurture, because it is through these perceived “failures” we begin to learn more about The Lord’s Will and His ultimate provision – and we learn to align our own thoughts, our own ways, our own purposes with The Lord’s.  Because we are Covenant People, not strictly individuals left to our own.

The blind man in Luke’s story had heard Jesus was headed his way.  And even though folks tried to get him to quiet down, he refused to stop crying out to The Son of David for mercy – for he knew his own “labor would not be in vain”.  He dared to hope.  And when his sight was restored, he devoted his way to the Way of Christ – “glorifying God” on that Way and causing others to praise The Lord as well!  He dared to hope!  And because he dared to hope, he came to believe!

There are some things we can do, some things we must do.  There are also some things we must never do regardless of the noble end we may seek, and all that we discern must be in accordance with where our hope truly is.  Just to get to Heaven when the time comes?  Just to get what we want when we want it?  

We will have to do better than that if the virtue of hope is to become a part of the fabric of our soul.  Because once it is there as a gift imparted from Above, no disaster, no tragedy, no disappointments, no sting of death will move it!

I hope you will make a decision today.  I hope there will be 50 in Bible study tonight.  I hope we will exceed 100 in worship next week and 110 the week after.  I hope people who do not know The Lord will come to know The Lord through the ministry of McNeil and Asbury United Methodist Church.  I hope.  I dare to hope.  And I hope you will as well.  Amen.

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