Summary: This sermon looks at the nature of our hope, especially in terms of how we face death.
This week has been an interesting week. We’ve had three people in the hospital, so I’ve been spending time there daily, talking with patients and their families about issues of life and death. The news has been filled with issues of life and death, especially as they’ve pertained to Terri Schiavo and the Pope. Last month I chose to focus on the text from 1 Peter today, which also deals with issues of life and death.
I’d like to say these all came together neatly in my mind, and it was easy to write this sermon. But that would be a lie. I’ve struggled with these issues this week, and bounced ideas off colleagues, and struggled to reconcile ideas that have been, at times, contradictory.
This letter of Peter was written to a church that was suffering. This letter was not addressed to a particular congregation, but to all the congregations in the region of Asia Minor. It was to be shared and circulated among them, that they all could receive the hope and encouragement the letter offered. The persecution of the church had begun, and to claim the name of Christ was to put yourself at risk. It was not an easy time to be a Christian, and I’m sure that there were those who faltered in their faith. How could God allow this to happen? Why did God allow this suffering?
The writer starts by talking about the significance of the resurrection, which we celebrated last Sunday. He offers praise to God, writing, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you….” As Presbyterians, we don’t think much about the new birth that we receive in Christ. For those of us who were raised in the faith, it is even harder to understand the concept of that new birth, since we have always known the faith and the living hope that we are promised. For the Christians to whom this letter was written, it was something they understood and to which they could relate. When they heard the gospel and chose to follow Christ, it was a new beginning for them. Their commitment of faith may have cost them their family and friends. They were making a choice, and leaving the past behind as they embraced a new way of life. Their lives were changing, but they were changing in a way that would endure beyond time and space, beyond the troubles of this life. They were receiving a hope that could not be damaged by anything that happened in this world.
The baseball season is about to begin. On opening day, every team will go out with the hope of this being their year, the year when they win the World Series. As the season progresses, that hope will fade for most teams, and by the All Star break the majority of the teams will have given up that hope—at least for this year.
The hope we have received in Christ doesn’t change—no matter what we encounter in this life. It can’t be changed, because it isn’t dependent on us or our circumstances or anything we do, but on Christ, and what he has already done for us. As Peter put it, it’s imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. No matter what happens in this life, we have that hope. Or as Paul put it, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
I’ve seen the impact of this hope with many of you as you have faced illness and death, for yourself or a family member. When Violet had her heart attack this week, she told the doctor she didn’t want to go through a cardiac catheterization, as she would not choose to have surgery at her age if it showed anything. She said, “I’ve had a good life.” For her, death isn’t the enemy. I have seen this attitude so many times, I remember one person who was facing death say to me, “I know I’m going to heaven, I just don’t know when.” Someone else told me this week that facing death has taught her to appreciate each moment, and not take anything for granted. Each day is a gift. I’ve been blessed as I’ve had the honor of walking with families through death and dying of seeing them embrace life—they’ve savored the time they’ve had with loved ones, even as they’ve viewed their impending death not as the enemy, but as the ultimate healing.
I’ve been struck by the contrast this has been to the highly publicized cases of these past few weeks. On Friday night, there was a headline article about the pope’s health crisis that was headlined, “No More Hope.” The news report quoted Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican’s health minister, as saying that the pope “is about to die.” “I talked to the doctors and they told me there is no more hope.” I contrasted this to what I had overheard Friday afternoon. I was waiting for an elevator on the 7th floor of the hospital. A woman and a man were sitting in the lobby talking about the pope. The young man said, “I think that one day soon our Heavenly Father will do the pope a huge favor and call him home.” For that young man sitting at the hospital, his hope for the pope took the form of waiting for the healing that would come when he died and went to heaven, or home, as the young man called it. For the cardinal, the hope he was seeking was that the pope would continue in this earthly life. At what point should our hope shift from seeking healing here on earth to recognizing that healing will come when we are, as the young man I overheard put it, “called home?” Is it a matter of age? Is it a function of how sick we are? Is it a matter how long we’ve been sick, or how much we’ve suffered?