The Space Between Hope and Disappointment. Or Why Following Jesus Is Gloriously Frustrating
I live in the space between hope and disappointment.
I am a hoper. A few weeks back I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, at the very spot Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech, and it was profoundly moving. It was a place of hope, a shrine to the possibility that humankind can be amazing.
This same hope explains why I am a sucker for TV shows like Undercover Boss. I love the idea that a CEO can work alongside her employees, see the world through their eyes, and then respond with acts of generosity that leave the employees feeling valued. I am a sucker for good news stories like these, for however artificial some of the construct may be (the producers always manage to put the CEO alongside people with hard luck stories), it remains true that there is a genuine moment of connection and realised humanity. And I want as much of that as I can get. My spirit soars and my heart melts whenever I witness human beings showing compassion, kindness, love, grace, justice.
But when you’re a hoper you also get disappointed. When moments are filled with possibility for good and people choose against it, it cuts like a knife. I was filled with hope when Malcolm Turnbull became PM. He inspired me with talk of this time as one of possibilities, but then he failed to rise to the standard of his rhetoric. He could have changed the story on refugees, climate change, marriage equality, homelessness, and more, but he has simply surrendered to conservatives in his party. Hope collided with ambition and hope lost.
I see something similar in myself. Too often I have the intention of doing good only to choose the easier path.
I blame Jesus. I am prisoner to his breathtaking vision for our world; I am in inspired by his courage, generosity, grace and love; I am held breathless by the possibilities of resurrection.
But then I remember that his dearest friends abandoned him, his countrymen mocked him and in an act of cold and cynical ruthlessness Pontius pilate had him executed.
I guess this is the way of things. We can soar to dizzying heights of courage and love and plunge to shameful depths of selfish expediency.
But here is my hope. Jesus is risen. All the disappointments of history will one day surrender to hope.
It said that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. If that’s true what does the Gospel story tell us about Jesus?
The Gospels announce him as Israel’s long awaited King, yet he’s not born in a palace, hailed glorious by the nobility, but among cattle and goats and their pungent sweat and defecation. He lies in a repurposed feeding trough. The first to visit are pagan astrologers and rough-hewn shepherds.
Then there is silence for 30 years. There are no legends of a superhuman boy. The people of his hometown know him to be just like one of them, son of Joseph and Mary, just like any other kid in Nazareth.
For three short years his light blazes across Galilee and Judea. Suddenly everybody wants a piece of him. He is the miracle worker, the one who has authority over demons, the teacher of wisdom, the prophet bringing the news that God is about to reign once more. Some even whisper that he is perhaps the long awaited King.
Yet we only rarely see him engage with the powerful. He rarely spends time in the capital, the epicentre of pomp and power and prestige. He prefers to spend his time in the villages of Galilee where he teaches the common folk; he makes time to bless the children of peasants; he converses with a Samaritan woman; he courageously defends and saves the life of a woman caught in adultery. Where everybody rushes past the blind man, reduced to the life of a beggar longing for release from his misery, Jesus stops, gives the blind beggar his full attention, asks “what do you want me to do for you?” and then does it.
He seeks out the leper, those tortured souls filled with a wasting disease whom no one will touch, and he touches them. He shares meals with tax collectors and prostitutes. With tax collectors?! Those despised exploiters of their countrymen, collaborators with the pagan power that has crushed their country? With prostitutes?! Unclean, ungodly, scorned women.
He calls fishermen and tax collectors and bandits to form his disciple group. There are 12 of them, chosen to represent the 12 the tribes of Israel. They are to be the leaders of the new community Christ forms. This group? Leaders? What hope has the future if it’s in their hands? They’re passionate, they’re committed, but they are hardly leadership material.
And throughout it all he whispers words of hope and promise. That the reign of God is coming to these the forgotten, the diseased, the unwanted. That the Spirit of God is doing a new thing. And they all know what that means. They may be the little ones, the forgotten, the overlooked, but they know the traditions, they know a time is coming when God will re-establish his people as a light to the nations, when the yoke of Roman rule will finally be lifted from their shoulders and stye will enjoy peace, prosperity and freedom. With Jesus they can almost taste it.
And so we come to the night of the Passover. What an apt meal. As bread, meat and wine are shared the story is told again of the mighty liberation of their ancestors from the yoke of slavery in Egypt. They remember the powerlessness of the Hebrews before their Egyptian overlords, and they can’t help but think of how they are powerless before their Roman overlords. They remember the suffering of the Hebrews at the hands of ruthless masters, and they can’t help but think of how they have suffered at the hands of the ruthless soldiers of Rome. Now Jesus takes the bread and the wine and he says that just as God liberated the people long ago and formed a covenant with them, so he is the one through whom God will bring a new covenant.
Minds must surely have raced ahead. When the God of Israel went to war against the gods of Egypt it was a mighty battle, but one that Yahweh won convincingly. A series of plagues was a vivid demonstration of the power of Yahweh. And here at the Passover festival they remembered the terrible night when Yahweh reached out his hand and took the life of the firstborn in every household of Egypt, except for those families of the Hebrews put the sign of the Passover on the door so that the angel of death would not visit their homes. It was a hard victory, in which the violence of Yahweh proved greater than the violence of the gods of Egypt and the Pharaoh, a power contest in which Yahweh proved himself to superior. So who could blame that small group of disciples, chosen to be the leaders of the new Israel, for thinking that Yahweh would do the same thing in their time; that Jesus would lead them into a power contest in which the might of Rome was finally undone; in which God went up against the Roman gods and defeat them at every point.
But if Jesus had confounded expectations by the people with whom he associated during his ministry, he was soon to confound them again. This victory of God would not be won by out-Romaning the Romans. Victory would not be attained by defeating their violence with a greater violence. Jesus would conquer with grace, with love, with forgiveness. He would institute this new reign of God not after the patterns of old, nor after the patterns of the world, but he would stretch the fabric of reality to make space for an entirely new way of being. He would allow himself to be subjected to the very worst atrocities of the ancient world. He would be beaten, mocked, and crucified, yet his hands would not be clenched into an angry fist with which to pulverise his opponents, but stretched out with arms wide open offering forgiveness, blessing, and a fresh start. As he hung on the cross he would not take upon his lips a promise of vengeance but a plea for forgiveness. Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
And then he died. The forgotten ones who invested their hope in him, those scorned ones who had dared to dream, the powerless ones who had anticipated the turning of the tables were stopped dead in their tracks. Their dreams and hopes and aspirations died with Jesus on that cross. It had all been an allusion. Where was this reign of God of which Jesus had spoken? Their conquering hero had been conquered. Defeated. Extinguished.
Sadness. Despair. Hopelessness. Fear.
They didn’t know that Sunday was coming. They didn’t know that in two days time God would raise Jesus from death. But when they travelled to the tomb of the Sunday morning and found it empty, when they met Jesus not just once but many times, it changed everything. For the way of grace, love, forgiveness had triumphed over death. Rome and the forces of evil had unleashed all their fury upon Jesus, had extinguished his life. But in this one game-changing act of resurrection God recalibrated past, present and future.
This really was the way of God. They had been wrong to expect Jesus to out-Roman the Romans. He did something far better than that. Rome could merely conquer its enemies. Jesus could make them friends. Rome held people loyal through the threat of violence. Jesus held people loyal through the sheer power of grace and love. The Empire of Rome was fleeting, rising and falling with the vissitudes of history. Jesus’s kingdom was eternal, burning wherever there is just one heart committed to the way of grace, love and hope.
And so more than 2000 years after that first new covenant Passover, we gather to celebrate it again, to remember that night when Jesus gathered his disciples around him and taught them that God’s new way would not be the way of power or violence but the way of service, grace, love and resurrection. We gather to remember that the members of this kingdom may include the powerful, the famous, and the influential, but that is a kingdom open to all, led by a king who seeks out the lost, the least and the last; a kingdom of nobodies who discovered that in the gracious love of their God they are somebodies.
It is our generation’s turn to keep the memory of this kingdom alive, to allow it to seep down into our bones, soak into our hearts, fill our minds; to be agents of this new covenant, this new calling together of humankind under the reign of God, to carry into our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our churches, our world; to let it shape our lives, form our dreams and inspire our imagination.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which Christians remember two great symbolic acts of Jesus: the celebration of the Passover and the washing of his disciples feet. Passover festival was a celebration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, a liberation that was accomplished through the means of violence that I find almost incomprehensible when attributed to God. The text of Exodus suggests that God and Pharaoh, representing the gods of Egypt, went to war, culminating in God killing the firstborn child of every Egyptian family and then drowning the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.
I don’t know what to do with that. I cannot explain how it fits with what Jesus shows me of God, that God is loving, gracious, compassionate, kind, merciful, and just. What I do comprehend is that when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples that night he invested it with new meaning. For Christians the meaning of Passover is now associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which God accomplished salvation not by violently subduing his enemies but by taking on himself all the hatred, violence, anger, and brutality that they could muster, and responding with grace and forgiveness. God triumphed not by proving himself more powerful in violence than the Romans, nor more vindictive than the powers of evil, but having exposed himself to the full force of their violence such that the life of Christ was extinguished, God did something extraordinary, something that injected a new possibility into reality. God raised Jesus from the dead, signalling that after evil has exhausted itself to the point of death God has created a new way to life.
It’s therefore significant that on the same day Jesus invested the Passover with new meaning, he knelt down and washed his disciples feet. In the Israel of Jesus day dust would accumulate on people’s feet as they travelled, so a bowl of water and a towel would be offered to guests when they arrived at a house to allow them to wash the dust from their feet. If the house had a servant, the servant may have been required to play this role, but never the master of the house. By washing his disciples feet Jesus reinforces the truth that his life, and the life of his God, was grounded in service of others.
I still don’t know what to do with the story of the Exodus. I celebrate the liberation Israel from slavery. I can even bring myself to recognize that at some level evil such as slavery and oppression have to be met with some measure of force. But the slaughter of the firstborn child of each household? The drowning of an entire army? I cannot explain these, and in one way I don’t need to, For Jesus took the memory of violence perpetrated by God and turned it into a memory of violence perpetrated against God and of God responding with nothing but a kindness, generosity and grace, and carving the new possibilities of resurrection into the hard walls of reality. That I can and will celebrate.
Until my Parkinson’s progressed I never realised what a fine art it is pulling on a pair of socks. I always thought the challenge would be things such as tying up my shoelaces, but it appears that pulling on socks requires fine motor skills that are more sophisticated than those of tying shoelaces.
The Easter story has always resonated with me, but it has become even more deeply resonant as my bodily capacities deteriorate. For Easter is all about bodies. Easter is visceral. Good Friday tells the story of a body bloodied and bruised, of arms and legs held nailed to a cross, muscles screaming to stretch but unable, hands unable to lift a cup of water to parched lips, of a man who was once in full command of his body now reduced to dependence upon others for the merest comfort.
And then three days later resurrection. Having experienced the physical weakness of the cross, I wonder whether the resurrected body was even more sweet an experience for Christ. As life flowed once more through his veins and his body was not only brought back to life but made qualitatively different, never again to be subject to the violence of the cross nor the slow march of decay, were there moments of pure joy and exultation at the free movement of a fully able frame?
For that is the promise of Easter for those of us who struggle with some kind of physical disability, that once again it will be easy to bend down and pull on socks, that once more we will have that joyful experience of a body fully yielded to the will of its owner.
And it is of course part of the greater promise of bodies, hearts, minds, relationships, communities, and environment all liberated from the limitations and disablings of the present. How glorious it will be.
Jesus came to Israel proclaiming a kingdom founded on faith, grace and love and was executed by a kingdom founded on idolatry (the Roman emperor was worshipped as a god), violence (Roman armies had conquered the world and rebellion was ruthlessly crushed) and state-interest (Rome stripped conquered countries of their wealth). Roman crucifixions were intentionally public events, a powerful warning that rebellion would be crushed. As he slowly died on that Roman cross it appeared that the way of state-sanctioned idolatry, violence and self-interest had once more crushed the utopian vision of yet another hippie dreamer.
The resurrection turned the tables. Without resurrection Jesus’s life and death would have been tragic and no more. The resurrection was God’s declaration that the ways of Rome were not ultimate, that the future would not be an endless rerun of one violent kingdom after another but resurrection, the triumph of a world built on faith, grace and love.
As a follower of Jesus I am called to live the way of Jesus not the way of Rome. Surely this has both personal and political implications. Surely it means experiencing God’s grace and love for me and responding with faith, living the way of faith, grace and love in my personal relationships, and asking what the way of Jesus might be toward those who are refugees, impoverished, enslaved, homeless and exhorting my government to embody these ways rather than the ways of Rome.
Does Easter Sunday fill me with hope or optimism? I’ve just finished reading of Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith, in which he draws upon the distinction between hope and optimism offered by German theologian Jurgen Moltmann.
Hope and optimism… both have to do with positive expectation, and yet the two are very different. Optimism has to do with good things in the future that are latent in the past and the present; the future are associated with optimism…is an unfolding of what is already there. We survey the past and present, extrapolate about what is likely to happen in the future, and, if the prospects are good, become optimistic. Hope, on the other hand, has to do with good things in the future that come to us from “outside”, from God; the future associated with hope … is a gift of something new.
I find this a tantalising way of looking at things, and one that has significant implications for me.
First, it makes the resurrection of Jesus central to my faith. If Jesus’s bones are still rattling around in a grave somewhere in the Middle East then Christian faith is about optimism. His resurrection is simply a metaphor for the idea that his followers kept his ideals alive after his death. If however, God did raise Jesus from the dead, then something new, something from the “outside” occurred that changed everything.
Second, it reminds me that we really do need “salvation”. I don’t mean by this the idea that my soul will go to some spiritual dimension after death,but the idea that we really do need God to do something for us, to transform us and our world. Without this the future will simply be a rerun of the present. But with God’s work we can hope for something genuinely new, for the transformation of our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our societies, our economic and political systems, and our environment.
Third, it is a glorious reminder that Christian faith is about gift. The good things of God come to us from outside ourselves, received from the hand of God, an act of grace and generosity.
Both optimism and hope are good things, but hope takes me to a place optimism can’t.