Embodying Hope: Nurturing Faithful Vision amidst Defeat

Stanley P. Saunders

“Jesus Christ is the hope of the world!” We have heard this confession before, and would probably give easy assent to it. But what does it really mean, or cost us, to make such a claim in a world where hope often denotes little else than wishful thinking? Does Christian hope, after all, mean much of anything in a society in which the comforts of material prosperity and trust in global capitalism have rendered the idea of God’s eschatological judgment and redemption of this world a curiosity, if not a threat, even for many Christians?

For many of us in the contemporary North American church, hope has become something banal rather than generative and life-sustaining. We tend to adapt our understandings of hope to the meanings of the term found in popular culture, to notions of “positive thinking,” optimism, or progress, for example. To be sure, hope is not peculiar to Christians, for all people who sense the limits and brokenness of this world yearn for something more, something that will satisfy their desires, fill the empty voids, or nurture a relationship with the transcendent. Hope-filled imagination thus generates both a sense of what might be and an accompanying frustration with this world. Hope makes us more fully human, even as it leads us to discern the limitations of our human experience.

Christian Hope as Witness to the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ

When we compare the notions of hope in popular culture with those of the NT, however, it quickly becomes clear that Christian hope starts from and leads to quite different places. Modern Christians tend to associate hope with the consummation of God’s design for creation in the “last days,” but this was only part of the picture for the early Christians, whose hope was rooted in both the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and their expectation of God’s final reconciliation and restoration of creation. This distinctive, bi-focal vision places Christians in a paradoxical, tension-filled existence, between two worlds and on the edge of time, ever cognizant of the world-as-it-is, yet watchful for signs of the already present/coming Lord. Hope, in other words, denotes life in “in-between” spaces, or, to use more temporal terms, life between the “already” and the “not yet” of God’s reign.

The earliest Christians believed they were living already in the “last days”—not just in anticipation of Jesus’ second coming, but already experiencing the fruit of God’s new creation in this world. For the NT authors the “last days” were not a future point on a time line, but a “kind of” time marked by the restoration of Israel, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), the resurrection of the dead, and the gathering of Israel and the nations to worship God together as one body. The gifts at work in the Christian assemblies, yielding unity, freedom, and joy, were also signs of this eschatological reality. But eschatological hope was not yet fully realized in this world, which was still held captive by alien forces. For the moment—a moment without clear chronological boundaries—Christians live in hope, a time and space that presumes a different ordering of reality than people still held captive to this world’s powers can discern. Those whose experience of time and space is shaped by the hope of Jesus Christ see the world more clearly, more honestly, and more faithfully even as they keep their eyes fixed on the horizons.

The confession that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, and that his crucifixion and resurrection free humankind from the shackles of death and inaugurate a new creation, is both generative of and dependent on the peculiar imagination of the world that we call Christian hope. To make these confessions is already to give evidence of a capacity to see the world in new ways, to discern and place our confidence in the surprising ways in which God is present in the world, and to shape our perceptions and practices around a radically disruptive and transforming vision. Christian hope trusts that the crucifixion of Jesus is not the ultimate expression of the world’s power, but rather God’s power, not the affirmation of Rome’s imperial rule, but the inauguration of the reign of the Lamb who was slain, not the end of hope, but its beginning. The gospel thus gave rise to a radically new (i.e., a newness going to the roots) sense of who God is, how things stand with the creation, and what it means to be human. The hope that these convictions generate is not merely wishful thinking, and not merely about the future, but is rather a way of living expectantly and looking for God’s redeeming, reconciling presence here and now in the world.

Hope as Communal Imagination and Practice

For the early Christians, as for most Christians throughout the history of the church, hope was not so much a matter of individual virtue as of communal vision, discernment, and practice. Christian hope is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to preserve and nurture by oneself, or only within the interiority of our modern, individualistic sense of being. Even among the aggregates of individuals that make up contemporary North American churches, hope may easily be displaced by triumphalism or by Christianized notions of historical progress, or distorted by the sense that hope pertains primarily to another (heavenly) world and another (future) time, or overwhelmed by despair at the apparent victories of the forces of evil. In the absence of a genuine community of faith—a living body of mutual interdependence whose diversity itself embodies one dimension of the Christian hope—hope will not thrive, perhaps not even survive.

In order to sustain Christian hope, the Body of Christ must live not merely “as if” the reign of God were fully realized, but already “as” members of that reign, embodying hope in the daily practices of discipleship, witness, and community building that grow from this alternative imagination. Hope thus not only gives rise to particular forms of communal practice, but must also be nurtured by such practices. These include especially gathering (in which we embody God’s reconciling power), worship (in which we name and give witness to God’s redeeming presence), prayer and praise (in which we invoke and celebrate God’s new creation), and witness (in which we locate ourselves where God is at work in the world and name God faithfully). In these settings, the peculiar vision, language, and practices that distinguish Christian community and hope are nurtured. Christian hope, then, is a way of seeing and living together as the people of God, as a body convinced by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the world around them is passing away, being overwhelmed by the loving, grace-filled power of God. In the world’s eyes, such hope is but fantasy, a dream, foolishness, and the cause of stumbling.

With good reason the earliest Christians confessed that no space—whether in heaven, on earth, or under the earth—and no time—whether past, present, or future—stood beyond the reign of the crucified messiah (Matt 28:16-20; Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; Rev 5:13). Hope that focuses exclusively to the culmination of God’s advent and judgment at some future time effectively denies Christ’s Lordship on earth and will not attend faithfully to life amidst the realities of this world. Such hoping is little more than pie-in-the-sky wishing, for it has lost its roots in the “this-worldliness” of the cross and resurrection (see P.W. Meyer, “The This-Worldliness of the NT,” in The Word in This World, ed. J.T. Carroll [Westminster John Knox, 2004] 5-18). This is the kind of hope that K. Marx rightly associated with religion as an opiate—a drug that dulls our senses, blinds us, and renders us captive to the ways of the fallen world.

Christian hope, as the writers of the NT remind us, takes shape as watchfulness (e.g., Mark 13:32-37; Matt 24:36-44; 25:13; Rom 13:11-14) and endurance, even resistance (Rev 1:9; 2:2-3, passim) to the world’s broken and violent constructions of reality. Watchfulness, a discipline often overlooked in contemporary discussions of spiritual gifts, is in fact one of the disciplines named most prominently by NT authors. Like hope itself, watchfulness is bi-focal: while it looks for signs of God’s reign in our midst it also nourishes a critical awareness that unmasks the world’s illusions. And this watchfulness in turn feeds practices of resistance. Because they recognize signs of God’s redeeming presence, Christians do not presume alienation as normative, nor turn to violence or domination to make their way in the world, but instead practice forgiveness and reconciliation, and make themselves vulnerable to suffering and even death. These practices make little sense in the world’s eyes, but perfect sense to those for whom the cross and resurrection are the bedrock of hope.

Hope and Realism

Whereas many Christians today associate hope with progress, growth, effectiveness, and success, the witness of the NT, from its first pages to the last, suggests rather that the gospel is more closely associated with conflict, disruption, opposition, and even death. Proclaiming the gospel faithfully entails placing oneself at odds with the world, and bearing witness to the story of Jesus Christ means placing oneself at risk. Those who are called to discipleship and witness do so not because they know their calling will bring about progress or lead to success, but because they live in the hope of Jesus Christ.

Christians who live on the bottom side of the world’s economic and political arrangements know better than most of us the risks of gospel faithfulness, and they also know first-hand the necessity and sustaining power of hope. But for those who live in relative security and material abundance, hope may seem but another theological abstraction, something having to do with life in heaven in the future, but little to do with life here and now. It is difficult for Christians who live in abundance to understand the nature of Christian hope, for hope springs not from human abundance, success, or prosperity, but from suffering, fear, and death. The Gospel stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus are riddled with images of despair and frustration. Even the resurrection generates a sense of disorientation and terror, rather than triumph.

Why is hope not associated with a sense of security and success? Because the gospel story undoes all that seems solid and familiar in our experience of the world. J. Alison rightly describes Christian hope as a two-edged sword, offering life with a loving God while at the same time it shatters the fragile securities offered by the known and familiar (Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination [Crossroad Herder, 1996] 161-62). Christian hope is thus the polar opposite of optimism, and fundamentally alien to the conviction that the world is getting better. Hope is not the fulfillment or completion of the life we already live in the world, but an “unexpected rupture of the system…every system” (173-74), including our own religious systems.

Hope as the Genesis of Resistance

Because hope holds Christians between the fallen world and the new creation in Jesus Christ, it creates a space that is both fully in but not of this world. In this marginal, in-between place, where we discern (“dimly as in a mirror,” 1 Cor 13:12) both the brokenness of this world and the still-to-be-realized fullness of God’s reign, genuine critical vision and world-resistive practices are nurtured. Here, in the light of Christian hope, all human social, economic, and political arrangements are found wanting, for they are revealed as merely human attempts to overcome or deny the consequences of our fall from grace, or to affirm the “progress” we are making and the successes we enjoy (on the myths of human progress see R. Bauckham and T. Hart, Hope against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millenium [Eerdmans, 1999]). Gospel hope unmasks the idolatry and blindness of all human political and economic arrangements and movements, which at their heart presuppose a world of alienation, scarcity, injustice, and violence. Because it does not take such a world for granted, but looks constantly for signs of God’s reconciliation, abundance, justice, and peace, Christian hope generates in disciples an awareness that what the world presumes as hard and fast reality is but illusion. Hope that focuses on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ in fact preserves disciples from both idolatry and despair, and leads to the fundamental act of resistance to the world: the worship of God.

“Jesus Christ is the hope of the world!” This is no mere wishful thinking, but eyes-wide-open conviction! Not an opiate that clouds our perception of reality, but critical discernment and disciplined watchfulness! Not an escape from this world, but costly, faithful witness to the new world God is bringing into being! Not triumphalism, but life in solidarity with the world’s despised and broken! Not optimism about the world’s leaders and ways, but the worship of one, true God, made known to us in Jesus the Christ. These are the peculiar signs of Christian hope.

Posted Apr 01, 2005