Posted by: owizblog | January 22, 2017

“True and False Hope”: Sermon, UCB, 22 January 2017

Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4


It’s extremely hard to find a place of the mind to stand and survey dispassionately the events of the last few months which culminated on Friday in the Inauguration of President Trump.


Truth to tell – and this is one of the things that makes it so hard to be objective about these things – we have no idea whether they have culminated yet. Mr Trump’s ascent to the White House seems to be parallel, indeed part of, new, vast currents in western society and culture which are reshaping our world.

A gathering of leaders of the European Far Right in Koblenz, over the weekend took inspiration and encouragement from Mr Trump’s rise, and even more from that unfolding situation which the British electorate created in June last year, which everybody knows as Brexit.

And as with Mr Trump’s Presidency, so, with Brexit, we know that things are happening, and we have some, very incomplete, sense of how these things are beginning to take shape – but we really don’t know where they will take us.


And there’s a third thing, marked by the gathering of European Rightist leaders itself; it’s entirely possible that several large and influential countries may themselves be about to embark on roads similar to those chosen by the United States and the United Kingdom. What that might do to the European Union in the next year or so is very hard to predict.


Perhaps the most important piece of information that we regularly overlook, or at least underestimate, is the completely clear way these events divide people.

“For” and “against,” yes, of course: there are those for and against Brexit, for and against Mr Trump. That’s politics, you say; that’s how politics has aye been…

But this is different. It’s become impossible it has become for people on either side of this divide to understand each other.


On the one hand, there are those who are filled with fear at these developments. They see a world they understood being transformed in ways that frighten them. They also see rights, and recognitions, that have been hard-won, hard worked-for, over decades, over a century and more, suddenly imperilled. Women, in their equality, workers in their employment rights, LGBT people, the hard-won consensus that the very environment is in danger, the imperfect structures that arose out of war but do seem to have served the cause of peace, those aspects of globalization that have at least helped us to see, and work towards, a sense of a global human family, if not yet a just global society…

It’s easy to understand people’s fears when each item on that list is pretty much specifically and explicitly threatened by the new political agendas that have been growing since 2008. We may very well feel those fears ourselves.


But if we only dwell on our own fears, we will never understand what is going on, because on the other hand, there are those millions of people who hope where we fear. These currents flow, and deepen and strengthen because they are driven by fear which that very changing world has engendered in vast numbers of people who were made hopeless by the way the world was.

Many commentators seize on the word “globalization” to try to account for this, and globalization is the greatest of two-edged swords. As we move towards a more integrated world, barriers, borders, nation-states with their exclusive sovereignty, and their capacity to direct their trading policies by choosing – at least up to a point – whether or not to trade openly, whether or not to regulate their trade by tariff-barriers, or, in the good old days, by gunboats and war, these things have been swept away by forces that in the long run proved vastly more powerful than armies.


Flows of capital have become global; money in unimaginable quantities washes round the world in ways that nation-states have become powerless to stop, and these flows take jobs and industry away with them.  People are hurt, their lives blighted, stripped of hope.

Is that the explanation for what’s been happening over the last decade, but which has suddenly burst through to dominate political life in the last year?

Well, obviously, it’s an enormous simplification of a situation that we all know is complicated far beyond the ability to solve

of the traditional man down the pub who knows absolutely everything and can tell you that the world would be a much better place if he were running it.


But it does pick out one crucial aspect of our own experience, yours and mine – and the experience of millions upon millions of ordinary people – of these world-reshaping events. And it might not be the one that you think.

It isn’t “globalization.”

No preacher with a grain of sense preaches about “globalization.”

“I’m sorry about your cat and your pension and how your grandson can’t get a job, Mrs McWhauchle, but don’t worry – I’m preaching on globalization on Sunday…”


No, what we have penetrated to is the dimension of hope, and the stark and astounding way that the very same set of developments that fill millions of people with despair and fear and foreboding fill millions more with what they say is hope.


This is a sermon about hope. And at this point, it’s a sermon about the mystery that right now, in a way that hasn’t been true for seven decades, it appears to be hope that divides the people of the western world.

To put it starkly: watching the panoply of President Trump’s inauguration over the weekend, there were people who believed that at last hope had dawned for them, and there were people who believed that the world is descending into a darkness in which we have yet to find the light that will lighten our way beyond it, and that all we can do for now is stumble and hope for the best.

“The people that dwelt in darkness have seen a great light…”

In a society, a culture, so divided, how on earth are we to make sense of those words in January 2017?

Paul, in the passage Lesley will read in a few moments, is talking to a riven situation. He’s trying to deal with it by remote control; he can’t be in Corinth, where the famously divided little church, with its amazing capacity to split, and split again, and row and argue and turn Christian truth into blunt instruments to hit the other side across the head with, seems to be packing into a few weeks examples of almost every kind of fight, and dissention, and unchristian behaviour that will pop up in congregations over the next two thousand years.

I’m going to do a strange thing, this morning. I’m going to ask Lesley to read our Epistle reading as it stands in the New International Version. It isn’t a good translation at this point. It goes far beyond the original Greek text, to try to clarify a passage that doesn’t seem to make sense – and sadly, it doesn’t produce any more sense by doing so. It seems to say that, in the little Corinthian church, there are little groups of people claiming that their Christianity is the best kind. Like little fan-clubs, these little groups tout the name of the figure who gives them their inspiration, and who marks them off as the better Christians – the best Christians.


And Paul tells them them to stop it. Naughty Christians! Don’t be divided!

Does that interpretation work for you? There’s something here that doesn’t make sense. Listen to it now, and go with the feeling that there’s something here you aren’t getting. And after we’ve sung our next hymn, Lesley will read it again, but with a change that is simply another way of reading the original Greek – but I suspect that, for all of us, a light will dawn.

But here, first, is the usual presentation of the chaos of disagreement in the Corinthian church.

[Reading: I Corinthians 1:10-18]

[Hymn: 533 Will you come and follow me]

Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 [altered]

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul!’ ‘I follow Apollos!’ ‘I follow Cephas!’ Well, I follow Christ! 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptised in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptised the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptised anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.


[Slide: Sermon]


Did you hear it?

Remember that the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament had next to no punctuation. The original Greek reads like this:


It was the German scholar Walther Schmithals who suggested that the last three words are Paul speaking about himself. Put a full stop after “Cephas’s”, and you have Paul saying “You may all say that you are Paul-Christians, Apollos-Christians, Cephas-Christians; well, I’m telling you – I’m a Christ-Christian, and that’s what you should be, too. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul? Or of Apollos, or Cephas for that matter?”

Suddenly, it all makes sense! “You are split, apparently hopelessly divided. You all say ‘You others are wrong! We’re the right kind of Christians. We do our Christianity Apollos’s way…’ or ‘…Cephas’s way…’ or even ‘…Paul’s way…’” “Well,” says Paul, even to the Paul-Christians,You may be Paul-Christians, but I’m not. I’m a Christ-Christian.


And so should you be! My Christianity is modelled on Jesus Christ, on the Christ of the Gospel I preach. Why isn’t yours?”

Is it Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, who gives you hope?

Is it your own little faction that represents truth, with the others all deluded?

Is the future present to some of you now, so that you possess it, and its truth, and the others don’t? Or is the future just exactly that – what is to come, what is, literally, “still to be done”?  (And since we’ve had a bit of Greek this morning, a bit of Latin won’t hurt us: the word “future” means “what is still to be”…)

Because if you lower your gaze for a moment from the horizon of what is to come, if you think that it’s in one of these factions that hope is to be found, or truth, or the answer to all your fears and anxieties, if you think that your leader can cut through the complexities, and make it all simple, and cut out the waiting and make it all happen now – you are looking in the wrong place. You have stopped looking to Christ.


Hope isn’t what has led us to where we are. Hope is what leads us from where we are, and on through all we have to face. Hope won’t let us settle down comfortably. Hope is what encourages us to work, to build, to change the world, not because we believe that finally, we have arrived, but because we know that things are not as they should be – but that there is a beyond to these things.

Hope does not make us triumphant and triumphalist, sure that we have arrived. Hope is what makes us humble enough to know that we must journey from here – but that there is a destination before us.

And hope, real, God-given hope, isn’t what divides us. It’s what we share.

Because Christ doesn’t divide us. It’s Christ who makes us one.

“The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.”

God is there, and so hope is there.


The experience of God’s people, again and again, is of a hope that appears at just the point when we acknowledge our powerlessness, a hope that doesn’t come from present struggle, still less present achievement, not from worldly power, certainly not from worldly leadership. “Well, as for me, I am Christ’s…”

Matthew gets this. In a moment we’ll hear Matthew’s account of how Jesus begins his ministry, of the call of the first disciples, in the land of historic hopelessness and darkness.

“The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.”

The words of the ancient prophecy, in a new setting. Not an end achieved, but a difficult beginning, and the setting out on a hard road.


And that’s how we know what, truly is what’s hope, and what’s a shabby counterfeit of hope.

True hope does not divide and exclude. True hope unites, and seeks to embrace all, to include, never to shut out. True hope does not say “Now, at last, we can run things the way we want them run!” True hope does not say “Finally, we are in charge! Finally we have taken back control!”

True hope is not the hope that finally we can make the world the way we want it to be, through our own power and might. True hope is that, beyond the way things are now, things will be as God will have them be, however long and arduous the road from here to there.

True hope is always dissatisfied with how things are now, always measures the present against what should be, and finds it wanting. Hope makes us discontented with injustice, with exclusion, with the violence which is how men try to make the world fit their plans and conform to their will. True hope, whether people know it or not, is always in the Kingdom. And the way of hope, whether people realize it or not, is the way of Jesus; that opposes powerlessness to power and defeats power, that opposes love to hate, and overcomes hate.

Isenheim Altarpiece

This is what Paul calls the foolishness of the cross. This is what ultimately, in its own time, will transform the fearful, shadowed world around us. This is the patient, suffering love that alone evokes real hope. Weakness, humility, patience, compassion, acceptance – this is what the transforming power of God looks like in the world.

This, whatever it looks like, is hope. Because this is how God’s love, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things, looks in a world like ours.

This, whatever it looks like, is hope. Anything else is a counterfeit.

Reading: Matthew 4:12-23

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