Unpitiable Hope

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Psalm 1:1-3a Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on [God’s] law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water.

Introduction

I fear hope has gone the way of bathwater when a bath is over: swirling down the drain. The phrase, “I hope so” seems to carry the same force as “thoughts and prayers.” I think we’ve lost some of our willingness to be creative. Creativity takes on a forward-action of momentum; in creating, I move into the space where there is nothing with my hands, feet, head, heart, words, thoughts, actions and put something there. I believe the concept of hope carries this same action-oriented ability (hope and creativity seem to run on the same fuel of imagination); as of late, hope seems stripped of any forward action. When we use the word, it falls from our lips with a downtrodden lilting tone flirting with despair and heavy with doubt; our hands appear tied behind our back as we whisper the phrase to some unknown force and wait for intervention, like waiting on a superhero who will (hopefully) arrive just in time.

I don’t think it’s only an issue of creativity. I think we’ve emphasized too much intellectualism, rationalism, reasonability, and sensibility defined as “common sense.” We’ve allowed what is to triumph over what could be or might be or would be; we’ve stolen away with possibility and shoved it in the attic cranny or the basement closet of the house of actuality: what “is” is best and what isn’t “is” is worst. But if this is our axiom, then isn’t this axiom a death sentence? We’re stuck, if this is our paradigm. Doubly stuck if our hands are tied behind our back. What point is there in having hope if all there is is what we see; we know we don’t hope in things seen especially if all our world and society present is tumult and chaos…

The ultimate problem is a confusion of hope and expectation. When we consider hope we think about something we expect to happen in the future. In this way, hope is that thing that has (as of late) disappointed rather than pleased. I’m quite familiar with theologians, both alive and dead, who have no room for hope in their theologies. I’ve always marveled at such a stance but haven’t judged it because I get it. When hope fails to produce material or spiritual alterations to our life—extricating it from the burden of bludgeoning demoralization or the monotony of the mundane—it makes sense to ditch it. If my hope keeps presenting as dreaming of phantoms of good and better, rather than material bodily presence, then it’s nothing but that which perpetually disappoints me. It’s the mythological carrot of sadistic King Future luring on the peasants of the present eager to steal their labor and love.[1]

Sadly, we’ve conflated future expectation and present hope. When I’ve read through the First Testament and the recorded stories of Israel’s journey and walk with God, Israel’s hope in God is a ripe present hope based on historical stories hallmarking the past: we hope now because God has done… Today we can press on because yesterday God saw us through it.

Hope keeps an eye on history for the present; future expectation uses history as certainty for the future. Future expectation sidesteps the present and anchors what was into what will be, and flags are mounted on that moon with vigor and certainty. But the problem here is that we are not in a position to substantiate the future with…anything—neither with certain cynicism nor opportunistic optimism. We do not have the ability to throw anything far enough and hard enough into the future to populate it. I can only populate the present and in doing so participate in populating the past. I can’t penetrate the future; it always remains right outside of my grasp.

So, hope must accompany me today oriented toward possibility and built on the story of what has happened.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Now if it is proclaimed that Christ has been raised from the dead, how are some of you saying there is no resurrection of the dead? … If then Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins. Also, therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If with reference to this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of all people

But now, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.[2]

1 Corinthians 15:12, 17-20, translation mine

Notice that in this part of the letter to the Corinthians, Paul challenges the refutation circulating among the Corinthians that resurrection isn’t real[3] by turning to story to validate the proclamation that Christ is the first fruits of hope of resurrection, hope that the death that threatened does not carry the final word. Using logic[4] to explain the consequences of such a denial, Paul calls the Corinthians back into the story, their story. Remember … remember what God has done[5]…This is all God’s work; as it was then, is now, and will be forever.

The point at stake, for Paul, is the vanity of faith and the emptiness of the story of God’s activity in the world if even this part is a lie.[6] Thus, Paul (eagerly but gently) reminds the Corinthians to consider the work of God, to consider the possibility that remains existent around them independent of what makes sense and what they can see. He explains the fruitlessness of a claim that resurrection from the dead isn’t real or couldn’t be because it’s beyond anything we’ve ever witnessed or demonstrated in our seeking of knowledge through the pursuit of science. In doing so, he allows the Corinthians to linger in a moment of hopelessness. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead by God and the power of the Holy Spirit…then what are you doing? The story is pointless: your faith counts for nothing; the dead are not asleep[7] but are dead; you are stuck where you are; death reigns and new life is a myth. For Paul, to completely reject Christ’s resurrection because you can’t prove it or it doesn’t make sense is the most hopeless posture to be in. It is a posture to be pitied because it is without hope and life.[8]

Why?

Because such a statement puts human limitations on God. For all intents and purposes, we could read this passage in 1 Corinthians as a litany of questions addressed to the Corinthians: Where’s the possibility? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the daringness to imagine something other than just what we have here and now? Where is the audacity to question and to ask, “What is it?” (Manna) Without the interrogatives, without the subjunctive mood and future possible conditional clauses, without the question mark, where would we be but stuck in the indicative and the imperative with the full-stop and exclamation mark forever prohibiting us from the forward-action of creativity and hope. We’d be without story, without room to grow, to experience, and to dare. Isn’t that just stasis? Isn’t stasis death? Isn’t that state the most to be pitied?

Conclusion

But yet we were made to live and not just exist but live: boldly and daringly, marinated in divine love and clothed in hope.

If we allow God to be God (the Creator) and humans to be humans (the created, the creature) then what the future is, is God’s alone because that “not-yet” resides yet in God—all time is in God. We can’t declare that x is impossible because that’s a substantiation of the future, so too is: x will be. The only thing we are given as terminology to speak of tomorrow is the language of possibility and the space of paradox. What is isn’t ever all there is, thus we live in the collision of possible and paradox performing revolutionary resistance to the powers that threaten to take our lives (material, spiritual, social, sexual, financial, political, etc.).[9]

Here in is hope’s realm.

Hope never lays claim to what will be, it doesn’t even pretend to do so (we force it to be future-expectation’s handmaid). Hope always takes up residence in the present with every anthology of the past stacked against her walls. Hope whispers to us: what is right now, isn’t all there is right now; there’s more here than meets the eye; all things are possible with God. Hope latches on to possibility, or maybe hope is the embers of the once raging fire that is the source of the divine phoenix of possibility rising forth. Hope has eyes to see this one step and not that one just changed everything. Hope has the ears to hear the whisper filled wind of history’s many stories surging and coursing around our fatigued bodies. If I’ve made it these many days, to this spot, can I make it one more? It’s possible.

Beloved, come into this story today, take my hand around this table and hear the wonderful proclamation of God’s love for you that echoes through all the halls of time seeking your ears to hear and your eyes to see and your heart to dare to hope. There is more here than we know, for we proclaim Christ raised from the dead and our hope is not in vain.


[1] This and the following two paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1214. “The first refutation now addresses what in the language of deliberative rhetoric would be called the “disadvantages” (or, for Paul, dire, unacceptable consequences) of any attempt to deny the possibility or applicability of resurrection as a reality or concept in principle. Such a denial would entail the unimaginable claim that Jesus Christ himself had not been raised from the dead. If the universal principle has no currency, by deductive logic a particular instance of it has no currency either. Any possible sense of confusion for the modern reader arises because the resurrection of Christ is also regardedas the paradigm case of resurrection in reality.”

[4] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1217. “An a priori denial of the possibility of resurrection thereby logically excludes the resurrection of Christ. These verses underline Paul’s expectation that believing Christians will respect logical coherence and rational thought. He does not hesitate to appeal to it.”

[5] Intentionally using the perfect passive here to highlight this is God’s work (passive) and that it happened in a previous moment but has ramifications for us now in that Christ is still raised.

[6] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1216. “The fundamental kerygma has as its content the raised Christ (the force of the perfect passive ἐγήγερται is that Christ was raised and continues to live: present state on the basis of past event). Hence, to deny the possibility of resurrection as such is to knock the bottom out of what constitutes a central article of Christian faith (ἐν πρώτοις, 15:3)…”

[7] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “However, sleep regularly denotes the experience of death for Christians as pregnant with hope and becomes a standard term…”

[8] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “Paul carefully portrays someone who has placed hope in Christ with nothing beyond, i.e., only so. ἐλεεινότεροι denotes more pitiable, more to be pitied, followed by the genitive of comparison πάντων ἀνθρώπων, than all human beings…”

[9] This and the remaining paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

Who Do You Say That I am?

The Silence of Holy Saturday

If there was a day to feel the most human, I know not one better than the 24 hour period linking the event of death of Good Friday to the event of life of Resurrection Sunday.  Yet, I believe most of us rush through Saturday, not paying any attention to tension embedded in this day.

We know what happened: Jesus died on Friday and was raised on Sunday. Saturday is just the day I run those last minute errands, color eggs, plan for tomorrow’s dinner celebration, and lay out my “Easter best” outfit. My day to day productivity attempts to eclipse the possibility of eventful reflection. God can break through the clutter and cacophony of a regular day just as God can break through stone hard hearts and closed off minds. But if we are too immersed in the demands of our worlds and lives, we could miss the silence of Saturday; missing this silence and the very pregnant space-time pause, steals from the abundance of tomorrow, Easter Sunday. Might as well just be a celebration of the fertility of the Spring solstice.

In my opinion, Holy Saturday, the divine silence of this 24 hour period, is the center of the chiastic structure of massive event proportions. While everything feels normal here, nothing is actually normal. Everything is different but then none of it is. It’s the entire book of lamentations jammed into a day; it’s the moment between Adam and Eve stepping out of the Garden per divine decree and the settling in of the cherubim and seraphim who will forever prevent return. It’s the between of the walls of water dropping and drowning the Egyptian soldiers and the arrival at Mt. Sinai. It’s the deep dark of transition before Mary pushed Jesus into the world and held him to her breast. It’s the pain of Dinah after her rape and before her brothers find out; it’s the harrowing  moment between the last few breaths of the Levite’s concubine of Judges 19 and the door opening the next morning. This is where we are; it makes sense that we run through it.

There’s nothing easy about Holy Saturday. It’s filled with questions with no answers. It’s filled with crisis and confrontation. It’s filled with darkness no matter how bright the noon day sun shines. The demand of what in the hell just happened? weighs down on human skeletal structures, and there is no reprieve of an answer. This is loss; this is sorrow. Our bodies are forced into a conflict of feeling and thought: he was here, and now he’s not. The longing to touch him still courses through the nerve endings of the skin of my finger tips, but I cannot touch him anymore. The grief of desiring to lay lips on his that are now dead and gone, cold and lifeless. Substance was here and now it is seemingly vanished; the vacuum pulls my body into it: where I could not lie and sit and stand because he was there, I now can and that awareness of absence is crushing.

In the midst of this palpable heaviness that feels like divine silence, God isn’t actually speechless. The kerygma floats on the warm breeze: who do you say that I am? On Good Friday humanity answered with a conviction and judgment that ended in death. On Sunday, God will do the same but it will bring about life. But even if answers have been given, the question spoken long ago still demands an answer today; we aren’t off the hook because we’re being addressed today. And today, Saturday, the question haunts us as faith goes searching for her desire: what we knew and believed is being met with a radical upheaval of the unknowability of the future.

Today, law failed. Today, religion failed. Today, piety means nothing. Today, faith feels like a farce. Today, bodies long and hearts faint. Today, prophets only sigh. Today, love mourns. Today, grace feels beyond reach. Today, we are naked. Today, we are forced to be human, to reckon with what was and confront what will be. Today, we must wrestle with the demand of the eternal question in the divine address: who do you say that I am?