The current public climate, often generated by the news media, is one with little hope. Whether it relates to the late Jade Goody with her millions from reality TV, the fortunes of Newcastle United with relegation staring the club in the face, or the BBC with gloomy economic correspondents, there is a mood of despair. But despair is a mark of a society where you have widespread neglect of God and ignoring of the real truth about life and the universe as revealed in Jesus Christ and his Resurrection. This results in being Ephesians 12.2 …
"without hope and without God in the world."
What a joy, then, to read again 1 Peter 1.3–5:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade - kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”
It was this passage that the distinguished German theologian and opponent of Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, read in the service he conducted for his fellow prisoners just before his execution at the Flossenbürg concentration camp exactly 64 years ago this month.
On the morning of 8 April 1945 Bonhoeffer was taken out to by hung for his connection with people involved in the 20 July 1944 plot against Hitler (the thirteenth film about which, Valkyrie, is currently on general release). It was, indeed, a particularly evil, cruel and lengthy form of hanging. Also before he died he sent this last message to his friend the Bishop of Chichester:
“This is the end – but for me the beginning of life.”
Such is the consequence of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the first Easter morning. You can have a “living hope” as Bonhoeffer had. That is the good news; and that is possible because it was a real resurrection with an empty tomb and Jesus meeting his disciples in a transformed, glorified body.
True, this was quite beyond human understanding. However, the disciples knew it was the same Jesus they had been with and learnt from over the past three years. [For more on the facts and truth of the Resurrection of Jesus see www.church.org.uk for the JPC Coloured Supplement April 2007]
In his book Christianity: The True Humanism, Thomas Howard imagines someone just about to be executed like Bonhoeffer but being counselled by a modern secular humanist. He writes:
“What do you say to the man in Death Row? After the Supreme Court, the Governor, and the President have turned down all the lawyers’ appeals, so that no hope may be summoned from any legal quarter, what will your word to him be? [For] tomorrow is the day … At this point we come to a watershed. If you are a nonreligious person with the courage of your convictions, then you will not demean yourself by mumbling insincerities about God being very loving and everybody entering into rest. Hope in this world has now gone for good. Is there anything encouraging you can still say? Indeed, the extremity of the situation will shine a terrible light back across the whole of experience, and force on you the question: Are all hopes, finally, illusionary? Is every hope a mere rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic while she sinks? If the point of view called secular humanism is true, then indeed this is the case. We as individuals are simply going nowhere.”
Such secular humanism is the philosophy that is alive and well and being promoted in our schools, universities, government offices, civic centres, clinics and through the media. For the good of all this must change. It is not just being proposed but imposed. Who wants such erroneous indoctrination?
Of course, we must pray and pray regularly for change. Christian people, however, who have a living hope, also need to take whatever reasonable action they can to ensure that unrepresentative minorities are not spreading nihilistic negativism in our public life. Support for example, the Christian Institute [www.christian.org.uk] and keep informed.
Working for change
But change happens when, first, there is “outrage”. It starts with indignation about the status quo. It was said of one famous politician:
“His distinguishing quality was his capacity for what can only be called moral outrage. ‘That is unacceptable,’ he said of many conditions that most of us accepted as inevitable … Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, prejudice, crookedness, conniving – all such accepted evils were a personal affront to him.”
The opposite of such outrage is apathy. Apathy is the acceptance of the unacceptable. Leadership – and Christians will have to take the first steps in this change - begins when you refuse to accept the unacceptable. So there has to be “outrage”. The tragedy today is that in so many areas – moral, religious and political - there is “the death of outrage” (the title of a book). What is now outrageous is the absence of outrage!
Furthermore, a failure to see change may result in a culture of cynicism.
"Cynicism – first cousin of that death-dealing disease of the spirit which the mediaevals called sloth and accidie – may be described as the disposition to believe that truth-claims cannot ever be trusted; that virtue, however apparent, is never real; and that hopelessness is the only real wisdom there is,” so ,” writes Howard. God save us from a culture of cynicism".
The biblical gospel of hope
What, then, are Christians to tell the world?
First, they can say that their hope, based on the Easter facts, gives them now great encouragement when life is dark or difficult; and it gives them great stability Hebrews 6. 18-19:
"God did this so that ... we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure"
Secondly, they can say that the Christian hope does not lead to passive inactivity now as they look forward, but to positive action. Peter writes 1 Peter 1.13:
"Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed"
Thirdly, they can say they are looking forward to being with Christ forever. As Paul writes to the Philippians 1.21-4:
"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body"...
Fourthly, they can say that their faith is nurtured through their study of the Bible (the Old as well as the New Testaments Romans 15.4:
"For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope".
Fifthly, they can say being hopeful produces goodness or purity. John writes 1 John 3. 2-3:
"Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure."
So this Easter do not focus on the negativity and, literally, hopelessness of too much in our current culture. Rather, "remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead" (2 Timothy 2.8). And, finally, quoting the words of Paul in Romans 15.3:
"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”