Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2016
Start Date 8th May 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

'The Lord showed Moses the land and said 'I will give it to your descendants, and I've let you see it with your own eyes, but you yourself shall not cross over there.' A poignant picture from our first reading—of an old man, full of hope, travelling towards a cherished goal, having the goal in sight, almost within his grasp, but then dying just before reaching it.

And it's not just a picture of Moses of course. It's a picture of us all whenever we have high hopes but do not fully reach their goal. According to philosopher Karl Jaspers this is a universal experience. It's part of the tragic essence of the human condition as such. It comes in different forms, but it comes to us all: whether in the stark tragedy of the boat people, refugees, dying like Moses just short of their destination on a physical journey; or in our own failed journeys of personal relationship, career hopes, or inner journeys of the spirit. In some way, we all know the poignancy of disappointed hopes.

Yet we still hope. Hopes still drive us on, even though we don't always reach their goals. Hopes and imaginings give us reason to live and go forwards, and inspire others to do the same, whatever the outcome. And in any case we do sometimes reach some goals - in this life too, not just the next. So isn't hope also our glory, not just our tragedy?

I believe it is. This capacity to hope is a healthy thing, a virtue, not just a condition of tragedy. And it's a quintessentially human thing; even uniquely human. It's doubtful whether a dog can hope, said another philosopher Wittgenstein, because, he thought, animals lack the language and concepts of 'past' and 'future' which hope requires; only humans have that. (Actually, as a dog owner of many years, I'm wary of presuming to know what dogs can think; mine seemed well able to second-guess me regularly!). But whether or not a canine capacity, that's not the point - which is that hope certainly is a human capacity; and an extraordinarily positive one. In fact, it's so core to our life that it can seem like definition of human life itself: 'hope is my soul, the very breath of my life', said an ancient Greek poet.

And above all hope is also a vital ingredient of faith - the subject of these first two sermons at Matins in May. Last week I explored the austerity of faith: how the mystery and hiddenness of meaning in life, especially in suffering, means faith often has very little to see or feel to hold onto. But there is also this other dimension to faith, this huge energy of hope it does hold onto.

So this is what I want to explore a little further this morning: the hope that is specifically the hope of faith. Just what is it?

It's certainly not the same as just having an optimistic nature; just being by nature a glass-half-full rather than glass-half-empty sort of person; it's not just a quirk of our temperament, something which affects the top of our mind or the froth of our feelings. Christian hope is more solid than that. The hope of faith is response to something real outside us, not just a whim fashioned by our feelings. It's a response to the God we see in the life of Christ. Specifically it's hope that the pattern of Christ's journey through life is in fact the pattern that God is making out of our lives too. Whatever our life feels or looks like, we are in fact being drawn into the pattern of Christ's life (the biblical phrase we heard last week is that our life is 'hidden' in Christ's). And what this means is the hope that everything we will experience will be redeemable, can always be turned into good. For that was, after all, the pattern of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

This isn't the false hope of a doctrine of progress, the expectation everything in life will always get better in a visible straight line. But it is the sure hope that everything can and will always be turned into good; made into the kingdom of God, in this life, or the next. It's the hope that, whatever raw material we, others, nature, or chance throw into the uncertain melting pot of the future, it will ultimately be made into God's good future and destiny for us, and for the world. And so at root it's really a hope that whatever happens we are always on our way home. When our life is hidden in Christ we are always on a journey home. Just as He was. Even in the most austere times He always knew he was always 'going to the Father', going home.

A longing for home is in fact the deepest root of all hope, I suspect. Poet Philip Larkin may have thought our deepest desire is oblivion. But he was wrong. The real hope we have is for home. 'I see it everywhere', this hope for home, as another writer Penelope Fitzgerald said: 'on the faces of both privileged and dispossessed; even on haunted faces of children who have never had a home'. What Christian faith does is to take this universal human hope and tell us that in Christ there really is such a home; there really is a 'better country ahead', as the Epistle to the Hebrews says: just as Moses saw.

So that is the teleology of the soul which Christian hope offers. Something which is grounded more deeply than any instincts of biology or social construction of reality because grounded in the pattern of Christ's own real life, death, resurrection and ascension. A solid grounding which means it is a hope which can always invigorate us, whatever our disappointments; which means it can always keep us pressing forward for good goals, in this life and the next; which prevents the cynicism which comes from no longer believing there is any point in going forward. There is every point - when we see our life hidden in Christ…

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