St Mark Downham
May 12th, 1996
6th of Easter
The Hope that you all have
"Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have"
Many people talk about faith and hope it as if they were one and the same thing.
The Bible however makes it quite clear that they are two quite different things, though of course they are related to each other.
"Faith is the substance (or "assurance") of things hoped for, the proving or (or conviction) of things not yet seen".
"Faith, hope and love abide (or remain) wrote St Paul to the Corinthians; and he adds "but the greatest of these is love".
Christians, then, should be men of faith and love; but they should also be people of Hope. Been St Peter in this morning's lesson places particular emphasis on the need to be able to give a good answer to those who ask what our reason is for hoping in the first place.
It's important to have an answer ready, because people who have nothing to do with the Church are far more likely to ask us about our hope than they are two ask us about faith or charity.
And that is fortunate. To justify our faith takes a certain amount of theological understanding, and many people simply haven't had the chance of learning enough about it confidently to teach it to others. It's always a good idea if someone does ask a difficult question about our faith not to try and answer it ourselves but for both of you to go and put questions like a "wide as God allows suffering?" Cor "who created God?" to your parish priest. After all, it's his job to know where to look for the answer.
Anyway in nine cases out ten the person who asks that sort of question isn't really interested in the answer; what they really want to know is the reason for the hope they it is in you; and their desire to know that is because although we live in a world which has a certain amount of faith in itself if in nothing else, and where there is a good deal of love (of one sort or another) knocking around, people are living in a world, and living lives in that world, that is practically empty of hope.
Without Christ we have no hope, says the Bible in yet another place. The world does not know Christ; therefore the world has no hope.
Of course people say they have hope, because for them to say anything else is to admit to despair and people will say almost anything rather than that.
But ask them what their hope is based on, what substance hands and they are hard put to give any answer.
Take that symbol of weekly hope - the National Lottery.
The chance of winning a substantial amount of money represents for many people the thing they most look forward to every week. Millions of pounds are spent buying lottery tickets, some by people who can ill afford to do so.
But looked at and realistically the chances of this hope being fulfilled are very, very, slight. They have practically no substance at all, nothing solid underlying them.
So, whilst it may be worth spending your pound for the thrill of seeing if your number comes up; as a ground for hope in this world or the next it is really of little use.
What difference, then, is there in Christian hope as opposed to the hope of winning the lottery?
Well, in the first place, Christian hope is based upon sharing in the life of the Risen Christ here and now.
It's not just a matter of "hoping we'll go to heaven when we die". That's usually the last hope of those people who never darken the doors of the church, and it is about as unlikely of fulfilment as winning the National Lottery. For by the end of their lives lived without real hope most people it seems have as little appetite for eternal life as they have for anything else.
But for us Christians whose hope is based upon what happened on Easter Day when Jesus rose from the dead, and whose risen life has been lived by Christians ever since, it's a very different story.
For the second vital truth is that we are not alone in our hope.
Yesterday I went with some 400 others from London it to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. The common bond which held us all together was not really a set of abstract theological ideas, nor simply the fact that we shared charity with one another (though both these things happened to be true).
The real thing that held those pilgrims together was the common hope which we share and which we express by such things as going on pilgrimage to a particular place, and participating in the Sacraments which God has given us.
That is why God has given us the Sacraments and why regular participation in them is so vital. They are before all else a means of renewing our hope.
Going back to the National Lottery for a moment : the only way of renewing ones hope in that is to go on buying tickets. The fact that the odds against winning remain precisely the same regardless of how many previous attempts we have made is something which most people don't understand.
What they do understand is the need to renew that hope week by week.
Christians, by contrast, have discovered the truth that there is grace to be received by humbly submitting to the ordinances of God and renewing every Sunday their participation in the Resurrection. We are an Easter People, and the reason which we give to those who ask us about an the grounds for our hope is that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, and he makes his Risen presence known to us in the Breaking of the Bread.
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