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27 February 2018

Our future hope

Our future hope

How does the hope of Jesus' return influence our lives in the present? Calvin Samuel reflects on hope, justice and Jesus' return.

Hope is important to human flourishing. We can endure almost anything in the present if we have hope for the future. As long as we are persuaded that our present situation is not our ultimate destination we can endure the present as we hope for the future. Hope is not only important to human flourishing, it is a vital element of Christian understanding. 1 Corinthians 13 ends with this observation: "Now these three things abide, faith, hope and love." We Christians speak a great deal about faith, and a great deal about love, but we hear comparatively little of hope, especially if we are talking about the hope of Christ's return. In some parts of the Church the doctrine of the second coming is in danger of becoming an embarrassing little secret.

What is that hope? It's more than singing songs about heaven or 'pie in the sky when you die'. Christian hope is the conviction that this world is not all there is; injustice in this world will not be left unaddressed; death is not the end, and the horizon of our hope does not expire with our final breath, for ours is a God of life and death. The birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus all point us to the hope of a new heaven and new earth. Christian hope is not simply a doctrine to which we give assent; rather it is a way of understanding the world in light of the coming of Jesus, who was empowered by the Spirit and sent by God the Father of justice. Too many of us appear to act as though the coming of Jesus is no longer true. But our creeds and sacraments make no sense if the horizon of our hope is this world and this life alone. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15.19: 'If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.'

The problem with eschatological hope, that is, hope for the eschaton, the end, is that it is difficult to believe, not least when we look at our world. The disciples on the road to Emmaus felt that way, as they told the stranger about the crucifixion of Jesus: 'But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21).' That simple phrase 'had hoped' is telling. They had hoped once upon a time, but life had taught them that their hope was misplaced.

In recent months, we've heard of the social mobility commission's report of the 'self-reinforcing spiral of ever growing division' in many areas of Britain, we've seen the murder of more than 300 worshippers in a single incident in Egypt; there seems to be violence and strife all over the world including our own communities. Such a perspective on the world does not naturally lead to a sense of hope.

However, Christian hope is more profound than a simple optimism that things will get better by and by. Instead it is a deeply faithful response rooted in the idea of a God whose nature is justice and from whom our very ideas of right and wrong, fair and just are derived. If such a God exists then that God cannot leave injustice unaddressed. And that is our hope: One day, wrongs will be righted, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

That day for us is the day of the coming of Jesus as king and judge; and it is for that coming that we wait in expectant hope. This expectant hope is not a passive exercise, where we do nothing until the Lord comes again. Instead our hope for the future requires active engagement with issues of justice in the present wherever they be found, whether in Zimbabwe or Myanmar, London or Newcastle. Why? Because we work towards, in the present, that for which we hope in the future.

That hope is expressed every time we pray: 'your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' That hope is expressed in every effort we make to live according to the values of Christ's kingdom. That hope is expressed when we love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and strength and our neighbours as ourselves. That hope for the future is what makes possible joy in the present.

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