Hoping Against Hope

Hoping Against Hope

Boston University School of Theology

Sermon by Fleming Rutledge                                Wednesday in Easter Week 2014

(Please note that this sermon was written for a congregation
in a theological college, in an academic setting.)

In his book The Dying Animal, Philip Roth writes this: “In[side] every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.” The main character in the book, a famous senior professor, seeks to hold off the fear of death with erotic adventures. As you can imagine, he is not successful. Roth means to denote the entire human race as a “dying animal.”

Some of you may be too young to appreciate this, as yet. You may even be too young to know what “Sixty Minutes” is! The reason I mention this venerable news program is that I want to quote Andy Rooney. For decades, Andy Rooney was the resident curmudgeon on “Sixty Minutes.” His commentary was often comical, but there was a current of truth running underneath it. When he died, the cover of the program at his memorial service quoted from one of his remarks: “I refuse to accept the idea of my own death. I secretly believe there may be some way out.” Rooney was a militant atheist, but he was courageous in his outspoken opposition to the reality of death.

It is quite possible to acknowledge death as a great power without having any religious faith. The poet Philip Larkin wrote that religion was a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die….” That’s what Freud believed, and that’s what virtually all secular intellectuals believe today. I sat next to such a person at dinner recently, a man my own age. He knew I was an ordained minister. He confided to me in a low tone that the one thing he did envy about Christianity was the belief in a future life. It was clear that though he envied it, he was not going to embrace it. To him, it was wishful thinking, beneath the dignity of an intelligent, enlightened person.

I figure that if I count them up, I have heard more than 75 Easter sermons in my long life. The great majority of these sermons could be described as “75 ways to avoid saying that Jesus was actually raised from the dead.” This situation has gotten worse over the years as a great many of us professional church people have been intimidated or seduced into doubting the New Testament witness. I just received a remarkable letter from a very intelligent man, a lawyer, who in his youth had attended one of the great New England prep schools. Here’s what he wrote:

I lost my faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 14 at an Episcopal boarding school in New England, in the required course in Ancient History and Sacred Studies…The class was taught by a determinedly secular historian and a very young Episcopal priest just out of seminary…We were taught to identify different sources embedded in the [biblical] accounts and to describe the political and social agendas that the ancient compilers and editors sought to advance through their work…We were invited to see the religion of the Israelites as a set of myths fabricated for political and sociological self-preservation…

Through it all, we were taught that intelligent and informed people…understood that the texts of Scripture were human inventions, largely unmoored from any truth claims….We learned that the purported content [of the Bible] was to be determined by deducing the political and sociological agendas that their writers sought to further.

Increasingly, I took what I was learning as a personal indictment of my own naïveté in believing…a mass of religious dissembling. I counted myself lucky that…I had not said [anything] that would have indicated to my peers that I had once believed in these fabricated texts…

Then he goes on to describe how, later, when he married a churchgoing Southern Episcopalian, he started to attend church with her purely as a cultural ritual. To his surprise, he felt his faith returning, but he was discouraged over and over by members of the clergy (and this is a story that has been repeated thousands of times around the mainline churches during the recent past) who kept insisting “that Scripture is a purely human product, that God does not move directly and decisively in human history, and that the central teachings of Scripture must be reinterpreted in ways that conform to secular assumptions about what is possible and impossible for God to do.” In spite of it all, this man has returned to faith in Christ and is now a leading layman in a prominent congregation.

Now there have been some changes in the way the Bible is taught since this man was in prep school. I began to learn the canonical and literary approaches at Union Seminary in the 1970s, but they aren’t trickling down into the churches fast enough for most people to pick up the changed atmosphere. The historical-critical method and the “third quest” for the historical Jesus are going to be around for a while longer. But here’s what’s so interesting about the testimony of the man who received his faith back again. He says he was taught that “the central teachings of Scripture must be reinterpreted in ways that conform to secular assumptions about what is possible and impossible for God to do.” Let’s think about that for a moment.

In David B. Hart’s widely admired book about the problem of suffering and evil, The Doors of the Sea, he examines the familiar idea of J. L. Mackie that if God is all-powerful he can’t be all-good, and if he is all-good he can’t be all-powerful. Hart sets out this argument, and then retorts:

there is no argument here to refute: the entire case is premised upon an inane anthropomorphism [that] reduces God to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality whose purposes are measurable upon the same scale as ours, and whose ultimate ends for his creatures do not transcend the cosmos as we perceive it.

Now, at this point we are going to leave behind all that we have been saying about how to understand the Scriptures. Instead, we’re going to look at the Scriptures themselves, specifically at a verse in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This verse ought to be as well known as John 3:16 or any number of other familiar verses, but because it’s grammatically difficult to quote, and perhaps for other reasons as well, it’s largely neglected. This is a verse most suitable for the Easter season. Paul summons up the great figure of Abraham, whom he calls “the father of us all”—our ancestor in faith. Abraham, declares Paul, believed in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

This is as close a definition of the God proclaimed in the Scriptures as we’re going to get. God is the One who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. The God who created the universe out of nothing—creation ex nihilo—is also the one who is able to raise his Son from the power of death. Able also to raise his beloved people, for as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14). These two statements are clear challenges to the idea that we can determine what is and is not possible for God to do. The God who makes himself known in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is not bound by what we make of him. God is, as the poet Geoffrey Hill suggests, “the absolute, origin-creating mind, its opus est, conclusive otherness.” As “origin-creating mind,” God transcends all of our concepts. This is one of the features of the biblical witness. Our minds cannot frame God except in the terms that God chooses to communicate. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord; for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 5:8-9)

I wonder if these verses strike you in any new way, as you hear them in this context. The earliest Christians certainly heard them in a new way. Here is Paul again:

[Christ] died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.

(2 Corinthians 5:15-16)

This is the new epistemology, the new way of knowing. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has opened up the doors of our knowledge to a new thing, something that did not exist before. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ—new creation! The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” We have become people of the resurrection.

How sad that any Christian should back away from a full-throated, open-hearted proclamation that “The Lord is risen!” Of course this news transcends human knowing; it is an announcement from beyond human possibility. The news of the resurrection is not a disclosure of human potential. Consider Abraham: he had no human potential. His wife was barren and he was decades past the years of begetting. Paul continues in Romans 4:

In hope [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the progenitor of many nations; as he had been told, “So shall your descendants be.”

Abraham hoped against hope. He lived, not according to human possibility, but according to the promise of God. This is Paul’s reason for summoning him as a witness—God is the one who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. God creates faith where there is no faith, life where there is no life, hope where there is no hope.

You and I are indeed dying animals, from the human point of view, and from the human point of view there is no way out. The certainty of this is what makes Andy Rooney’s wry little comment both funny and poignant. There is no way out of the great Power of Death.

BUT!

But if we have died with Christ [in baptism], we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death has no more dominion over him. (Romans 6:8-9)

Philip Roth has gleefully pointed out that a secular Jew, Irving Berlin, forever robbed the Christian holy days of their religious significance by writing “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” There’s some truth in that, as I noticed when I briefly passed through the so called Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue this past Sunday. But that “hidden second person scared witless about death” is still there inside each one of us, and the Lord has a message for that person this morning.

The messenger in this pulpit today will probably never see most of you again in this life. This may be the only chance I will have to bring you news of surpassing worth, the only chance I will have to repeat to you the apostolic message that God is not whomever we may think God is from the perspective of “our own devices and desires.” God is who God is in himself, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, always out ahead of our grasp—and yet alive with us and near to us as Christ is alive. I can’t convince you of this; only the Spirit of God can, and the Spirit blows where it wills. But if you sense that there is something here that surpasses human knowing, something here that is greater than the power of death, something here that summons you to hope against hope, then that is a sign that the living God is making himself known to you. The God who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist has triumphed over the ruler of this world, and death shall have no dominion. The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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