As I have thought about and prepared this lecture I have become aware of the temerity of an English person daring to come to Ireland to talk about hope. I want to make it clear at the start that I am not making any comment on the politics of any part of Ireland. If what I say turns out to have any relevance to the current situation, that is for you, not me, to find.
This lecture draws on the Bible and on the Quaker tradition with a particular reference to a picture which I shall show you, one of Hicks' series of paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom. I intend to explore the nature of Hope as part of the divine nature; then I shall look at the apocalyptic tradition and what Quakers have made of it; and finally I shall consider what it means to be a people of hope. I am a theologian and so you may find that I take for granted issues and questions which you would have preferred to be discussed, and that I use language which you have to 'translate' into your own preferred words. I apologise if you find any of that difficult. What I am trying to do, in a short space of time, is to lay before you some of the richness of our Quaker tradition and how we interpret our Christian faith, and what this could mean for us in the world of today.
My starting point is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 12 he writes about spiritual gifts and in chapter 13 comes on to what he describes as the greatest gift for the church, love. He shows how most of the other spiritual gifts are temporary: prophecy will fall away when what is prophesied happens; tongues will cease; knowledge will be subsumed into the greater knowledge that comes when we see God; 'when that which is perfect is come, that which is partial vanishes away'. At the end of the chapter, however, he writes of the things which will last for ever and will not vanish. There are three of them, faith, hope, and love.
If you are like me, you may not have paid much attention to hope in this list. In the context of the chapter, our minds are on love, and are already moving on to 'and the greatest of these is love'. So it has taken me many years to notice how very odd it is that Paul should say that hope will last for ever. Surely hope might be expected to be one of those things which vanish away when that which is hoped for has arrived. That is how we tend to think of hope. Like small children making the list of presents they hope to receive at Christmas, we think of hope as a 'wish-list'. After the presents have been opened, there is no point in hoping further, until next year. We hope for fine weather, a good job, better health, a blessed Yearly Meeting, peace in our cities.....and sooner or later we know that either we have them or we do not. And surely, when we have something, we do not need to hope for it? So it is a surprise that Paul seems to be treating hope as something different.
Of course, we could suggest that this is an example of Paul's muddled thinking; that he has been carried away by his rhetoric, and hasn't considered every word; perhaps he isn't thinking about hope at this point, but is keen to finish what he is saying about love, and is throwing in hope as a makeweight. On the other hand, it might be valuable to suppose that he does mean what he says, and that although he doesn't stop to say much about hope he is telling us something very important about it. Hope is not a wish-list; it is not simply something that can be fulfilled or disappointed; it is instead one of the qualities of the everlasting.
What does this mean? It helps to look at faith, hope and love together. For we know of love that it is one of the ways in which we describe the nature of God, that it characterises the way in which God acts towards us, and it is the response which we give back to God by loving God and each other. We can see how love is everlasting, because it is rooted in the everlasting God, and is part of God's expression in creation and salvation. When we love we are taking part in the life of God and the movement and purpose of creation. Love is both gift and task; it is given to us first by God, and it is the task or service to which we are called.
Can we say the same of faith and hope? When we talk of faith, we often have a very attenuated idea of it, speaking of faith as if it were the same as belief, as if it were a series of propositions, of statements about the way the world is. If this were the nature of faith, then it would be like knowledge, one of the things which will pass away when we have certainty. Faith is less of a statement and more of a relationship. The New Testament word which we translate as 'to believe in' (pisteuein) is more properly, 'to trust in' or 'to rely upon' or 'to have confidence in'. The cognate words are to do with trustworthiness, faithfulness and assurance. Faith then is not about what we say about God but about where we put our trust; what at a very deep level we are sure of. Like love, faith depends on God. We are able to have faith, because God is faithful first; we can trust in God because God is trustworthy. Faith is eternal because faith, trust, confidence, is part of the nature of God,
part of the way in which God relates to creation and part of the way in which we are invited to relate back. Trust in God, when we make it active in our lives, draws us closer to God and enables us to see the world more nearly as God sees it. This is the faith by which we operate in our Meetings for Church Affairs. As we seek the will of God, it is faith which enables us to discern that will. In faith, we lay down our own opinions and interests; in faith, we trust God to direct us; in faith, we recognise and affirm the directions we are given. Faith is an active reaching out and a confident assurance.
What of Hope? Is God hopeful? I think that hope is bound up with the nature of God as a creator. When, in the words of Genesis, the Spirit of God brooded on the face of the deep, and the Word of God commanded light and there was light, there must already have been a knowledge and a purpose that encompassed all that creation was to become and will continue to become; all of life and death, of suffering and joy, of sin and redemption.
Without hope, how could there be change? Without hope, how could there be human free will and failure? Without hope, how could there be life at all? I suggest to you that hope is the very foundation of creation. Only a hopeful God would take the risk of making something so separate and complex; only a hopeful God would have the patience and endurance to allow creation to become. Hope is the energy that creates and frees and loves. But we cannot see creation without redemption, without the purpose that draws all that is created towards wholeness and towards relationship with the creator. Hope is the ability to deal with disappointment, with all that goes wrong in creation, to ensure that nothing is lost, and to take all that is faulty and find it a place that contributes to the whole. So as God pours out hope into our lives, our response is also to hope, to be channels of Godís creative energy, of Godís loving patience and of Godís risk for change. Like faith and love, hope also is both gift
and task, part of the nature of the everlasting God and part of the relationship between God and us. We hope because of Godís hope.
Faith, hope and love: faith gives us knowledge of God; hope gives us endurance; and love gives us the way. Faith enables us to discern God's way, hope releases the energy of God's life, and love shows its character. Together they enable us to share in the life everlasting, and to witness to that life in our day and generation.
We could say therefore that hope, together with faith and love, spans both time and eternity. Before I go on, it might be helpful to unpack a little the ideas of God and of eternity that I am using. Firstly, it will be apparent that my concept of God is active and dynamic, an involved God, one who is in relationship. I want to say also that this God is transcendent and far beyond what we can describe, but also immanent, within us and reliably known to us at least in part. God both seeks us out and leaves us free. Because activity and relationship are so much part of God, I find the description of God as Trinity can be useful if not taken too far. The Quaker tradition avoids this term because it is not Biblical; however, that God is known to us as creator, redeemer and inspirer underlies what I am saying.
Secondly, a word about eternity. We tend to use the word as if it meant time going on for ever, but that is misleading. As a simple model, if you imagine a line drawn on a piece of paper, the line which has movement and direction can symbolise time. But the paper, which surrounds it and in which it is grounded, then symbolises eternity. There is no part of the line which does not touch the paper; there is no part of time which is not embedded within eternity. And this gives us a choice. We can live as though we are timebound, or we can live as those who see that whilst we are within time we are also already within eternity.
Present and future hope
I need to say a little about time, as it were from a place on the line. From this position, with our limited view, we think of beginnings and endings, and we mark out time. We recognise that change happens; we are aware that the world is not as we would wish it to be; and we use hope as a way of thinking about the future. We probably all observed last year the growing excitement as the year called 2000 in the Christian tradition approached. There were the great desires expressed for the future even though in Britain they managed to focus on a very expensive building for which no-one could find any proper use; there were the threats of doom, though this time round they were of all computer systems failing simultaneously; and after the fireworks and the parties were over, we all went on much as before and wondered what all the fuss was about. Our nations have suffered a mild case of millennial fever. Even though we know that dates and dating are largely artificial, even though we have the
advantage of being able to look back at other times which expected something and were disappointed, even though there are many who have given up on the religious roots behind the excitement, we still had a residual sense of expectation of a change in our social world.
This expectation goes a long way back in the Jewish and then the Christian tradition. It is linked to what we call apocalyptic, and is rooted in the paradox of the experience of a loving and involved God in an unjust and unequal world. When the Jews could find little justification for the suffering of the righteous, they began to suggest that the day would come when God would finally act and bring in a kingdom of justice and peace. Jesus picked up this language and preached about the Kingdom of God, at the same time, according to the Gospels, demonstrating it in the mighty acts in which he defeated evil, and restored minds and bodies to a new and healthy life. The early church, correctly seeing this earth as a locus for God's activity, and connecting the reign of God with the person of Jesus, began to expect that Jesus would himself return within the lifetime of his first followers. When that did not apparently happen, the expectation was adapted, each gospel treating it in a different way.
In the fourth century, however, the Nicene creed states as an article of Christian belief, that 'he will come again in glory...and his kingdom will have no end.' The day of his coming has been postponed to an end-time, and the church has become an interim body, holding the tradition until the day comes. When this happens, hope becomes timebound; it recalls how God acted in the past, and looks to God's action in the future, but the connection to the everlasting in the present grows weak.
However, the tradition within the gospels is more complex than this simple looking ahead to a future time; each gospel has its own way of indicating how Jesus is present with his people. In Matthew (Matt 18), he is present within the faithful community as it lives by his teachings and worshipfully makes its decisions. In Mark, his death brings about the kingdom for those who have eyes to see it, and he goes ahead on a journey inviting us to follow him in his way. Luke spiritualises the kingdom to something which can come daily and sees the Holy Spirit as the presence of God in the world. John also emphasises the Holy Spirit indwelling in the community of Jesus' friends, teaching them and revealing truth. For many interpreters of the gospels the emphasis on the presence already with us leads them to see the kingdom as inaugurated with Jesus but still to reach fulfilment. It is the paradox of already, but not yet.
But there is another way of interpreting, which is to put the emphasis on the already. The word parousia should be noted here as it is often used for the so-called second coming. It is a word with two meanings. One of these is the meaning of arrival, especially used of the grand arrival of an emperor or a god. But the other, and more common meaning in the classical tradition, is presence, being present with us. This emphasis on Christ with us and the Kingdom already present is the Quaker tradition, which I now intend to illustrate.
Perhaps you are familiar with Edward Hicks' pictures of the Peaceable Kingdom. Hicks was an American Friend in the 19th century. He lived at a time of struggle over the meaning of what it was to be a Quaker, and he was a cousin of the Elias Hicks after whom the Hicksite movement was named. Edward Hicks was a painter of signs, but he moved into pictures. The Peaceable Kingdom was his favourite subject and he painted many versions. Towards the end of his life he gave a talk in which he explained some of the meaning he saw in his pictures and some of the symbols he used, and we shall draw on that later.
But firstly, look at the main thrust of this picture. [Click here to open picture--4 min. to load] In the foreground, indeed taking up the bulk of the space, we have a collection of animals and children. If we look we can see the cow with the bear, the wolf with the sheep, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion. Hicks is referring us to Isaiah, chapter 11( Is 11,1-9), which looks forward to the day of the Lord.
The presence of these animals together tells us that the Day of the Lord is here in this picture. And what is happening in the rest of the picture is William Penn and the Native Americans making a peaceable agreement with each other - the famous treaty that was never written and never broken. What is being shown is that the two are connected, that those who live in the way of justice and peace are living in the way of God, and that the Day of the Lord, or the kingdom of God as Jesus called it, is present when human beings act in its ways.
I want to draw your attention to this aspect of the Quaker tradition, because it is this perhaps more than anything else which distinguishes us from other Christian churches. Where others with varying degrees of emphasis, still look to a Day of the Lord, or a second coming, at the end of time, the Quaker tradition looks to the coming of Christ within time, in our present experience.
Though the earliest Quakers were probably millennarian, expecting a dramatic second coming in their own time, they soon came to interpret it as already happening. "Christ is come to teach his people himself," Fox said, and the silent meeting for worship, waiting for the presence of Christ and his direct teaching through words spoken or in the silence of the heart, is both a sign of the kingdom of God and a means to it. In a passage of the Journal (to be found in Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.29, Britain Yearly Meeting) Fox wrote more about the work of Christ as restoring people to the state of creation before the Fall. "..as man and woman come again to God, and are renewed up into his image, righteousness and holiness by Christ, thereby they come into the Paradise of God, the state which man was in before he fell, and into a higher state than that, to sit down in Christ which never fell."
Even Paradise, he suggests, is not enough. It is possible to be renewed into Christ. We might want to think that the implied suggestion of becoming sinless goes a little too far - we are not quite as bold as Fox! However, we have to notice that this restoration and renewal is to do with becoming like Christ, in his righteousness and holiness. In short, if we are the people of the presence of Christ this should be seen in the quality of the lives we live, both individually and as a people. It is from this that our testimonies come. They are not random ethical selections, but witness to the life of the kingdom. Peace, justice, integrity, equality, simplicity, all demonstrate what life is like when God reigns.
Although Hicks has not been able to show all the testimonies in practice, from our knowledge of this meeting we can see truth, peace, justice, and equality. It is important that Hicks has chosen a scene from public rather than private life. He is showing that the Kingdom can be present in political activity; there is no sphere of life that escapes its demands.
I want to look briefly at two or three other aspects of this painting. One is its inclusivity. (I thought long and hard about that choice of word, hesitating between universality, which might offend half my audience, and catholicity, which might offend the other half!) One aspect of the inclusivity is to be found in the human beings. Penn could not have made peace single-handed. Not only is he surrounded by a community, but there is another community present, the native Americans, who are also making peace. They stand for those who also make the peaceable kingdom, who have been reached, in Quaker terminology, by the Inward Light, even though they do not share the Quakers' beliefs.
As a second aspect, this picture of the kingdom includes much of creation as we know it; earth, sky and water; plants, animals and people. The animals are not just symbols of the kingdom whilst the real action goes on elsewhere; they are themselves part of it for they are acting in a way that is different from their natural ways; they are being peaceable together. Hicks is suggesting that all creation is part of the renewed life.
But the animals also stand for something more, for personal transformation. Late in his life, Hicks explained the natures of the wild animals, the lion, the bear, the leopard and the wolf, and how these natures had to be changed for them to be able to take their places harmlessly on the holy mountain. Pride and anger, the love of money and power, sensuality and unbelief, self-centredness and hypocrisy, all these and more are represented by the animals in their wild state. Hicks made it very clear that he found all of these faults amongst Quakers. I believe he still would. The kingdom requires a transformation of the self, a laying down of all the faults that make us like the wild animals, so that warmth, generosity, joy and sincerity can take their place. The wild animals are not banished from the kingdom, but they do have to be tamed.
Our hope then is both inward and outward. It is inward in that we ourselves have to be willing to be changed. It is outward in that all of life is the field for transformation. As William Penn wrote of the earliest Quakers, so it has to be for us: "They were changed...themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments and they knew the power and work of God upon them..." (quoted in QFP 19.48)
Being a people of Hope
What I have tried to do so far is to draw on the Biblical and the Quaker traditions to illustrate how hope is one of the ways in which we know the beyond in the midst, the timeless within the present. Hope is part of God's creative energy at work in the world. It brings about now the transformation of people and situations into what they are created to be. It enables us in this world and in this time to be part of God's kingdom and to live in the life everlasting. I now move to look at what this means for us Quakers as a people. What does it mean to be a people of hope?
First of all it is to be making an incredibly bold statement. When we look at the world around us we can see only too easily how little it appears to reflect the work of God. Violence, greed, lies, consumerism, self-centredness; our countries contain much that is in need of transformation. When we say that this is the realm of God we are not approving of these contrary aspects, nor are we being naive about them. What we are doing is to try to see more deeply. One way of seeing this is to recognise the redemptive activity of God; not that God will redeem the world, but that it is already redeemed, that there is nothing within it that is outside God's purpose, nothing that does not have its place. This goes alongside the incarnational activity of God. God dwells amongst us as a baby for whom there is no room, as a refugee from political oppression, as a homeless wanderer, as one condemned to a criminal's death. God has not hidden from the difficulties and the despair; instead these are the pl
aces where God waits to meet us. God has not abandoned us in this world, but invites us to see that every place, every person, every situation is one where God is present. The hope, the creative energy, the enduring patience, is already there, already here. It waits for our response. So we have to be a people who can recognise and respond to the work of God. And this means seeing things God's way and not the world's way. We are apt to be blinded by the values of the world, by ideas of success and glory, of who or what is important. We have to go back to the gospels. When the twelve argued about who amongst them was the most important (Mark 9: 33ff), Jesus set a child in front of them and said that to receive a child was the same as receiving God. When James and John asked to be with Jesus on his right and his left (Mark 10: 35ff) in his kingdom, they had ideas of glory and power and were roundly rebuked and told they were to be as servants. Those who were on his right and his left when he came into his kingdo
m were the rebels crucified with him. We have to learn to see the work of God in a world turned upside-down, where the most powerful are the least important, where the weak and helpless are the sign of the presence of God amongst us, where the power of hope shares the lives of the loveless and the unlovable and does not leave them lonely, and where anger and hatred, death and despair are remade into a vehicle for God's purpose.
When we can see, what do we do? How does a people of hope live? How do we embody hope and become a sign of hope to the world? There are many characteristics which I have already touched on, our worshipping life, personal transformation, patience, the witness of our testimonies, all of which can be summed up as letting God work in, with and through us. But there are also further elements which come from seeing the work of Jesus as a work of hope, and seeing his followers as continuing and embodying his work in the world. Out of many aspects that are possible, I shall draw your attention to three.
The first is that a people of hope is a people under the cross. "If anyone wants to follow me," says Jesus, "let them deny themselves and pick up their cross and follow me."(Mark 8: 34) The only way to be a disciple of Jesus is to accept the cross. This may mean a literal following in his footsteps to self-sacrifice and death but not all of us are called to that. What we are called to is to die to this world and take on the life of the kingdom. If we think of ourselves as dead already and living only as God desires, then we gain a courage and fearlessness which enables us to stay grounded in the truth whatever happens around us. However, we cannot do this on our own as individuals, for there is always the risk of our own desires creeping in to replace God's. As a people, we have the task of keeping each other within the rule of God. The discipline of our meetings for worship and even more so of our meetings for church affairs is our Quaker way of keeping together under the cross. This may m
ake you smile for we often talk of our business meetings as if they were a cross to bear! So they can seem if we misuse them or misunderstand them. What I know, and I'm sure you do too, is what joy there can be in a gathered and obedient meeting. It is where we learn to lay down our selves and our own wishes and to be remade ourselves into fit instruments for God's purpose. It is where we work out together, under divine guidance, the meaning of our testimonies and how they are to be carried out in our time and place. It is where we receive the strength to live out the testimonies in the world.
Earlier I described our meetings as both a sign of the kingdom and a means to it. Now I am adding to that by calling them schools of hope. It is in them that we meet our inward teacher, hear his word, enjoy his company, and are invited to share in his service to the world. It is in them that we learn to live the lives which spread hope.
Secondly, a people of hope is a people of the resurrection. We are able already to live the new redeemed life, to be a people where the risen Christ is present. But this is not some sort of static state of achievement. I'm very moved by the ending of Mark's gospel (Mark 16: 1-8) where the women go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus and find only a messenger telling them that he is not there and instructing them to set off on a journey. I read part of this story as a warning. A dead Messiah is so very much more comfortable to live with than a live one; he can be left in a tomb where you know exactly where he is; you can bring him nice things when you feel like it; and you can go away again and get on with your life. It's God-in-a-box, safe, tidy, and very little trouble. How much of our religious life is like that? Even within our Society of Friends, how much have we wrapped up neatly and stored away in the tomb?
But this story tells us that God is not like that. God cannot be found where we expect. God bursts out of tombs and roams free about the world, leaving only a message - if you want to see, you have to go on a journey too. The resurrection life is movement and adventure; it sets out to do something new. It expects to be surprised.
Thirdly, a people of hope is a people of hospitality. Jesus frequently likened the kingdom of God to a feast, and showed in his ministry what that meant. Jesus was a man who loved to party and didn't mind who he partied with! The religious people were not too happy about his habits or his company. He mixed with sinners and tax-collectors - collaborators with the occupying power; he sat and talked with a Samaritan woman, an enemy, and received those she brought to him; he touched the untouchables; he fed huge crowds. "The Son of Man," he said, "has come to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19: 10) When people came to Jesus he met their needs, fed them, healed them, talked to them, challenged them. They were welcome to come, and free to go. He accepted them as they were and where they were. He didn't ask them what they believed, only what they needed. He didn't judge them, rather he served them, and often their lives were changed. For those who stayed by him and became his friends he had an i
nvitation to become with him servers at the table, hosts at the party, welcomers and sharers with whoever would come. A people of hope is both guest and helper at God's banquet. As our needs are met, we are able to bring others to where their deepest needs can be answered, to where the lost can be found, the enemies can become friends, and the sinners know forgiveness.
Disciplined, adventurous, hospitable - three characteristics of a people of hope. Through them all runs a thread of joy, the joy of knowing God at work in the world and of having a part to play in that work; the joy of being able to live within time and at the same time to share in the life of eternity. I pray that you in your Yearly Meeting will know that joy and that hope.
Ireland Yearly Meeting
Some further reading
Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith and Practice, BYM, 1995
Dandelion, Gwyn and Peat, Heaven on Earth. Quakers and the Second Coming, Curlew and Woodbrooke, 1998
Weekley, The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks, Abrams NY, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999