Thursday, 10 July 2014

Hope as an Anchor for the Soul

An address to "Anglicans Ablaze" on the conference theme, Hope is Rising, delivered on July 2, 2014:

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, I greet you all in the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Thank you all for being at the second Anglicans Ablaze conference, and more particularly thank you, Bishop Martin and Revd Trevor and your teams, for organizing this conference so well again and for bringing to it people from both within and outside our Province. This second conference is all the more special because we are also joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mrs Welby and their team. We will welcome them officially tomorrow. But Lungi and I will send your greetings to them tonight and say that you are looking forward to welcome them with great excitement tomorrow.

Thank you for inviting me to speak once again, and this year I am joined not only by Lungi but by a number of bishops and their spouses, whom I wish to thank and acknowledge for attending. Many thanks too to my office staff and the Gauteng-based organising team who have prepared for the Archbishop's visitation. I am so proud of you all and want to thank God for your hard work and generosity in organising all the details of his time with us.

It really brings joy to me to deliver, not a speech but as the  program says, a Charge for you, on the theme, “Hope as an Anchor for  the Soul”. In 2012, you will recall, I spoke on “Anchored in the Love of Christ”, Anglicans Ablaze having adopted the ACSA vision, Anchored in the love of Christ, Committed to God’s Mission, and Transformed by the Holy Spirit.

In 2012, we established the obvious but the fundamental of our faith, that God loves us; that whatever we do, we do it because we are rooted and grounded in love; that we understand that God sent his Son into the world for the business of loving and judging but not condemning (John 3:17), and that we can be conduits of this love because God first loved us. “Whoever does not love, does not know God” (1 John 4:7-8). “We affirmed and committed that we will love not only in words or speech but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:16-17)

This year we are exploring, if you like, what commitment to God's mission looks like in our Province, or put differently, how can we as ACSA live out the Communion-wide five marks of mission? These are: 

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom,
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers,
  • To respond to human need by loving service,
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation, and
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

I feel like I have been given a “ blank cheque” on this theme, but looking at your overall program, I suspect , I am to  look at missional theology through “Hope as an Anchor for the Soul” within the bigger theme of “Hope is Rising”. The biblical verse from which we get this theme is Hebrews 11:1, where we read that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Let's read this against the background of another passage in Hebrews 6:19 wherein:

“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
This is the task I have been given: to unpack this text wearing missional lenses. Let me attempt to paint the context of this passage and also to explain terms or words that will help us understand the theme better, and then to look at tangible things we can do as ACSA.

Hebrews is a faith statement or sermon to people who were suffering persecution (10:32) and needed to understand Christ's centrality in their lives and have their hope rekindled (6:19) lest they became hopeless and denounced the faith. Hebrews is then a letter of exhortation for them and for us (13:23) at times when we need an anchor.

What is the Christian hope? Chapter 6, v19 says we have in this hope a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. What is the anchor? What is the soul? Let me start with the word, “Hope” and hopefully all the other questions will fall into place. We pray at  confirmation, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who has made heaven and earth.”  In Romans 5:5, we read that “hope does not disappoint us”; in our Anglican Prayer Book, on page 443, we read that Christian hope is “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory and the completion of God's purpose for the world.”

We recite this regularly in our Creed, that “for us and our salvation he came down”... that “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”... and that “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Our Prayer Book on page 444 then asks what then is our assurance as Christians? “Our assurance as Christians,” it says, “is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As in this passage and in Romans 5:5, to hope is to expect with confidence; hope for us as Christians is a faith statement. It is an unconditional belief – dare I be brave enough to say that it is God's recklessness which gives us the chance to participate in his mission in the world. Hope is the belief that we are so called or invited, and we are ready to  respond to the love of God declared in Jesus Christ.

The opposite of hope is despair and hopelessness.

Our Archbishop Emeritus defines hope as being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness; Madiba says that “Hope is a powerful weapon, and [one that] no one power on earth can deprive you of." Jurgen Moltman says that “to live without hope is to cease to live,” and Martin Luther King Junior says "If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all."

I asked Professor John Suggit to help me reflect more deeply and theologically on hope, and he explained to me that in English, and especially in Latin and Greek, the verb “hope” often means “trust”, “expect”, or even “think”. The Hebrew words associate it with the meaning of “confidence”, “trust”, “safety”, “rock”, and he cites examples from the Psalms and Job to illustrate the point: Ps 12.6: “I put my hope in you”;  Ps 70.5:  “The Lord is my hope from my youth”; Ps 90.9: ”You, Lord, are my hope (elpis); and Job 8.13: “The hope (elpis) of the godless man will perish”).

He says in some notes he prepared for me that the true meaning of “hope” is given poetically in Hebrew, Greek and English in Psalms 42.2 and 63.1, where the phrase “My soul thirsts for God” is a vivid expression of hope yearning to be realised.

In Paul's letter to the Corinthians, we read, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Professor Suggit says that in the thought of Paul, these three "theological virtues" must be considered together. Because Paul was assured of the living presence of Christ, he was equally certain that as Christ had risen from the dead, so the future was filled with hope - a hope based on what God had done.

Professor Suggit also notes that of the three, hope has often, but wrongly, been called the Cinderella. He reflects that we are talking not simply about a personal hope, but also the hope that there is a purpose in the universe (Rom 8.21) which will be fully realised when “God shall be all in all” (1 Cor 15.28). He adds: "This is continually expressed throughout the New Testament, so that we have the paradoxical statement in Romans 8.24, "It was by hope that we were saved” (as the Good News Bible rightly renders it), where the following sentence makes it clear that though our being justified (being put right with God) was a past act (resulting from our response in faith to the grace of God), the hope which it engendered is so strong that it is seen as already realised while still in the future."

Let me turn to another of our theologians that I often converse with, Professor Ackermann, and drink from her well.

Denise Ackermann says that hope is a lived reality in the life of faith, here and now; that hope is never to surrender our power to imagine a better world when faced with the present unjust arrangement. Hope is not a  false sense of fulfillment that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Hope is not magic; it confronts wrong and the abuse of power. She continues that hope is risky and requires patience and endurance. 

In sum, hope is the lifeblood of all there is, the air we breathe. It is the radical reorientation and conviction that ultimately a situation will change for the better. It's not escapism but a facing of reality, and as Christians we live in hope, knowing that victory has already been attained through the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

It seems clear enough that hope is a human instinct which people strive to keep alive often in apparently hopeless situations. This instinct is an essential part of our human nature. Hope is the recognition that even in impossible situations one must strive to do what befits human beings.

Aristotle started his Nicomachean Ethics with: “Every action and purpose aims at some good, so that 'the good' is rightly described as the  aim of everything”, and throughout the Ethics  those who aim in hope for “the good” are considered to have found happiness.

For Christians hope is the assurance (so far as hope can ever be sure) that there is always a future to be realised for those who recognise that they are “in Christ”, resulting in their understanding that in spite of all the signs to the contrary there is a meaning and purpose in their life. The final object of hope is usually described as “life eternal” where the order of words suggests that "life" is more important than "eternal".

As living members of the Body (person) of Christ each person finds hope only in unity with others, so that the Church as a whole is constantly called to express its hope in its liturgical worship.

When we celebrate the Eucharist we are not simply remembering a past occasion, but are rather re-entering the presence of the risen Lord “until he should come” (1 Cor 11.26).

As we re-present (make present) the death and resurrection of Christ, his anamn─ôsis, “the individual worshipper is caught up into the total reconciling activity of God and realizes sacramentally what he will one day realize fully in the eternal Kingdom of God”.2 In brief, we might say, every Eucharist is the occasion when past and future meet in the present, symbolized by the acclamation “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again”. 

Let me end this exploration of hope with a poem cited in Ackermann by  the American poet Emily Dickinson on “Living Hope":

Hope is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all


If we accept some these definitions of what hope is and what it is not, how are we who are anchored in His love to be? As I said previously when I explored at length our roots, our anchor is the love of Jesus. We need to keep asking ourselves as those baptised in his name: Who is God in Jesus Christ for us today? What does it mean to be the body of Christ in our time? What is his message of judgment and redemptive hope to us as we meet? What are we called to be in such a time as ours? Hebrews 6:19 locates Jesus as linked to the order of Melchizedek, king of Salem.  These roots remind us of our vocation as people of righteousness, for this is what Melchizedek means. That Melchizedek is king of Salem reminds us of vocation to be peacemakers, for Salem is shalom and and Melchidezek is the king of peace.

We know  of course that the vocation for righteousness and peace were at the heart of Jesus' life and ministry. We know, as Ackermann says in her book, “Surprised By The Man On The Borrowed Donkey,” that what occupied Jesus – or Jesus' mission, which should be our mission – were the following: the poor, the hungry, the children, the miserable, the oppressed and the marginal, lepers, cripples, the blind, the sick and those possessed, social outcasts, tax collectors, disreputable people.

What are the mission challenges for us? Let me locate examples within the marks of mission:

1. We must witness to Christ's saving, forgiving and reconciling love for all people. We cannot do this without being concerned at the yawning wealth gap in our society – one of the highest in the world – between rich and poor; between an increasingly non-racial – albeit white majority –  elite and the masses of black poor. This is what is behind the crisis exemplified by Marikana – a point I shall return to in a moment. Nor can we witness to Christ's love without being passionately concerned that people living in informal housing at Lwandle in the Western Cape can be callously thrown out of their homes during the cold and rain of a Cape winter – just as happened at the hands of the apartheid government at Crossroads in the 1970s.

2. We must build welcoming, transforming communities. In confirmation classes, in educating our people, we must – both clergy and lay people – nurture and prepare our parishioners to be witnesses who make a difference, who live out the radical values of peace and righteousness in more loving, outward-looking communities. At the World Council of Churches Assembly in Busan, South Korea last year, we were charged and challenged to utilise our God-given gifts in transforming actions that will bring healing and compassion to communities, planting seeds of justice so that God's peace grows and abounds  in creation.

3. We must stand in solidarity with the poor and needy. During a time in South Africa where some among our political leadership and civil service believe that it is acceptable to use your access to state resources and power to gather resources to yourself over and above your monthly salary – such as at Nkandla – we need to stand for a society in which the primary focus of those in public service is to meet everyone's basic needs. We also need ourselves to live lives of service to those in need – such as the ecumenical community did recently in response to the evictions at Lwandle.

4. We must challenge violence, injustice and oppression, deploying prayer, theological tools and action to engage, not with ulterior ideological motives but because we are sent. And we must do this ecumenically. I have in recent months been involved with other church leaders in intensive and continuing discussions with the CEOs of the platinum industry, with leaders of AMCU, with academics and labour mediation experts, and the message that comes through is stark: at the heart of the Marikana crisis is not just a wage dispute in one industry, and killings by forces of the State: No, Marikana is just one of many potential flashpoints in our society, where people live in appalling conditions – still largely unchanged at Marikana, nearly two years on – with a huge gap between the wages of workers and the salaries of bosses. In a notable comment in a recent paper on the lessons of the Venezuelan experience for South Africa, the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg puts it this way: “As a nation we have to dedicate ourselves to the notion that inequality and grinding poverty for large segments of our society are not only a blight on our nation, they are unsustainable and unconscionable and have to be addressed as a matter of national priority.”

5. We must care for the planet, taking and supporting initiatives from parish to international level to protect our eco-systems. At parish level we can take action, from organising – again on an ecumenical basis – local clean-ups to lobbying local government. In what we are calling an “eco-bishops' conference,” I have invited 20 bishops from around the Communion to join a process of discussion and discernment of the Communion's witness and mission in the face of climate change and environmental degradation. And we need to support efforts to ensure that the next meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 2015, takes more effective steps than it has so far to protect what God has bequeathed us.

All of this must of course be rooted in prayer and worship. A worshipping community keeps up a daily rhythm of prayer, studying and wrestling with the Word, formal worship and pastoral care. The daily reading of the Bible and the Offices, the frequent celebration of the Mass and engaging the despairing and the dying are what nurture me; they help to create the space in which I can reflect on what hope might mean in the face of the abuse of power and the lack of accountability and transparency we experience in both church and society. And I find that I am always assured by the conviction that God is my hope and strength in everything, and want to take this assurance out and share it with others.

I have argued in a graduation address to the students at COTT, the College of the Transfiguration, and elsewhere that the theological education of all our parishioners is of key importance to our intervention in the challenges we face today. In the Brenthurst Foundation discussion paper I have referred to, the authors say the overriding lesson to be drawn from Venezuela for South Africa is the importance of education. They say that the impact of improved education in Latin America has, and I quote, "proved to be the single most powerful dynamic driving economic growth and the improvement of circumstances that cause inequality and poverty. It is the absolute priority ‘must do’ for South Africa." This brings into sharper focus for me as archbishop my call at COTT, which I want to repeat: It is my firm belief that theological education equips us to embody and proclaim the message of God's redemptive hope and healing for people and creation. Through being equipped and discipled this way, not only through academic theological formation, which of course I love, but through programmes in the parishes and through conferences such as these, we are also able to feed and empower God's people for faithful witness and service.

If we educate the nation, we give people the tools to hope realistically; the tools to enable them to unlock their God-given talents and skills, talents and skills that are too often going untapped. And by giving them this power, you are boosting their levels of trust in themselves. There is, as I said at the end of the Walk of Witness to Parliament in Cape Town, a withering, pervasive weight of distrust taking over in South Africa. In that instance, I was referring to the lack of transparency in Government – also a feature of the Nkandla scandal. Before asking a series of questions of President Zuma around that, I said that the cost of the lack of trust we are experiencing is incalculable.

When you disarm the people of our communities of their trust in our leaders,” I added, “you not only offend them, but more seriously, you show our communities that you distrust them.... You are afraid of their ability to make informed, values-based decisions, or you distrust our constitutional values. You are afraid of their opinion or do not trust them to exercise their choices responsibly.”

That was an appeal to Government, but we too as Church need to act to bring about what I have called a renaissance of trust and responsibility in South Africa. As faith and church communities, we are still rated as trusted institutions. But this trust cannot be taken for granted. It must be nurtured and we must be disciples, following Jesus in ways that show integrity, that we are acting out God's love and nothing else. We can be trustworthy communities only through mediating God's love for the world to the world. William of St Thierry writes that to experience God, we must become one with God and for that to happen we must learn to love. (Brian P. Gaybba, in “God is a Community”)  

The modalities of how we go about putting all this into practice will inevitably vary because of our differing contexts, but we should all be formed and sent to proclaim the love of God, feeding on God's love and sharing it with others. In our innermost being, each of us is longing in this pilgrimage to have a confirmation that what is hoped for us is true; with the Psalmist we cry, “why are you disquieted within me?” and our souls long for the love of Jesus in our lives, just “as a deer longs for flowing streams.” (Psalm 42)

As I end I want to reiterate that nothing is impossible with God. With just the faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains, we hear in Matthew 17 (v. 20). We need each one of you to rekindle hope by testifying to what God is up to in each of your lives. To borrow a metaphor from Richard Stearns, in his book “The Hole in Our Gospel,” we each need to pick up our shovel and get to work, and together we can mobilise, as he puts it “the power of a mountain of mustard seeds” in working for a hope-filled world in which all flourish.

The world will ask: Where is this hope? Where is the evidence? Why is it held hostage by the powerful who pursue ideological ends, leaving the powerless to despair? My responding call is: Scatter seeds of hope without fear or favour in all the corners of the earth. God in Jesus Christ is the sure hope, and in the action you take in response to God's love will be found the evidence.

Hope as an anchor for the soul can't end with the big social ideas only. What it boils down to is actually very simple: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) Don't wait for the grand plan: Become the mustard seed in your parish and community, and combine with others to change your environment and the world.

May God set you ablaze to worship him, serve him and to be anchored in hope through faith in Jesus Christ, our living hope.

Amen.