We are talking about hope for the third time. I believe that we who have hope have the right to be hopeful for others. Let me give you a few examples:
In 1st Corinthians 7, Paul tells us that the children of even one believing parent are “holy.” And in Psalm 103, the Psalmist writes:
The steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteous to children’s children.
A Moravian pastor once told me that nothing is worse than being unsure of one’s own children. He said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and loose his own son?” In the texts already noted, the Bible gives us at least some hope for worried parents. And in his book “Idea Fidei Fratrum,” Bishop Spangenberg builds upon that hope. He wrote that though children of the church often stray from the narrow path, God will eventually bring them back. As the scripture says, “Train a child up in the way to go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
According to 1st Cor. 7:14 husbands and wives can have hope for one another. The apostle writes:
For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband.
This makes perfect sense, especially if you believe as Jesus taught that a husband and wife truly are, “one flesh.”
I once had a couple faithfully attend a church I was serving. They rarely missing a Sunday. One day the husband dropped by my study to speak with me. After we exchanged pleasantries, he said, “Worth—I thought I ought to let you know that I do not have a conventional faith.”
I said, “Really, what is unconventional about it?”
He said, “Well—I don’t believe in God, but my wife does, and I please her by coming to church with her. Besides that—I enjoy the service, and I love the people. This church does me good not harm.” He then asked me if he should continue to attend.
I said, “By all means!” Then I told him he was very much a part of our congregation and assured him that God believed in him and wanted the best for him, even when he did not believe in God.
This man was actually one of many. I would mention just one more, a single woman who has become a dear friend to our family. Some years ago, this woman, a nurse, came to Winston-Salem to tend her sister who was dying. The nurse was an atheists, but her sister was a believer, and both attended church together. The nurse made many friends among us, and after her sister’s death, she often came back to visit. On one visit, Elayne and I had her to our house for dinner. During the meal she said, “Worth, you know I don’t believe in God—but I love your congregation. It has been my joy.” Elayne and I still hear from this woman from time to time, and we speak of her often. Each time we do, I affirm my belief that she is one of those about whom Jesus was speaking in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. You remember how, in that parable, the Son of man gathers the sheep on his right and the goats on his left, and then says to those on his right hand, “Come, enter the kingdom my Father has prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was in need, and you addressed my need.” That is a summary. You know what he said. And the people on his right hand were surprised, and asked, “When did we see you and address your need?” And the Son of Man, responded, “In as much as you have (addressed the need of ) the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.”
Some people have an even more specific hope. Just this week I was walking in Miller Park with my friend Tim. It was hot, and as we walked a circuit in the shade. As we did, we kept meeting two young women who were walking their large dogs in the opposite direction. They probably had those dogs to protect them from unwanted conversation with old men like me and Tim; but I cannot resist a dog, and as they passed I asked if I could greet their dogs. They said “Okay.” So, I greeted one dog, and Tim greeted the other. Thereafter, every time we passed them we said a little something. Finally, after several laps and several exchanges, we stopped and introduced ourselves—not by name, but with an interesting fact. I mentioned I was retired pastor serving this congregation, and Tim added that he was a member of a different congregation. Taking her cue from us, one of the young women identified herself as an Episcopalian and the other said that she was Jewish. I responded to this news with the Shema. “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad.” She smiled and started speaking rapid, fluent Hebrew. I quickly stopped her and confessed that I was a fraud the Shema was my now my limit. We all laughed, and the moment was filled with good will. As we parted for the last time, I pondered how Christians have a special relationship with the Jewish people. In Romans 11 St. Paul says that when the full measure of Gentiles have come in, God will work his mysterious grace, and “all Israel will be saved.” This statement by Paul is complicated by the passage of time and the delay of the Parousia; but it still holds, for, the reality upon which the apostle based his hope for his people is still true: “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.”
And one might ask, “What about non-Jews?” What about those who lived before Christ? Or those who lived and died long in some part of the world where the Gospel had yet to be preached?
That is a good question. Years ago, at New Philadelphia, I preached a series of sermons on the hard texts of the Bible. One Sunday, I addressed baptism on behalf of the dead which Paul mentions in 1st Corinthians 15. I explained that Paul neither forbad nor encouraged the practice of baptism on behalf of the dead, but he did understand it. I am quite sure he saw it as an expression of hope on the part of new believers for those friends and family who had died without a chance to hear the gospel. According to St. Luke, in Acts 17, Paul gives all who are hearing the gospel for the first time a measure of hope for previous generations when he addresses the crowd in Athens saying, “The times of ignorance God overlooked.”
Immediately after that sermon a young couple attending for the first time asked to meet with me. The woman identified herself as “a mission brat,” the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to Africa. She thanked me for the sermon—affirmed my interpretation of 1st Corinthians 15, and told me that many of the tribes and peoples among whom her parents had lived and worked regarded their ancestors with such honor that they would not even consider becoming a Christian until they received assurances that God had made a provision for their ancestors, including the beloved parents and grandparents who had given them life. She said, “It is not enough that we have hope for ourselves. We also need hope for the people we love.”
John Wesley had hope for everyone. He taught the Methodist about God’s prevenient grace, grace which prevents or precedes, or goes before any act of faith on the part of anyone. He said that God is hard at work in the hearts and minds of human beings long before we began to think about them.
Count Zinzendorf built upon this foundation when he told Moravian missionaries to seek out and speak to those to whom God had already spoken. He said, in effect, that in the field that is this world, God has done the plowing, and the sowing, and the hoeing, and the only thing we have to do is gather in the harvest.
Now you know what the gospel is, and you know that aspect of the gospel that most appeals to you. How will you share what you know? 1st Peter 3:15 lays down a perfect rule for sharing our faith. Therein we read:
Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence…
Let’s break this down. First, we must always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls us to account for our hope because we never know when we are going to meet up with someone to whom God has already spoken. Second, We must be ready to defend our hope because we live in a time and place where more and more people think us strange—maybe even demented. This is especially true today when many Christians deny the truth of science, and other truths which most people take for granted, making it harder on all Christians. Finally, we must share our hope with gentleness and reverence. In Revelation 3:15 Jesus stands at a closed door and knocks. He does not open the door. He knocks and waits for the one who is behind the door to open it. D.T. Niles said that when we share our hope, we must share it “…as one beggar might share with another where he found bread.”
In the final analysis, sharing our faith and hope always comes down to sharing our love. In 1st Peter, the apostle uses the word love nine times.
He uses the word love once to affirm that those who love Jesus and the hope he brings despite the fact that they (we!) have not seen Jesus.
He uses the word love once to referrer to those who love life and long to see many good days. Paul says that, “If for this life only we have a hope in Christ we are of all people most to be pitted.” The reverse is also true. Where there is hope there is life; where there is no hope—well, you know the rest.
He uses the word love seven times to encourage us to love one another, and honor all, even those we don’t like. It is important for us to honor those we don’t like—for God loves everyone. As my old daddy used to say, “I know God loves you, because I know he loves a sinner like me.”
I can’t cover every instance of the use of the word “love” in 1st Peter, but I must point out how, in 1st Peter 4:8 the apostle tells us that the love we have for one another must be unfailing, for “love covers a multitude of sins.” In saying this apostle holds out the possibility that one great act of love may redeem a life that has been hitherto selfish, misdirected, and perhaps even destructive. It pleases me to note that we remember the truly great saints and heroes of all sorts not for how they began their lives but how they ended them. This is especially true of our ultimate hero, Jesus, who not only lived a life of obedience to God, but a life of obedience to God even unto death.
What about you? Are you read to perform one great act of love? We may or may not have the chance, but all of us can perform many small acts of love, and each one is important to someone. Either in person, or sending our dollars before us, all of us have the opportunity to offer people who need hope not just a warm feeling, but a warm coat, or a hot meal, or a place to say out of the cold, or, “a hearty handshake of welcome.” This last is probably safer in this day and time that 1st Peter 5:18 suggestion that we “greeting one another with a kiss of love.”
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.