Hope in the future may be one of our greatest burdens. Hope for a better life tomorrow, or for a resurrected life after death, may be the greatest obstacle to experiencing the resurrection Jesus offers. Living in hope of a better life to come may be our greatest waste of the life God gives us today.
“Hope does not disappoint us,” St. Paul wrote (Rom 5:5), but my hope has often been disappointed. I hoped my mother would talk about the abusive relationship my father had with us, and she died without ever doing so. I hoped work with my previous wife would heal our failing marriage, and I discovered problems I could not control. (She has since married another woman). Hope has often disappointed me.
Mary and Martha were disappointed in their hope that Jesus would save their brother Lazarus from death (see John 11:1-45). But when Jesus heard Lazarus was ill, he dawdled for two whole days, and Lazarus died. Maybe he was so burdened by other obligations he couldn’t get away. Maybe he misread the urgency of the situation and thought he had more time. Or maybe he knew something about hope that I have yet to learn.
One thing I have learned is that hope is in relationship, not in timing. Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He loved them so much, when he came to Lazarus’ grave he began to weep, the only time in scripture we read of his tears.
Jesus wept with those he loved, and he still does. The perfect expression of God hurts when we hurt and feels the disappointment, loss, and pain that afflict us. No one, not even Jesus, can spare us the human experience of suffering. But the story of Jesus and Lazarus assures me that in our loss and shattered dreams and disappointed hope is a divine presence that, in God’s time, will make us whole.
At the right time, Christ can make even the experience of death serve God’s glory. And it happens in our relationship with Christ, that is, in our relationship with one another in the body of Christ. That’s why the Lord’s Supper and small-group spiritual formation ministries are essential elements of our tradition, and why we abstain from them only at the risk of continuing to live in disappointed hope.
Another thing I’ve learned about hope is that it was the ministry of Jesus, in his relationship with them, to raise people to new life, and that still is Christ’s ministry through us today. When I was fresh out of seminary, I learned lots of things about ministry from the example of Jesus, but one thing I could not learn from his example. I could not learn how to officiate at a funeral. Jesus did not perform funerals; he raised people to new life.
Jesus called the dead out of their tombs, invalids off of their mats, the sick out of their beds, the despised out of the margins, and the shamed out of the shadows, and he called them into new life. In a living relationship with us, Christ calls us not to an unblemished life in heaven tomorrow but to a complete life here today. That new life is ours, if we only know what to do with it.
Knowing what to do with it – that’s what I’m still learning about hope and new life, and it may be the hardest thing of all for me to learn. What the story of Jesus and Lazarus tells me first is that the fulfillment of my hope in new life is as much our work as it is Christ’s gift.
Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, and Lazarus came out! Hopelessly dead, Lazarus stood up and stepped into broad daylight. But he was still wrapped in his grave clothes. Standing in new life, he was still bound by yesterday’s dressings and unable to move freely. It was up to the people around him to complete the work and do what Jesus said: “Unbind him, and let him go.”
My most significant growth has come with the help of others. Small groups of people who were committed with me to a common experience have helped peel away the vestiges of a dead past so I could step into the new life that opened before me. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I wanted to hold my grave clothes tightly so what was vulnerable under them wouldn’t be exposed. Sometimes I still do.
Along the way I keep discovering that the places where hope has been disappointed, where loss has been deep, where pain has been great – these are places where the wrappings that bind me to the past are most likely to come off and where I’m most likely to step further into the new life that awaits me.
Years ago Sheryl was cleaning out the gardens we inherited from the previous residents of a parsonage at a church where I served. It seemed to me a hopeless task, trying to reclaim the beds from the profusion of weeds that had overgrown them. But being the gardener she is, she persisted.
One by one over several weeks the weeds came out, revealing traces of yarrow and other flowering plants that were hidden there. When Sheryl finished, the gardens looked pretty sparse, but over the next couple of seasons, with care and attention, the plants grew and expanded into a reclaimed glory.
That’s what we do in our ministry of mutual unbinding. We remove and surrender whatever hides and diminishes our glory, and we let each other go so we can move freely in the new life God has given us. It may take a while to complete the process, but no one needs to wait to begin it. Our hope is not in what may happen tomorrow; it’s in the power of what is ours today when we commit to love one another in that way.