A sermon I preached at Trinity Heights Church in New York City:


Restless Hope

Moltmann“From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.  The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of the Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.  For Christian faith lives from the raising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ.  Eschatology is the passionate suffering and passionate longing kindled by the Messiah.  Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine.  Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, of every Christian existence and of the whole Church.  There is therefore only one real problem in Christian theology, which its own object forces upon it and which it in turn forces on mankind and on human thought: the problem of the future…

Christian eschatology does not speak of the future as such.  It sets out from a definite reality in history and announces the future of that reality, its future possibilities and its power over the future.  Christian eschatology speaks of Jesus Christ and his future.  It recognizes the reality of the raising of Jesus and proclaims the future of the risen Lord.  Hence the question whether all statements about the future are ground in the person and history of Jesus Christ provides it with the touchstone by which to distinguish the spirit of eschatology from that of utopia…

To believe means to cross in hope and anticipation the bounds that have been penetrated by the raising of the crucified.  If we bear that in mind, then this faith can have nothing to do with fleeing the world, with resignation and escapism.  In this hope the soul does not soar above our vale of tears to some imagined heavenly bliss, nor does it sever itself from the earth…Hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering.  If Paul calls death the ‘last enemy’ (1 Cor. 15:26), then the opposite is also true: that the risen Christ, and with him the resurrection hope, must be declared to be the enemy of death and of a world that puts up with death.  That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.  If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be.  That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope…

Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught.” (Jurgen Moltmann, “Introduction” in Theology of Hope)

McCabe“A game such as football imposes two different kinds of limitation on its players: they should play the game well and they should not cheat.  The first is concerned with dispositions (skills), the second with particular acts and rules.  Learning how to play well is analogous to acquiring a virtue; cheating is not playing the game badly: it is not playing it at all, it is attempting to be adjudged a winner by an action which is not part of the game at all but pretends to be, and is analogous to sin.

A certain kind of law which prohibits certain acts has the function of listing various common ways of cheating.  Such laws define the boundaries of the game…A table of prohibitions, such as the Decalogue, defines the boundaries of caritas [love among friends].  To break them is not a matter of playing the game poorly but of stepping outside the field of play.  To remedy this situation you do not need to learn to play better, to acquire further skill; you need to hope for forgiveness and a gratuitous invitation to return.  Of course, whether in the game of football or of life, being thoroughly familiar with such laws does not help you to play well—indeed, it is quite compatible with not playing the game at all.  It is an exercise not of practical but of theoretical intelligence.

To play the game well we need not rule books but training.  We may at first make use of training manuals or teachers, but we do not acquire the skill we need by reading the books or listening to the teachers.  We do so by practicing in accordance with their teaching.  Practicing has a twofold effect: you acquire an insight into the demands of the situation you are in and, simultaneously, become more attracted to dealing with it in the best way…Skill is concerned the good of what is produced

If I may go back for a moment to the distinction between playing football badly and committing a foul: just how well someone has played may be a matter for debate, but if the relevant facts are clear then it is equally clear whether a move was or was not within the boundaries of football.  One overriding extra factor in judging whether a course of action is suitable as a means to my end is whether it amounts to a foul, whether it would be incompatible with the caritas that defines the playing field.  In other words there is a place within an ethics of virtue for absolute prohibitions as there is a place in football for the referee’s whistle…

[Playing the game well is] a bodily affair. So the virtue that is developed in the practical reason demands more than abstract understanding; practical wisdom is developed not just by reading, talking or arguing but by imagination, imagery and stories, by experience; it demands bodily sensitivity to the world around us.” (Herbert McCabe, The Good Life: Ethics and the Pursuit of Happiness, p. 87-88, 93-94)

holmes“For this [i.e. the gospel, the Christian faith] is, as I said, no earthly discovery that was committed to them, nor some mortal idea that they consider to be worth guarding so carefully, nor have they been entrusted with the administration of merely human mysteries.  On the contrary, the omnipotent Creator of all, the invisible God himself, established among men the truth and the holy, incomprehensible word from heaven and fixed it firmly in their hearts, not, as one might imagine, by sending to men some subordinate, or angel or ruler or one of those who manage earthly matters, or one of those entrusted with the administration of things in heaven, but the Designer and Creator of the universe himself, by whom he created the heavens, by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds, whose mysteries all the elements faithfully observe, from whom the sun has received the measure of the daily courses to keep ,whom the moon obeys as he commands it to shine by night, whom the stars obey as they follow the course of the moon, by whom all things have been ordered and determined and placed in subjection, including the heavens and the things in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and the things in the sea, fire, air, abyss, the things in the heights, the things in the depths, the things in between–this one he sent to them.

But perhaps he sent him, as a man might suppose, to rule by tyranny, fear, and terror?  Certainly not.  On the contrary, he sent him in gentleness and meekness, as a king might send his son who is a king; he sent him as God; he sent him as a man to men.  When he sent him, he did so as one who saves by persuasion not compulsion, for compulsion is no attribute of God.  When he sent him, he did so as one calling, not pursuing [lit. persecuting]; when he sent him, he did so as one loving, not judging…These things do not look like the works of man; they are the power of God, they are proofs of his presence…

By loving him you will be an imitator of his goodness.  And do not be surprised that a person can become an imitator of God; he can, if God is willing.  For happiness is not a matter of lording it over one’s neighbors, or desiring to have more than weaker men, or possessing wealth and using force against one’s inferiors.  No one is able to imitate God in these matters; on the contrary, these things are alien to his greatness.  But whoever takes upon himself his neighbor’s burden, whoever wishes to benefit another who is worse off in something in which he himself is better off, whoever provides to those in need things he has received from God, and thus becomes a god to those who receive them, this one is an imitator of God.” (Epistle to Diognetus 7:1-9, 10:4-6, circa 150-225 AD, from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, ed. and rev. by Michael W. Holmes, p. 545)


“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom.  For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle.  This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do.  But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual [thaumasten kai homologoumenos paradoxon] character of their own citizenship [politeias].  They live in their own countries, but only as aliens [paroikoi]; they participate in everything as citizens [politai], and endure everything as foreigners [xenoi].  Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign.  They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring.  They share their food but not their wives.  They are ‘in the flesh,’ but they do not live ‘according to the flesh.’  They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.  They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.  They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted…They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor…When they do good, they are punished as evildoers…Yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.  In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.  The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world.  The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world.” (Epistle to Diognetus 5:1-6:3, circa 150-225 AD, from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, ed. and rev. by Michael W. Holmes, p. 541)

Galatians 1:10–“For am I now seeking the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please [aresko] human beings? If I were still trying to please [aresko] human beings, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

1 Thessalonians 2:3-4–“For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive,  but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please [aresko] human beings, but to please [aresko] God who tests our hearts.”

1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1–“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please [aresko] everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

Romans 15:1-3–“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please [aresko] ourselves.  Let each of us please [aresko] his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please [aresko] himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.””

Bauckham“In Jesus’ praxis the characteristics of God’s rule could be identified.  In summary, the rule of God as Jesus’ praxis embodied it was the sovereignty of God’s gracious and fatherly love…

The key to the way that Jesus actualized God’s rule is his loving identification with people…But this could not happen in a purely generalizing way, by preaching an indiscriminate message of God’s benevolence towards everyone.  God’s love through Jesus reached people in their actual, very different life-situations, because Jesus in love identified with people, understood and felt their problems and needs.  Only so could God’s love reach into and change their lives.  While he practiced God’s universal love for all people, Jesus could do so only by constantly particularizing it as God’s love for this or that person in his or her particular situation.

This means that, on the one hand, Jesus’ loving identification with people knew no limits, but, on the other hand, he did not identify with everyone in the same way.  It is important to keep these two sides of the coin in mind.  In the first place, Jesus’ love excluded no one.  He held aloof neither from the outcasts of society nor from the respectable people who were scandalized by the company he kept.  He dined with tax-collectors and sinners, but also with Pharisees…Even Jesus’ highly critical confrontations with religious leaders do not fall outside his loving solidarity with all people: they were the only way he could bring home to such people the character and demands of God’s love as it impinged on their particular situation…

However, it is equally important to notice, secondly, that Jesus did not identify with all these people in the same way.  He met their actual, very different needs for God’s solidarity with them as they themselves were…Jesus particularized God’s love in different ways for different people…

It is in this context of Jesus’ loving identification with all in different ways that we must consider the claim that Jesus’ praxis displayed a preferential concern for the poor.  It would be better to speak of Jesus’ special concern for the marginalized, those who were excluded from society to a greater or lesser degree, since by no means all these people were economically poor.  Tax-collectors most certainly were not, and indeed their despised position in society was partly because they had grown rich, by dubious means, at others’ expense.  Yet they were prominent among those with whom Jesus was notorious for associating.  The key to Jesus’ ‘preference’ for various groups must be their relative exclusion, for social, economic and religious reasons, from the society of God’s people…In his deliberate attempt to reach those who were shunned and forgotten by everyone else, he sought out the most hopeless cases of all: the lepers, whom society treated as more or less already corpses, and the demoniacs, whose condition seemed virtually to exclude them from humanity altogether.

Jesus’ special concern for the marginalized was not a neglect of others.  Rather, Jesus’ mission was to reach all with God’s loving solidarity and thereby create loving solidarity among all.  But for this purpose his special concern had to be the inclusion of those who were excluded from human solidarity and those who felt excluded from God’s solidarity.  Those who excluded others from the solidarity of God’s people could properly learn God’s solidarity with themselves only along with his solidarity with the people they excluded.  Not only for the sake of the tax-collectors and sinners, then, but actually also for the sake of the Pharisees, Jesus identified himself with tax-collectors and sinners.

Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, provisionally present in a fragmentary way through his ministry, was of a society without the privilege and status which favor some and exclude others.  Thus those who had no status in society as it was then constituted were given a conspicuous place in society as God’s rule was reconstituting it through Jesus.  This ensured that the rich and the privileged could find their place only alongside the poor and the underprivileged.  The last became first and the first became last so that there should be no status or privilege at all…

Finally, Jesus, who loved children, make a small child his model of citizenship in God’s Kingdom, because children had no social status.  To enter the Kingdom, all must become like the little child.  Like his preference for children, Jesus’ preference for the tax-collectors and the beggars was not against the others, but for them.  The others must abandon status in order with Jesus to enter the solidarity of the unrighteous, the poor and the children.  There was no other route to the Kingdom of God in which no one is less than or thinks himself more than a neighbor to all others.” (Richard BauckhamThe Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically, 2nd ed., pp. 142-47)