On Wednesday evening as part of our Lent course, a group of us from church studied a passage from Romans 12: 9-21. In the CEV the chapter is entitled ‘How to live the new life of Love’. How to… indeed… that is the question.
This passage gets really specific. 21 instructions follow one after the other, after the other. All fleshing out what it means, what it actually looks like to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (the second of Jesus’s two commandment summary, the first being to love God). It means hospitality, respect, sharing what you have, blessing those are mean to you, not thinking too highly of yourself, not paying back evil for evil.
It’s a pretty tall order!
We all aspire to it but, let’s be honest, there are bits in there that are downright difficult.
This time though, the phrase that ‘shimmered’ for me when we read this passage reflectively was ‘Be joyful in hope…‘. The amplified version says ‘Rejoice and exult in hope‘.
How is this possible for any of us when we are in the middle of any story of pain, uncertainty or even just find ourselves in a situation that makes us anxious for which we don’t yet know the ending.
What came to me is that it’s only possible to be ‘exultant in hope’ if you know how the story will end. If you are confident that things will, eventually, one way or another turn out okay, you don’t know how, you don’t know when but only if you are sure that one day ‘all will be well’ then you CAN be exultant in hope’.
I am a sucker for films with happy endings. Actually I’m worse than that, I do my best to avoid films with sad endings. Before watching a film, I will ask around about the ending ‘I don’t know want to know how it ends’ I say, ‘I only want to know if it’s sad or happy’. Is is a ‘weepy’ or a ‘whoopee’?
Then I can relax. I don’t then mind how bumpy or scary the story is along the way because I have the security of knowing that ultimately it will turn out okay. Yes, you may think I’m pathetic as far as this analogy relates to films and I’m willing to admit that I am!
But it’s true of life, how can we face the unbearable sadness all around us unless we have hope? Big scale issues like the pollution, the oppression, the inequality between the rich and the poor and small scale personal tragedies: illnesses that become terminal, sicknesses that becomes chronic, accidents that happen meaninglessly and violence that robs lives.
Being an optimist that things will ultimately turn out okay in the face of that long list can sometimes feel as unlikely as whistling a melody in a storm and hoping your tune will be heard.
But Paul wasn’t an unrealistic optimist. He asked us to be ‘joyful in hope’ because there really is certainty that ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’ (Julian of Norwich in her Reflections on Divine Love). He bases his hope on the historical fact of the Resurrection: death is beaten. It has been dealt a mortal blow, and although death still reigns now, it will ultimately be done away with. And God ‘who does not want anyone to perish’ will have his heart’s desire, the people he created in order that he might love them and that they might know His love in return.
‘God will be forever God, all loving, all holy, all compassionate and we will grow in our knowledge of God, discovering ever greater depths to that love and compassion and goodness; and God’s love will not let God rest until all of God’s creatures have been drawn into the ambit of that love and compassion and caring… This is how highly God regards us, how deeply God loves us; and it is beyond our computing, beyond our comprehension.’ Desmond Tutu from In God’s Hands the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book recommendation.
Another voice, from the opposite end of the theological spectrum, says the same thing:
‘There will be pain, and then great joy. In the end, joy wins. So if joy has not won yet, it is not the end’
(John Ortberg in Soul-Keeping, easily the best book I read last year.)
And to go back to that list of 21 commandments – how or why do we try to live that way? Desmond Tutu again ‘God hopes that we, who have experienced the wonder and depth of God’s love, will be enlisted in God’s team, to seek to draw in those outside, by emulating God’s ways. We are enlisted to attract the recalcitrant, ultimately by love, by compassion and by caring. After all many in the Ancient world were drawn into the Church when they witnessed just how these Christians loved one another’.