“In the middle of their talk and questions, Jesus came up and walked along with them.
But they were not able to recognize who he was.
He asked, “What’s this you’re discussing so intently as you walk along?”
They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend.
Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened during the last few days?”
He said, “What has happened?”
They said, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him.
And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel.”
Luke 24:17-24, The Message.
As this Covid-19 situation heightened, so too have my musings on hope. What I had begun to consider in light of the media so often pressing us about the urgency of global warming, I was now considering in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond.
I wondered whether, in times such as these, if it was plausible to be hopeful, because some of what I see on the media brings about more easily a response of fear. And yet, at the same time – I see our Prime Minister endorsing kindness and empathy and I see what kind of (good) response that is drawing out of the vast majority. I see what good her leadership has brought about in our nation, despite any part of her ideology we mightn’t agree with in its totality.
With these observations I wondered whether, as a Christian, it was ‘theologically sound’ to be hopeful for what lies in this world here and now – or whether, we should be expecting the world to be on some sort of irreparable decline, and that, to hold out hope for any sense of redemption in the contours of the people and situations that define our here and now, was a futile endeavor.
The thing is – before I even make theological considerations, I am quite fond of Aotearoa New Zealand. There is a rich narrative wrapped up within the layers of its people, history, and land. Redemption itself is a contributing thread in the (still unfolding) story of decolonization in the wider tapestry of our nation. It is far from a finished work, but there is evidence of this thread being sought by both Pakeha and Maori alike – for the fruits of decolonization to become more deeply ingrained.
This is a work that is far from complete, but this thread, and what it is seeking to weave more distinctly into the tapestry of our collective identity, is good.
By contrast, I know that evil exists and that its effects are far-reaching. I know that evil and disaster demands a response rather than ignorance. I am a counsellor. I hear often first-hand accounts of where evil is an active force in people’s lives, and so, in no way do I want to draw our attention away from just how much of that lies beneath the surface, and where and with whom, it has perhaps become further exacerbated by the event of Covid-19.
But it is also because I am a counsellor that I have a certain reluctance to submit to evil as the winning narrative whatever time or situation we find ourselves in. I think it’s because as a general principle, I know that where hope is, comes also an energy to move, to transform. I’ve seen it happen in people’s lives (including my own) time and time again. Hope isn’t unreasonable – it doesn’t ask something to materialize instantly, and yet it energizes us to move through and towards something good. Hope doesn’t ignore evil because it sees that it has a crucial role to play in moving a person, a situation, out of the evil it recognizes, and that it can (and does) often have a very firm grip. But in that recognition of evil, hope also transcends it because it moves us towards redemption in ways that nothing else could.
With this in mind, I wonder, what role might the Christian hope play in the current climate we as a nation, and the wider world, find ourselves in?
As I have observed the response to Covid-19 of the people in my own home, on my street, at work, in our churches, and of those in leadership, this chord of hope couldn’t help but find itself frequently chiming. There are more knowing smiles exchanged between strangers when we pass each other on our socially distanced walks, than I have ever noticed before. Police, despite their heightened presence, seem to also bring a heightened presence of warmth and security, too. A group of willing experts established in record time, in honor of preserving and offering support to struggling small businesses.
Through these people and various other initiatives established by people who were simply willing to help or bring warmth to those around them – I saw something, felt something, that resembled hope. Without my even trying to conjure it up, before I was able to ascertain a theological explanation as to why hope could be a plausible option right now, it was already there – flickers of good amidst what is and has been (and will continue to be) an undeniably trialing time for us as a nation, and even more so, the wider world.
But as mentioned, with that chime of hope came also questions. For me, it was as if whenever the note of hope was struck, that tune fell upon another with which it unpleasantly clashed: is it biblical to be hopeful for the world in these instances? Is it biblical to be hopeful for people and situations where God is seemingly absent – at least to my eyes? To what extent are the promises of faith immediately relevant to all people? What difference does God make here and now?
At this, I am drawn to Jesus meeting with his two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus, risen from the dead, is walking and conversing with them as they speak.
But they were kept from recognizing him.
I almost wonder if the disciples felt angered when they were asked by this apparent stranger, what it was they were speaking about – as if there was some sort of ignorance to the darkness, the grief, they had only two days ago been subject to in Christ crucified.
The King, to their understanding, was dead.
And subsequently, as was the validity of all of the groundbreaking promises he spoke of before his death. It was as though, for the disciples, it brought into question all of what had been promised. They hadn’t yet the certainty of Christ Resurrected. And this man, this stranger, is seemingly oblivious to this significant death – of Jesus the Nazarene.
Were the disciples angered by the strangers’ question? I am unsure. But I would have been. My best friend had just been killed, crucified – many people knew about it, and recognized the significance of the event – even his enemies. I was yet to see the promise of his return, of his resurrection. Having spent most of the last few years of my life communing with the man I had grown to love so deeply, the space in which I would find myself, as I trudged along that road with my friend, would be one of grief and hopelessness.
To have a stranger enter into our conversation at this very point, and moreover, question what it was that we were speaking about would draw upon anger. I would want there to be space held for grief for the loss of my friend. I would want it to be honored by those who chose to enter into the conversation.
But the man who came into this conversation wasn’t just a man – he was Jesus.
We just didn’t know it yet.
What was he drawing out in them by appearing in this unrecognizable way? Why so obscure? They had had their hopes up that he was the One – the deliverer.
In a similar way – I had my hopes up too.
That the good responses noted in our nation, and further, in our world, could maybe still be good – even though in them I could not define the edges of what was, or was not, ‘God-at- work.’ I had my hopes up that even where darkness abounds, hope could still be present.
I get how that question from the stranger might have acted as some sort of intruder upon hope. In that space between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, God seemed absent in a way that they had hoped he no longer would be. And as a result, in this space, their sense of hope may also have felt threatened.
Covid-19 has felt like a friction against my understanding of who God is. As has global warming, and the fires in Australia as their ominous smoke drifted over our nation at the beginning of this year. All of these events have felt like an uninvited tug away from my soul’s tendency towards hope – for our world, our people, myself and what it is that God might be doing – and the notion that, that something, could be good.
In that aforementioned friction, I see myself in the disciples conversing over what would ensue at this apparent loss, this disruption to what they had been hoping for. However, what they didn’t realise was that Jesus and the fulfilment of his promises were present before they ever knew he was.
This might mean that it is possible for Jesus to be walking, moving and influencing both ourselves and the lives of those around us, before we are able to ascertain that it is him. In that there is a hope that lies not in our ability to perfectly articulate in what way he is present, but that within him is an innate ability to be there, fulfilling his promises before we could ever make sense of it.
The King is not dead. He is alive.
As theologian N.T Wright states: “The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should stand out in every town and village as the place where new creativity bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope which, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise.”
With this in mind, why shouldn’t we who have taken up the Jesus-way as our way, not also expect Jesus to show up in surprising ways? Is not the pattern he inaugurated through his life, death and resurrection, one that is illustrative of new life in the dark place? One that endorses life where there has been death and decay? (Romans 8:21). Should not we as followers of the Jesus-way, take care that we do not lose sight of the possibility of hope as long as we are alive and as long as the world is still turning? Is that not our role? Should not we submit ourselves to the possibility of this surprising reality to be also unfolding in the midst of our world, our nation, our community?
Jesus, God personified, is a rationale to remain hopeful in the face of tragedy and suffering – indeed, but not only that, he is also a mandate – to remain active in our faith and his ability to be present; to not at any one point assume that the world or its people have lost totally the potential for new vitality, and subsequently, that we too should lose hope in what Jesus has the power to do presently.
That is not why Jesus commissioned us to engage faith in what we cannot yet see (Hebrews 11:1). And that is not why Jesus called us to pray for his Kingdom to come to earth as on heaven.
In times of darkness, or, times such as these, there is a call upon followers of Jesus to have their eyes open and heart oriented towards the wild possibility of him birthing that new kind of life – time and time again – right in the places we think it impossible. Unlike the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus – not yet able to see the possibility of Jesus being present in the stranger who is conversing and asking strange questions that didn’t seem to make sense, we have the insight they didn’t, as they trudged forlorn along that road that day: we know the King is alive. We know his Kingdom work is not felt and seen in its fullness yet – but we also know in Jesus we are a vessel of his new Kingdom that just might be able to defy odds whether in ways obvious or subtle.
We hold the potential to, in Jesus, be a meeting point of heaven and earth – right here, right now.
Let us not lose hope, because in the resurrected Jesus, we have permission to also remain hopeful for our people, for our world. Let us not focus our attentions solely upon what does and what does not constitute the ‘correct’ conditions for where the hope of this new life might be birthed, but rather, rest in the simple notion that in the Kingdom, hope is always a possibility and it just might be present within the ‘stranger on the road’ in whom, and in what, we cannot yet identify as Jesus.
“They (the disciples) came to the edge of the village where they were headed. He acted as if he were going on but they pressed him: “Stay and have supper with us. It’s nearly evening; the day is done.” So he went in with them
And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them.
At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him. And then he disappeared.
Back and forth they talked.
“Didn’t we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for Us?”
Luke 24:28-32, The Message.