It’s hard to be in tune with Christ when you have tuned out your neighbors, says the assistant professor of Christian theology.
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. Edgardo A. Colón-Emeric delivered the following address on June 10, 2011, in Duke Divinity School’s Goodson Chapel during the Center for Reconciliation’s Summer Institute.
In Ephesians, Paul prays that all his readers may know what is the hope to which God has called them.
“Hope” is a much-misunderstood word. For some, hope denotes a lack of certainty. Often, hope is mistaken for wishful thinking. At other times, hope is confused with having a glass-half-full kind of attitude. But hope, in the theological sense of the word, is not any of these things. Pollyanna abounded in optimism; Paul abounded in hope.
What is hope?
The author of Hebrews says that hope is the sure and certain anchor of the soul. For Thomists, hope is the virtue that orders our actions to a difficult but desirable goal. A Methodist might simply sing that hope is the blessed assurance that Jesus is mine, a foretaste of glory divine.
For Paul, hope is what keeps him fighting the good fight. Hope is what keeps him praying and praising even while in prison. Hope is what gives Paul the boldness to declare that the gathering of a few scores of Jews and Gentiles in the port city of Ephesus is no mere sociological fact but a new humanity in Christ.
As ridiculous as it might sound, God called the Christian community at Ephesus to be a sign of the age to come. By eating together in friendship, they actively participated in the unfolding of God’s purpose for creation. By joining together in the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, this small band of disciples witnessed that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. In short, God called the little flock at Ephesus to be a sacrament of Christ’s work of cosmic reconciliation.
However, the Ephesian calling is a delicate one. The powers of this present age have been conquered, but they are still dangerous. Unity in the Spirit is difficult to maintain; the bond of peace is quickly broken; table fellowship is easily abandoned. This is why Paul prays so fervently for the Christians at Ephesus. Paul fears that if the Ephesian Christians fail to stir the hope of their calling, they will trade the glorious inheritance of singing in symphony with all the saints for the safety of ethnic section rehearsals.
Section rehearsals are important. I remember when I first joined a choir. After hearing me speak a few words, the director told me to go sit with the basses. I was completely confused by the singing going on around me. Having never sung in such a setting, I found that my ear was tuned to the melody line, and try as I might, I could not pick out the bass line.
Thankfully, after a few warm-up exercises, the director held section rehearsals. The purpose of the section rehearsal is to help each voice learn its part well enough to be able to sing together in polyphony. What I discovered after a while was that I could learn my part in the section rehearsal, but not fully, because my part only made sense precisely as a part of a larger whole.
Indeed, the real proof that I had learned my part was when I left the safety of my section and sat next to sopranos, altos and tenors. I was better in tune with the key of the piece when I learned to listen to the other parts.
For most of us, section rehearsals are all we have ever known.
In the United States, one part has been dominant for so long that the other parts have only been preserved through section rehearsals. Many of us would not be here today except for section rehearsals.
It is not easy to sing in symphony when one section blasts its part out of an overblown sense of self-importance. And yet it is hard to be in tune with Christ when so many of us have tuned out our neighbors. It is easy to give up on the Ephesian calling. For many, the hope of our calling takes second seat to personal choice and cultural affirmation. How can we possibly commit to praying and living together week in and week out when we are so different?
Why bother? For two reasons.
First, there is a word for describing the character of those who want to join the hallelujah chorus in paradise but refuse to leave their ethnic section rehearsals on earth. There is a word for describing the disposition of those who prepare to sing the songs of Zion by listening to the songs of Egypt. There is a word for thinking that we can be divided here below and still be ready to join our friends above. There is a word for desiring union with Christ without expressing love for all the saints. There is a word for expecting heaven without holiness. The word is “presumption.”
Presumption means desiring the end while despising and forsaking the means. Presumption is the archenemy of hope and the sidekick of despair.
Second, hope abides. God is not finished with us yet.
The power that God put to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places is still at work today. There is power in the name. Power to enlighten the eyes of our hearts. Power to wake those who are asleep. Power to wake those who are pretending to be asleep.
There is power in the name above every name. Power to free Christian tradition from cultural conservatism. Power to free love of country from fear of strangers. Power to turn off the treadmill of toleration and run the race of reconciliation. Power to grow into the full stature of Christ.
Claim that power. Do not be afraid to be holy. Do not be afraid to leave the safety of the section rehearsal. Do not be afraid to submit to the baton of Christ. It is not Edgardo who calls you; it is not Paul. It is Almighty God who calls you to join the celestial symphony with all the saints. Do not put it off until heaven. Claim the promise. Anticipate your heaven below. Dare to hope in Christ.