The Hope of the World Today

Eph. 1:18,19.---' That ye may know what is the hope of his calling . . . . and what is the exceeding greatness of his power.'

The world into which Christianity first came was extraordinarily like our own. The more we know of the conditions---political, psychological, religious---of the first century of the Roman empire, the more striking grows the parallel between them and those in which we live. The background of the apostolic age, across which the New Testament characters move, might almost seem to be the twenty first century. Its broad outlines are familiar enough, but they may perhaps be roughly sketched in here; for nothing is likely to give a clearer conception of the vividness and reality of the gospel than to see it in its concrete setting amid the life and problems of those days. To understand what the gospel means to us, we must know what it meant to those who first received it.

Like ours, the world into which the new faith came was crushing men by its complexity. It was a war-weary world, baffled in its attempts at reconstruction, dazed by vast and bewildering transitions. Established social conditions were collapsing. Accepted class-distinctions had grown blurred; the profiteer was entering society and the unprivileged were beginning to count. The old regime could no longer be taken for granted. Political groupings were shifting and breaking up, old ties and loyalties were being snapped, and the individual was left spiritually homeless and self-conscious in a cosmopolitan civilization. Externally brilliant, it was morally rotten, and wealth and elegance scarcely drew a veil over cruelty and decadent forms of vice, of which the Epistles give relentless catalogues. There is, of course, a bright side to the picture. Noble aspirations were there in plenty, fine idealisms, kindness, courtesy; only, there was no moral driving-power. The distinctive note of the imperial world is the note of disillusionment. Men longed for a fresh start which they could not get, for a deliverance they could not find, for a fellowship which they could not achieve. They could not recover because they had not hope. people were lost and lonely and disappointed. There was no vital faith in anything to simplify life for them and make it whole and liberate their moral energies. For the old religions had been undermined, and few believed them any longer. The great majority of people fought a fog of choking superstitions, credulous, magical, and demon-haunted. Some found in the Greek and Eastern 'Mysteries,' with their thrilling sacramental worship, some form of at least emotional relief. surprising number were hangers-on of Judaism, as a moral but not a ceremonial code. The traditional priesthoods had become a farce: the religious guides were the philosophers, especially those of the Stoic school, of whom Seneca [Nero's tutor and the brother of Gallio] is the best known. The professors of philosophy were almost spiritual 'directors,' at any rate to the cultured, leisured classes. But Stoicism offered good advice, and the heart of the world was aching for redemption.

It is true, of course, that Our Lord's life and teaching moved within narrower boundaries. The gospel which was to renew the world was preached in primitive Galilean villages in a simple and little-organized society. But it was on the ampler stage of civilization in the Graeco-Roman cities that its implications were worked out. In the complex life of the early Empire its experiments were made and its experiences verified. Those who tell us that a social ethic preached to an agricultural population in Galilee and the Syrian country-side can have no adequate solution for our Industrial Democracies, may fairly be asked to read the actual records. The earliest Church was obsessed by no such scruples. After a momentary hesitation it turned at once to the world of imperial culture to lay the foundations of a new civilization. Within a few years after the Crucifixion Palestine was already a backwater. The Christian mission went to the urban life of the great seaports and economic capitals, to work the gospel out in action. The whole civilized world was represented when, six weeks after the Resurrection, the Church received its Pentecostal baptism. Within twenty years of the death of Stephen it was charged with 'turning the Empire upside down' [Acts 17:6]. It is plain at least that the earliest disciples, who had known the Great Reformer best, did not doubt that His religion could restore and rebuild civilization under conditions far more complex than any that had ever crossed their minds. It was not in Galilee at all, but in Corinth and Ephesus, that their work was done.

It is doubtless true that the first generation lived their lives under the urgent sense of an imminent return of Christ, and the sudden, catastrophic rolling-up of the civilization of 'the World.' Full allowance must be made for this, and it must be frankly admitted that this belief, falsified as it was by events, impressed on some of the thought of the New Testament a sense which we cannot now accept literally. But it is very easily exaggerated. And in any case, however prominent the idea of a 'Coming in the clouds of heaven' may have been in the minds of the earliest believers, it did not work out in the way that is often suggested. It did not paralyze their moral enterprise. They did not say, 'There is no time to change things.' Rather, they said, 'He may come at any moment: Let us get the house ready for Him' [Luke 12:34]. It sent them out with a passion to save society, and it gave them a certainty in the Eternal world, directing their activity in this. The cruder form of the earlier expectation was soon transmuted into the conviction that supernatural forces were at work destined to overthrow the established order, that Christ was sovereign over human life and at work within human nature through His Present Spirit, lifting it up to a more than earthly destiny. That was world-overcoming faith. The dominant note of the New Testament is the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ. That is the basis of all 'Reconstruction.' This faith in human possibilities penetrates all our conceptions of social justice and the Christian organization of Society, and lies at the root of any vivid belief in the renewal of the coming age.

The worst of it is that we Christians as a whole have almost lost any real expectancy. We do not think that Christianity can redeem and change society: we think of it as a means of 'saving souls.' We regard our religion as mainly concerned with the individual's soul, saving people out of this 'naughty world' rather than making the naughty world a place fit for sons and daughters of God to live in. We did not think it would turn the world upside down. Sometimes the evil in the world was regarded as inevitable, even acquiesced in as a means for exercising 'Christian charity' and training ourselves for heaven after death. But, if you once give your moral assent to other people's sins and sorrows as affording a field for your altruistic activities, your moral sense must be in a sadly diseased condition. It would, no doubt, be a cruel caricature to suggest that this is a normal Christian attitude. Yet it is undeniable that 'soul-culture,' or at least salvation for the individual, had become the dominant note of our religion. Christianity had got confused with pietism.

Our despairing acquiescence would have been entirely inconceivable to our Lord's first followers. The kingdom of God which He preached in Galilee is, through and through, a social salvation. He wanted to rebuild society from its spiritual foundations upwards round the new controlling principle of the true Reality of God. He would have been satisfied with nothing less. Religion, for Him, means doing the will of God, and He knew that the will of God is health and justice, joy and liberty and brotherhood. He was the supreme Believer in Mankind. He knew that what was chiefly wrong with the world was a wrong idea about God. He went about awakening in men a new sense of expectancy based upon a renewed belief in God. 'How little you trust God,' He used to say. For Him, faith in God carried with it, as inherent in its very nature, a certainty of God's victoriousness. 'All things are possible with God.' His will, because it is His will, must surely come. 'It is His good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.' Therefore our God could move about among men, calling them back to a joyous confidence in the availability of God. Thus His ministry was, as a later writer put it, the "bringing in of a better hope." He gave back hope to a despairing world, because He brought it face to face with God.

On the foundation of this triumphant certainty He fashioned a new fabric of Society. In His own words, He 'despaired of nobody' [Luke 6:35]. He knew that no human life, however broken, was too hard a problem for His Father. He knew that God can give 'new lives for old': that there is a creative love at work in the world, inexhaustible and unfailing, if men would only open their hearts and take it. Thus, however dark the situation, however great the failure and the ruin of the lives with which He was confronted, we can see no trace of His ever losing heart. He staked all on God's renewing power, and died to prove that His confidence was justified.

There is little in our contemporary Christianity comparable to this massive faith of Jesus. We cannot lead the world until we recover it. Is it not clear that one great reason why faith in the Incarnation, the work of Christ and the gift of the Spirit, mean so little to the youth of the nation is that they do not know that the essence of the Christian life is faith, hope, and love? So we are told that Religion is out of touch with the realities of daily life and the clamorous problems of the world. We must at least recover our expectancy that the spirit of Christ can renew the face of the earth, and the Kingdom be established among men. According to our faith it will be to us.

The central act of Christian worship is really charged with this confident expectation. Our Lord seems definitely to have declared that by His death a new age would have dawned. The world could never be the same again. 'From henceforth shall the Son of man be seated at the right hand of the Power of God. 'I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.' That conviction that His sacrifice was inaugurating a New Order is inseparable from the Last Supper. We show forth the Lord's death till He come. One branch of the Church preserves this expectant outlook in its Eucharistic symbolism. In the Coptic churches the bread is freshly baked and taken still hot from the oven for consecration. 'Ye shall eat in haste'; there is no time to let it cool, as though life were normal and ordinary and slow. Unless you are quick, the Lord may have returned! The life communicated through the sacred elements is eternal life---'the life of the world to come'---offered us here and now in the fields of time, to turn Warring into the City of God.

To learn to expect again that God will do things, to look for new irruptions of the Spirit coming in power like a rushing mighty wind, to rediscover God's availability---this is the hungry need of the Church today and the only hope of a disappointed world.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha