“Hope is a horrible thing, you know. I don’t know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody keeps pulling it and pulling it.” -Ann Patchett, State of Wonder
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Second Sunday of Easter, year B
Text: John 20:19-31
In the novel State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, a character believes that her husband is dead. But then she gets word that she might not have been told the whole story about his mysterious disappearance. Against all odds, the man she loves just might be alive. The reader might expect this revelation to fill her with joy, but it does just the opposite. It fills her with pain and rage. She had finally come to terms with the loss of her husband, but now she has to go through the whole painful journey again, waiting and wondering if she will ever see him again. As she tells another character, she doesn’t want to hope for his return, she just wants to let go, to find closure and move on. She says:
“Hope is a horrible thing, you know. I don’t know who decided to package hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody keeps pulling it and pulling it.”
Ann Patchett hits on a difficult truth in this passage. Hope isn’t all sweetness and joy. Sometimes, hope hurts. It drags us forward when we’d rather give up and stay put. It cracks open our complacency and exposes us to loss. Despair defends us from disappointment, but hope leaves us vulnerable. The woman in the novel doesn’t want to think that her husband is alive, because then she might have to lose him all over again. Better not to hope at all, she thinks, than to subject herself to that kind of heartbreak.
Perhaps this is some of what Thomas is going through when he hears his friends say that they have seen the risen Christ. His fellow apostles tell him that, while he was gone, Jesus appeared, and showed them his wounds, and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. They ask him to join them in the good news of the resurrection, but he refuses to believe their story. With that refusal, he is saying: no, I’m not going to open myself up to that kind of pain again, only to be let down. If Jesus wants me to believe, let him show himself to me like he did to the rest of you. Until I see him with my own eyes, I’m not going to let myself hope that he’s really alive. It’s not worth the heartache. It’s not worth the loss.
This unwillingness to hope protects Thomas from hurt, but it comes at a high price. For that long week between Jesus’ two visits, Thomas is alone. He might be hiding in the upper room with his friends, but he’s excluded from their fellowship. The apostles are living together in a joyful new reality, and they want Thomas to join them, but his despair cuts him off from this new thing called the church. He’s being invited to discover new life, but his pain and fear convince him that it’s better to accept death. It’s a safe decision, one that defends his heart, but it traps him in a protective cage away from the people he loves, and away from the possibility of anything better.
History has not been kind to Thomas and his despair, but in our own ways, we have all done the same thing and allowed our pain to turn us away from the resurrection. We all know what it means to doubt God’s power to heal the world when the forces of sin and death seem too terrible to overcome. We make our compromises, and resign ourselves to the way things are, instead of fighting to see God’s will be done. The story of Thomas asks us: What are the things that you are too afraid to hope for? What dreams of life and healing are you suppressing to defend yourself against heartbreak? How are you accommodating yourself to the forces that draw the world away from God? How are you surrendering to despair?
In the face of the brokenness of this world, despair makes a lot of sense. Sin is powerful, and common sense might dictate that we submit to its reign. We could just accept that we will never be free of the ugliest parts of ourselves, and stop struggling to learn and grow. We could just accept that the broken relationships in our lives will never be healed, and stop praying for reconciliation. We could just accept that mass killings are now a part of life, and stop working for change so we can stop being disappointed when that change doesn’t come. We could just accept that our planet is doomed, and choose to make the most of its abundance while we can with no more hope for the future. We could make our peace with death. It would make our lives a lot more comfortable, if we could let go of hope. It would be so much easier if we just didn’t care.
But we are called to never accept death’s triumph. We are called to stay open to the Holy Spirit’s power to breathe new life into all things, not to close ourselves off for fear of being let down. This is a hard thing to do. But hope is not a virtue because it is easy. It takes courage, and commitment, and deep wells of faith. It forces us to believe in things that we can’t yet see, and may never see in our lifetimes. Hope means that we have to let go of our desire for closure, because God’s plan is always unfolding. It means accepting that that fishhook that hope plants in our hearts is going to keep dragging us onward to ventures of which we cannot see the ending. Sometimes that path will lead us to joy; other times it will pass through defeat and loss. But in faith, we can keep journeying forward, because we know that our hope is leading us toward the reign of God. The end of all things is God’s good will for the world, in Christ’s victory over death. The hope that makes all other hope possible is the hope of the resurrection. Because we proclaim Christ raised, we can say in confidence that death doesn’t win. We can find hope in our hurt because we know that pain and loss will not, and cannot have the final say.
To all of us who must believe without seeing, it is only in hope that we meet Christ raised. This can be a challenge, but it is also a joy, because in that hope, we not only encounter the resurrection, but we share it with others. When we live in hope, God heals those around us, using us to bring comfort to the despairing and light to those who walk in darkness. Hope breaks us opens to be the wounded healers this world needs. Yes, it does put hooks in us, and sometimes the pull hurts. But that pull is what draws us into God’s embrace. It’s the pull that lifts us up out of the grave, and raises us with Christ into new life.