By Clint Wilson
Four years ago, countless Americans sat in their homes as their televisions broadcast the results of an intense battle. They prayed, perhaps with sweat on their brows, and anxiously awaited the outcome of a victory that would electrify the world. Some were horrified, and others had been waiting their entire lives for such an establishment upset. Of course, I am speaking of the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 World Series. (Was there something else that happened that November?)
Now truly, many called this the greatest World Series ever, with the most exciting Game Seven ever — 10 innings with a sweet resolution for Chicago Cubs fans. What I want to know is how their fans endured 108 years of disappointment. Rich Cohen writes in Harper’s Magazine what those years looked like:
When the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series, the automobile was still a new and untrusted invention. In the years since… that series, most of the European monarchies have collapsed, two world wars have been fought, Communism has risen and fallen, and disco has come and gone and come again. Losing year after year, sometimes in the last weeks of the season, more often in the middle of August, the Cubs have become a symbol of futility, the blind, never-ending hope of a hopeless people. Before his death, Jack Brickhouse, the great Cubs play-by-play man, excused the team by saying, “Everyone is entitled to a bad century.”
The Cubbies’ World Series win was a long time coming. But it raises an interesting question: Was the victory greater because of the long period of struggle and loss?
In the last year we have seen incredible problems in the world: from political polarization to the COVID-19 pandemic, racial inequities, wildfires, economic woes, and more; we’ve seen horrific loss. Domestically, our nation seems to have reached new extremes of agitation and division on multiple levels, not least politically. In light of such significant challenge and loss, I wonder: What can the Church offer the world? And how might we — the Church — have hope in the midst of it all? It was easy to be a Cubs fan in 2016, but what about the previous 108, or the last three years? We might also say, “anyone can be a Christian during times of life and victory, but what will sustain us through times of drought and loss and even death?” Simply put, if we, who follow not only the resurrected Christ, but also the suffering Christ, do not know how to endure trials with hope, then our faith will always be doomed to shallowness.
The Church is challenged to endure hardship because the end of the story has already been written. The invitation to the final celebration has been extended, the tickets to the cosmic box office are paid in full. This hope is found in firmly trusting in God’s promise of recreating heaven and earth. The assumption is that we must not place our ultimate hope in the wrong thing. The prophet Isaiah delivers God’s promise to us:
I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. (65:17-18)
This is the same promise picked up in Revelation 21, and if our tendency is to see the Bible as merely a heaven-promising book, then we will miss the powerful flashpoints throughout Scripture of God’s holistic renewal of all of creation. Scripture’s description of the destination of the story is never “heaven alone,” but rather the resurrection of the dead, of all the saints, and the renewal of all things. This is all about terra firma — the ground and stuff made from the ground. This is about the garden of Genesis being fulfilled in the city of God. And the significance of this is astounding. About this, Andy Crouch writes:
The new Jerusalem will be truly a city: a place suffused with culture, a place where culture has reached its full flourishing. It will be the place where God’s instructions to the first human beings is fulfilled, where all the latent potentialities of the world will be discovered and released by creative, cultivating people. This is a city “where the tree of life is no longer prohibited or perilous… and where the urban is at rest with the rural. The city does not pave over the garden — the garden is at the city’s heart, lush and green with life… [and] culture — redeemed, transformed and permeated by the presence of God — will be the activity of eternity. (Culture Making, 169–70)
Our hope is not heaven, but the city of God, which will be multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and trans-national. It will be a physical place with the goods of human culture and the activities of everyday life, except that they are so shot through with God’s presence and activity that they themselves become acts of worship. If this is the case, then we begin see how it matters to act even now as if everything we do is tethered to this (ultimate) reality. As C.S. Lewis said, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
Four years ago a satirical article from the Onion envisioned Cubs fans in heaven storming the pearly gates and foisting a W flag onto the pearly gates, while others wailed on golden harps or dumped pitchers of beer on archangels. But this wouldn’t be heaven for those who aren’t Cubs fans. And for some the hope of heaven seems too fantastic, too satirical, like the Cubs winning the World Series… but multiplied by infinity! And I get it; as Woody Allen quipped, “The wolf and the lamb may lie down together, but the lamb’s not going to get very much sleep.”
How does this hope help matters of injustice, racism, poverty, and other social inequities in the present? Those who are tempted to be overcome by the struggle are in good company. The hope of Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21 is like a cosmic version of the Cubs winning the World Series, but what do you do when your team has not won the game? This is a very real concern for many vulnerable groups amidst this election, whomever wins (and this article was written before election day; I do not know the outcome, and it may or may not be known by the time this is published). What then is the answer? It is paradoxical and yet simple: We must go to the cross.
Jesus repeatedly reminds his disciples in the Gospels that suffering for and with Christ is an ingredient to the life of discipleship. You see, the hope of Isaiah 65 is a promissory note that is paid out in full in the new heavens and new earth, but is financed by the work of Jesus on the cross with an advance paid out in the form of the resurrection of Jesus. This advance hope of the resurrection is a down-payment by God on our suffering, securing for us the hope that we can endure trials because the victory is won. In other words, if Christ calls the Church to endure the loss of beauty, possessions, respect and even life, then he does so only because he knows the end of the story — that in the midst of hardship — even through our hardships — we are beneficiaries of a certain hope.
What then is our task? Our task is to anticipate and bear witness to how the victory of the cross is breaking into the present, as mini-advances. This task is not a hope with blind eyes to suffering and trials, but a hope with eyes wide open to how God’s victory might be manifest through the suffering itself, to how God’s victory might be sweetened through various trials for those who remain faithful, thereby transforming suffering into the crucible of victory, justice and redemption. “To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What might this look like for us in the coming years? There are many applications, but I’ll make only one.
I love the motto of Carthusians monks who say stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “the cross is steady while the world is turning.” We currently live in a deeply divided nation where many feel marginalized and afraid while others feel relief and even joy. With the election this week, some will feel (or may feel already) that their team has won after having lost for some time, while still others feel that their team has lost after having a season of victory. But to be overwhelmed by an enduring sense of anxiety, on the one hand, or elation, on the other hand, is to buy into the lie that the president is the Messiah. Or at least, such responses press us to deeply ponder, “At bottom, in whom is our ultimate trust and hope grounded?” It is not that political administrations don’t matter or have serious implications for human flourishing; of course they do. But the Church must find its hope first and foremost in the wisdom and pattern of the cross, which is to say, the place where we are called to mutual repentance and humility and a love that obliges us to reach out and exercise compassion — not only to our neighbor — but to our enemy (even the one who would kill us).
This is not a call to quiescence or a pass for those who want to maintain the status quo. Far from it… at the foot of the cross, both those overwhelmed with anxiety and joy are humbled by a hope that is not abstract, but that is mediated by the body of Jesus, into whom people from different parties and teams are bound and through whom the dividing wall of hostility is torn down.
At the cross enemies find their call to look out for the interest of the other, as Christ has done for us. For the joyful, there is the reminder that pride and political power put Jesus on the cross, so be careful where you put your trust. For the anxious, there is the hope that political power and even the possibility of losing one’s life does not have the last word. The last Word has been spoken on the cross: his name is Jesus and he calls the Church to model a better way. For it is at the foot of the cross where we might be able to hear this Word, and we might be able to hear him even in “the other,” even the one across the political aisle, or the protest line. If Jesus’s first team of disciples included both a tax collector and zealot, two people radically opposed to one another’s political positions, then there is more space for listening and patience than we’re initially inclined to allow. But the Church that is destined to celebrate together in the new heavens and new earth must learn to suffer together across divisions, and most importantly, to suffer with those who suffer, especially the poor and victims of injustice, for this is what Jesus has done for us. It is only when we have learned this that we will be able to understand the good news of the Cross and Resurrection, and how the hope of the new heavens and new earth makes all the difference in the world.
Fr. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky.