As a country over the past few years, we have had a sense that things are not well. Conflicts in Syria and North Korea are looming on the horizon. We have seen our popularity and stature in the world diminish. We are deadlocked over important moral and political issues such as the death penalty, abortion and embryonic stem cell research with no common ground to help us discuss these issues civilly. We are living with a sense that things are going in the wrong direction for us as a country, and we are deeply divided as to how to set things right. We don't know where to find hope.
Today's readings proclaim boldly that hope has its center and meaning in God. In the first reading, Peter, on the day of Pentecost, having just received the gift of the Holy Spirit, proclaims to the people of Jerusalem who witnessed Jesus' death on the cross, that Jesus' death was not a humiliating defeat. Rather, it was the culmination of God's plan of salvation for all people. Jesus laid down His life willingly out of love for us. But, even death could not silence Jesus, for He rose from the dead and continues to live giving us the hope of everlasting life. Because Jesus lives, we have hope that we also will live with Him forever through faith.
Peter continues to speak about hope to us in the second reading. Jesus died to deliver us from a futile way of life. That futile way of life was a life of false hopes and false promises. We know those false hopes and false promises too well in our day. We hear people say that if only we had a different president, the world would stop hating us. If only we would raise taxes, then no one would be poor. If only there were more money for stem cell research, then we could end human suffering. While helping the poor and ending suffering are certainly noble sentiments we should all be striving for, we cannot pin our hopes on any one policy or any one person to solve all of history's problems. It is God alone, the just judge, who can forgive our sins and render justice for the poor. Our hope, then, finds its center in this just and merciful God who has acted powerfully in history in the person of Jesus Christ.
Finally, the gospel reading presents us with two people who had lost hope. Faced with Jesus' death on the cross and the dismay over Jesus' empty tomb, they decide to leave the community of faith at Jerusalem. As they walk along, they are so caught up in their confusion and despair that they cannot recognize Jesus. Nonetheless, their heart burns as He restores their hope by showing how Scripture taught that Jesus' death, as Peter tells us in the first reading, was necessary for the forgiveness of sins and to complete God's plan of salvation. Once they recognize Him, they return to the community of faith in Jerusalem and find their hopes confirmed. Jesus is truly risen!
We are a people who desperately need to have our hope restored. If we are looking for the economy to restore our hope, or a presidential candidate to give us a perfect social order, then we will be sorely disappointed. Only God can both promise and deliver the hope our hearts are burning to receive - the forgiveness of sins, justice, eternal life and peace. On earth, we can only have it in a partial way. There will always be threats to our peace and security. There will always be those seeking to pervert justice for their own ends. Only God can establish true justice and lasting peace in a permanent way.
Does this mean that we throw up our hands and give up? By no means! That's the way people with no hope act. People who don't believe in God generally don't see the point in trying to make the world a good place and decide just to live for themselves and their own pleasures. Otherwise, they may try to help but get disillusioned because they don't see their efforts making any difference. But, those who believe in God and have their hope centered in Him live differently. We know that we will be judged by God based on our actions. We see God's face in those who suffer. We know that the poor are our brothers and sisters and refuse to abandon them in their need. However, we are not deluded into thinking that any person, any government or any policy can turn our world into a perfect paradise. And so, knowing that we will not achieve a perfect world, we don't give up even when we experience setbacks and disappointments. We press on knowing that God's perfect justice and perfect peace are awaiting us. Though there's only so much we can do - only so much difference we can make - we know that our sincere efforts are rewarded by God and so have eternal value.
We gather here today as people who know very well the fears, misgivings and disappointments of today's world. But, more importantly, we know the hope which our faith in God holds out to us. We feel God's Word burning in our hearts. Moreover, we will see Jesus in the breaking of the bread as we celebrate and share the gift of His Body and Blood. When we leave here today, when the songs of praise have ended, we must go into that world and witness to the hope we have found in God. That hope gathers into one community those who are scattered by fear. It gives new strength to those who have been disillusioned by life's injustices. It gives new meaning to those who have been disappointed by the limited effectiveness of governments and politicians. It calls all of us to recognize Jesus, the world's only hope for perfect justice and lasting peace.