Theologian Paul Tillich believed that courage and being were inextricably related. He writes:
Courage as a human act, as a matter of valuation is an ethical concept. Courage as the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being is an ontological concept. The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation. (Tillich, Courage to Be, Yale University Press, 1952, pp. 2-3).
Tillich’s definition may sound a bit abstract, but he reminds us that courage is something that is expressed from the very center of our being in the midst of trying circumstances. We go on with life, despite the realities that press against us. As the Spiritual puts it: “Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”
The theme of courage filters through our three texts, though the word isn’t always used directly. It is, however, stated quite clearly in the word that comes to Haggai the prophet. God sends the prophet to give a word of encouragement to the governor of Judea and the High Priest. It is the post-exilic period. The people have returned to the land and have begun rebuilding the Temple, but the times are difficult, the challenges many, and the memories of another day, a day of glory, still linger in the minds of some. This people is, by the prophet’s own estimation, no more than a remnant, a runt of what once was a people of importance. It would be easy for them to slip away and let the world pass them by. But the Lord of Hosts says to the leaders of the people: “Take courage . . .; work for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; do not fear” (vs. 4-5). The prophet goes on to declare that God will do great things and restore them to glory, but the very fact that he encourages them to get to work now is important, for it takes courage to continue on when all the signs seem against you. The pundits say it can’t be done, but the promise is there – God says, I am with you, so don’t be afraid!
As we move to the reading from the epistle we again encounter a people who are afraid, people who aren’t sure of the future. Could it be that the end has come and they’ve been left behind? More importantly, in the face of difficult times, be strong, don’t be alarmed – these things will happen. But, as for you, “give thanks to God.” Why, because you are the first fruits of salvation. You’ve been called by God to proclaim the good news. That’s your purpose – so “stand firm, hold fast.” To what are they to hold fast? It is to the tradition passed on to them by the founders of the church in Thessalonica. It is in this word that they shall find comfort and hope and strength. Take courage, because God will strengthen your hearts with every good work and word. Yes, stand firm – “like a tree planted by the water.”
And why should we take courage? Why should we stand firm in the face of adversity and opposition? According to Luke, we are a resurrection people. The passage from Luke tells of Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees, a rather conservative, traditional party that one could say is “religious without being spiritual.” They are tied to the institution, for there really is nothing else. They find the idea of resurrection folly and seek to deride Jesus (and the others in the community, including the Pharisees, who take hope in the resurrection). Jesus goes into some detail refuting their charges, taking them into the Torah, those first five books of the Hebrew Bible that the Sadducees embraced, and showed them clearly that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the God of the living and not the dead.”
And what word can we take from Luke’s summation of this encounter? It is, I believe, in the reminder that we can take courage, we can stand firm, because God is the God of the Living and not the Dead. It is the power of the resurrection that stands as a witness to us that we’re not alone in this world. Therefore, we need not fear, no matter what waves crash against us, “I shall not be moved.”
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.