My sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Romans 5:1-5
Paul was spending three winter months in Corinth. He has already been around the Mediterranean world a couple of times on missionary journeys, telling people about the good news of Jesus, starting churches for these new followers of Jesus. During these journeys he would also keep in touch with these churches and visit them.
Now, remember, he was travelling all over much of the known world without a car, airplane, or ship with an engine, so this is slow and difficult going, and it takes a lot of time. At this point he is nearing the end of his life. He is about 53 years old, which by today’s standards isn’t that old, but in the year 57, that was a ripe old age. What Paul may or may not have understood, as well, is that he was also nearing the end of his life because just 7 or so years later he would be executed.
It is here that Paul sits down and writes a unique letter, that we have as Romans. It is a letter which is bursting with theological concepts and faith concepts, and is incredibly comprehensive.
Paul tells us, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; we boast in our hope in sharing the glory of God.” This is not to make us puffed up or filled with self-pride, but this is to enjoy and rejoice in the the fact that through Christ we have been reconciled with God, we are at peace with God. This is not just something to know, this is something to experience deep in our hearts, deep in our beings. It is something to feel, because this is the center of the Christian life, and this is the foundation for what is to come.
Paul continues, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings…” Here is where things get complicated. At first reading, I wonder, and you may as well, why would we boast in our sufferings? Suffering is bad, is miserable, is not good. These are all true. But we must look at the relationship between the previous statement and this one. Remember, justification by faith, God making us right with God by faith is what gives us peace with God, and we rejoice in the fact that we have hope in sharing the glory of God. So, why do we boast in our sufferings? We can rejoice in our suffering, because there is more going on that we can experience. He even continues, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-28).
If anyone deeply knows suffering, it is Paul. He writes this not as how things ought to be, or need to be. You know the phrase, “hindsight is 20/20”? As an old man, by his standards, not ours, Paul has some time during the winter to reflect, to plan, and to look back on his life. He has been through a lot, as we just heard.
This passage does not say that we must suffer in order to gain hope, but rather, he is trying to reframe how they understand sufferings.
Suffering is a part of living in a fallen world. It is not only us that are not as we ought, the whole creation is not as it ought to be. A two-mile wide EF-5 tornado which slices through neighborhoods and homes is not part of God’s grand design. People that do not have adequate housing, people who are abused by others, children that are neglected, none of this is part of God’s order and design. Suffering is a consequence of living east of Eden and west of redemption.
As Paul sits before his parchment, ink well and stylus in hand, he looks back on his beatings, whippings, stonings, shipwrecks, and despite all of this suffering, all of this bad, all of these struggles, when he looks back on them, he can catch glimpses of God throughout the way, even when he couldn’t see those glimpses in the moment. What he gives is a progression that happens, not a formula to be followed.
Paul tells us that we can rejoice in the midst of our sufferings, because if we are justified by faith, if we have peace with God through Christ, if we will share in the glory of God, then nothing can take that away. As Paul writes later in this letter, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8:31b). That of course is a rhetorical question, because it is its own answer. If God is for us, then no one is against us, ultimately. Yes, the powers of evil and the devil put up resistance, but we know how the story ends. We know that evil will be overcome, that death will be conquered, and all will be redeemed and restored to its former glory.
In the prophet Isaiah, we read the vision that we will beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks (Is 2:4) , that is, instruments of destruction will not be eliminated, but transformed, transformed into something useful, something which can be used to farm, to bring forth food, to encourage life. The real glory of all this is not that bad stuff will be gone, but that bad stuff will be transformed into good stuff.
While this will not be completed within our lifetimes we can get glimpses of this, and this is what Paul is telling us here. Suffering is not good, but it can produce endurance. Endurance can produce character, and character can produce hope. This hope is the most significant thing of the life of faith.
Part of this is the imagination of faith. Now, we tend to use the word imagination as something which is made up, fake, not real, but our imaginations serve important functions in faith as well. Imagining what could be, and what will be, imagining what God might be doing, even when we can’t see it, this is the stuff that sustains us. It’s not easy, but it is necessary. We can do this not because we are creative in ourselves, we can do this not because we can muster up enough wishful thinking, we can do this because we have been justified by faith, and because we have peace with God in Jesus Christ, and because we have hope of sharing the glory of God.
The real question, here, that we must consider is this: How big is God? Is God bigger than our sufferings? is God bigger than the bad that we experience? The answer is not just whether or not God can just push the easy button for us, although many days I would greatly appreciate that, but whether God bring good out of bad. As we spoke of not long ago, Jesus proved that he is master of death not by avoiding death, but by dying and conquering it.
Now, I am under no illusions here, and I understand that we are all at different places here.
This past Thursday I had a church meeting in Fond du Lac, WI. There are a couple of ways to get to Fond du Lac. You can take the freeway, where it is a non-slowing, non-stop road the whole way there. But, there is the state highway system which runs a bit slower, and runs through small towns and villages. The trip may not be quite so fast, but it is more interesting. While we may prefer life to be a freeway where we can get on at the beginning and it is a nonstop expressway to hope. However, life is more like a state highway, with all of the good and the bad that comes with that.
This passage is like a state highway which runs through a bunch of small towns, and these towns are called Suffering, Endurance, Character, and Hope. We all live in these different towns, and we move between them. Some of us are in the suffering town and we can’t see endurance, character, or hope. Others of us currently live in the hope town and we can look back over our time living in each of these towns and we can see God’s hand in it. Others of us live in the midst of these two, and perhaps we can’t see either that clearly right now.
The good news of this is that we are not alone in our town, and that our town is not the only one. For those of us who live in the village of Suffering, Paul tells us that Endurance, Character, and Hope are just up the street. For those of us who live in Town of Hope, Paul reminds us that suffering is just down the street, and we will likely have to move back there. But, the good news, is that we are not imprisoned in one of these villages. We move between them°.
The best way to finish this journey is not to look back on it and say, “I did not suffer, I did not struggle.” The best way to finish this journey is to be able to get to a point where we can proclaim from the mountain tops with the apostle:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 37-39)
°Illustration adapted from http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3210